Los Angeles

Dan Flavin

MOCA Pacific Design Center

Dan Flavin’s long-professed commitment to extending art’s parameters into the realms of utility and/or decoration is distinctly at odds with the reductive and formalist theoretical stance of his art. This was especially true in his early career, when it was difficult to see a single 8-foot fluorescent tube attached diagonally to a wall as either useful or decorative. While it looked like a straightforward utilitarian object, it was not part of a ceiling fixture, or positioned to illuminate working or reading space; rather, the tube’s Duchampian detachment from its usual context made it difficult to approach in any way other than “pure esthetic contemplation.”

But the literalness of Flavin’s presentation and materials works against either a purely utilitarian or a purely esthetic experience. For all its straightforwardness and purity his art is a hybrid form which incorporates references to painting, sculpture, architecture, decoration, and utility. The work’s multiple facets are mitigated when a single piece is hung alongside paintings and sculpture by other artists; only in installations can his vision be fully realized. And it is in Flavin’s current installation for the E.F. Hauserman Company’s commercial showroom in Los Angeles’ Pacific Design Center that the twin demands of function and beauty are both fully addressed and ultimately transcended.

For the opening of their new showroom Hauserman, a maker of movable wall systems, engaged designers Massimo and Lelia Vignelli, who in turn enlisted the collaboration of Flavin. The rare success of this designer/artist collaboration can be attributed to Vignelli’s willingness to give Flavin free rein.

Seen from outside, through its glass entrance, the showroom looks empty of anything other than colored light, except for a single gray reception desk. The phenomenon of emptiness is especially startling among the crowded showrooms of the Design Center; the contrast alone is enough to make passersby stop, unexpectedly seduced by the colored luminosity whose source is invisible. Progressing through the space in banded hues of blue, green, and yellow, the light bounces off a mirrored rear wall, which seems to extend the progression further into the distance. The mirror itself is not apparent from the outside, unless one happens to detect a human figure reflected in it. The color illuminates the walls and the space equally, so that Flavin’s work completely inhabits the environment.

Because of its rarity and mystery, the experience of looking at atmospheric colored light inevitably draws the visitor into the showroom and on to a series of surprise discoveries. A series of corridors leads off to the left from the entrance hall. Each time a corner is turned, a light source becomes visible—first a single blue fluorescent tube, then an 8-foot-square barrier of 11 bright pink tubes horizontally installed from one wall of the corridor to the other. Seen through the gaps between the tubes the space on the other side of the barrier is chartreuse, an optical afterimage that only becomes apparent when we walk around the wall to the other side to find the pink tubes back-to-back with intense yellow ones. From this side the retina’s bombardment with yellow ambient light produces violet vapors in the space we have just experienced as pink. Similar illusions baffle us through a corridor of blue fluorescents installed diagonally across the walls and ceiling, and at a second barrier of green on one side and yellow on the other. As we look from one color to another and back, the quality of each hue continuously changes, demonstrating vividly the illusory, fallible nature of human perception.

The phenomena that Flavin’s environment presents add up to an experiential contradiction of the commonsense notion that seeing is believing. This insight into the limitations of our own vision has a humbling dimension. Presented in a medium whose beauty is simultaneously direct and inexplicable, it embodies the potential for transcendent awareness that is inherent in ordinary experience, and that has been recognized through light in virtually all spiritual traditions—a fact of which Flavin is highly conscious. That this experience/insight can be found inadvertently, where least expected, not just outside the halls of art but in the purviews of commerce, is especially notable. If commerce can take steps in the direction of embracing art, can the art world reciprocally find positive value in this uncommon invasion of its own territory?

Flavin’s installation will remain in the showroom for approximately a year. Then a portion of it will be donated to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, where it will undoubtedly be viewed as “Art,” rather than directly, for its presence.

Melinda Wortz