New York

Dan Flavin

Guggenheim Museum SoHo / Dia Center for the Arts

The recent exhibitions at the Guggenheim SoHo and Dia together comprised a good overview of Dan Flavin’s activity from the early ’60s to the late ’80s. While Dia’s presentation of its Flavin holdings included several remarkable works—numerous versions of his “monuments” for V. Tatlin; 1964–68, two rooms of corner works in different hues; and the all-red monument 4 those who have been killed in ambush (to P. K. who reminded me about death), 1966, that once dominated the back room of Max’s Kansas City where Robert Smithson and Andy Warhol held court—the Guggenheim installation, culled from the vast collection of the artist’s work purchased some years ago from Count Panza di Biumo, was the best New York show of Flavin in years.

This comes as something of a surprise. Until now, the Guggenheim’s exhibits of its Panza holdings, and of Minimal-type work in general, have been disappointing. The 1992 show that inaugurated the museum’s SoHo space paired Carl Andres with Vasily Kandinskys, and Constantin Brancusis with Robert Rymans, installations which made little sense. The contemporaneous exhibition of Flavin’s work that was installed in the newly renovated uptown Guggenheim was not terribly successful either: during the day, the fluorescent tubes, placed against the walls along the ramp, or suspended from the ceiling in a central shaft of pink, were overwhelmed by the atrium’s glaring whiteness. In the downtown Guggenheim show this fa ll, however, no exposed windows interfered with one’s viewing and each piece was allotted sufficient space. The more room a Flavin has and the more controlled the vagaries of its setting, the more luminous the effect—the more Flavin. The Guggenheim curators understood this. To move from one dazzling installation to the next was to be truly enveloped in volumes of color.

The potential of Flavin’s work to drown the viewer in a febrile fluorescence has been a subject of some controversy. The greatest advocate of this mode of display is, in fact, Panza himself, whose installations of these works at his villa outside Milan were designed to emphasize this quality. (When I last visited there, the Max’s Kansas City piece illuminated a shiny white cell with the intensity of a spaceship out of a Spielberg flick.) On the other hand, Rosalind Krauss has argued that the theatrical conditions of viewing introduced by Flavin and other “Minimalists,” and exaggerated by Panza’s showy displays, paradoxically only serve to enhance the auratic appeal of this sculpture rather than to point to its objecthood. Commenting in the pages of October on the Guggenheim’s purchase of the Panza collection, Krauss lamented that it was precisely Panza’s favored method of display that had seduced the museum’s ambitious director, Thomas Krens, into leveraging the museum’s collection to finance the acquisition of Minimalist work. Even worse, this new model of perception demanded the kind of installation space exemplified by Krens’ own abandoned MASS MoCA and the international circuit of Guggenheim franchises—in short, a late-capitalist, multinational museum/corporation that could mimic the contemporary viewing experience of flashing signs and television screens, otherwise known as the Spectacle. From Krauss’ perspective, the luminosity of Flavin’s lights ultimately betrays the materialist impulse of his works: the classic Minimalist equation of literal surface and epistemological and social refusal (“What you see is what you see,” as Frank Stella put it). Once the Flavin lamp surrounded the viewer in its glow, rendering him or her numb with optical sensation, once it ceased to declare its material self-evidence and became, of all things, a pleasurable experience, it could no longer be considered a critical work. Indeed, thanks to Flavin (Panza’s and Krens’ Flavin) and other ’60s artists, the post-Modern museum could compete with Shinjuku’s neon billboards and MTV.

This is a compelling argument-certainly the most convincing of the various materialist critiques Minimal work has elicited in recent years. For unlike most of these accounts, which too easily align this sculpture with structures of domination, Krauss’ essay acknowledges the dialectical character of this venture. The use of a pregiven industrial unit or ready-made as a basic vocabulary for formal innovation during the ’60s alluded to, from a position of both complicity and criticality, the system of production and consumption from which it was extracted. Moreover Flavin’s lamp, a material thing (a fact highlighted by the presence, in many works, of the electric cord and supporting pan) is a luminous thing too: the fluorescent tube gives off a light that exceeds the thing itself, even if it does not entirely dissolve it. Finally, the Guggenheim show demonstrated the profoundly installational nature of Flavin’s project: the discovery of fluorescent light was simultaneously the discovery of the gallery itself. At the entrance, a simple green vertical tube, one of his earliest works, declared its material specificity while exposing the wall and the room before it. Further installations—the famous Nominal Three (to William of Ockham), 1963, or an artificial barrier of blue, red and blue fluorescent (to Flavin Starbuck Judd), 1968—showed how the expansion of Flavin’s system during the ’60s from the single lamp to vast, serially organized works would definitively reveal whole rooms. And while one implication of this gesture was the spectacular display perfected by Panza (by which, I must confess, I find myself seduced) another was the exposure of the gallery as ideological and material construct that could lead to institutional critique—the side of Flavin that could admire Tatlin. It is hard to imagine Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, or Mel Bochner exposing the museum wall without this precedent.

James Meyer