Dan Flavin

The West Texas town of Marfa is a dusty, one-traffic-light, Last Picture Show sort of place located sixty miles north of the border on the grassy, high plain known as El Despoblado: the uninhabited place. After the cavalry abandoned the local fort in the 1940s, few had reason to travel there, at least until Donald Judd settled in Marfa in the early ’70s. Inspired by the light-and-space ambience, he established what came to be called the Chinati Foundation as an alternative to New York City’s exhibition venues. If you are among the pilgrims who have made the trek to the foundation without benefit of landing your Lear on one of the privately owned airstrips nearby, you have driven at least three and a half hours from El Paso or Midland across a lonely stretch of blacktop. If you arrived after dark, typically the consequence of inconvenient flight schedules, you may have parked just outside town at the preferred site for viewing the Marfa Mystery Lights. These unexplained luminescences, first reported by native inhabitants and pioneers in the 1800s, periodically and unpredictably animate the night horizon. (I’ve seen them myself.)

Suffice it to say that everything about the location conspires to encourage the nostalgic and the mystically inclined. As a consequence, the achievement of Dan Flavin’s Untitled (Marfa project), 1996, permanently installed at the Chinati in October, is doubly impressive. The work, whose design was completed by Flavin shortly before his death in 1996, has no more difficulty cutting through the romantic, Land art–aesthetic fog generated by Marfa’s exotic locale than his earliest fluorescent lamp pieces had in dispensing with the 2,000-year-old association of luminescence with mysticism and spirituality. In fact, the monumental size of Flavin’s Marfa project, which occupies six buildings and a total of 36,000 square feet, and the peculiarities of its systematic design suggest that the skeptic Flavin took the opportunity at the end of his career to reassert, on a grand, theatrical scale, the resolute secularism with which his career had begun.

Stepping into any of the six identical buildings in which the work is housed, one is immediately captivated by room-saturating, brilliantly colored lights. Double-faced, ranks of 8 or 10 fixtures (336 fluorescent lamps in all) are paired, pink with green in the first two buildings, blue with yellow in the second two. Ranks of both these pairings occur in the two final buildings. The impression is a bit retro-techno, since fluorescent lamps are beginning to look dated, but also lively and seemingly loud, though no sound beyond the low buzz of electrical current is actually heard. Thus, on entering the Marfa project, one abruptly steps out of the world of the whistle stop and rustic fort for which the stuccoed and porticoed buildings once served as barracks, and into a wholly artificial atmosphere of what appears to be an alternate universe.

In lesser hands, the dramatic surprise of retro-technology hidden in an environment of entropic decline would fall victim to the most adolescent form of “narratives of source,” the fluorescent lamps coming off as a cache of kryptonite or as tubes in which interplanetary aliens have stored eggs. In fact, Judd’s own nearby installations barely escape this romantic pitfall. Despite their modular designs and rigorously industrial aesthetic, the kilometer long line of concrete sculptures suggests the cosmic alignment of Anasazi ruins. And the two huge former artillery sheds housing Judd’s one hundred “primary structure” mill-aluminum boxes—one of the great monuments of late-twentieth-century art in any setting—subtly evoke incubators birthing genetic permutations of the Minimalist box.

If Flavin’s project resists the Marfa fog, it does so by sheer force of will. The ranks of lamps, which vaguely resemble slanted prison bars, block passage from one side of the symmetrical, U-shaped buildings to the other, thereby ingeniously theatricalizing the viewer’s response. One is kept in motion, drawn mothlike down long hall after long hall, in building after building, toward the material brilliance of the colored lights, while the instinctive attempt to reach a center—or at least locate one visually—is repeatedly frustrated, forcing one’s retreat. The visual feast of colored light, created in four standard, factory-issue hues, resists transcendental allegorization as profoundly as do Matisse’s blue and yellow stained-glass windows in the chapel at Vence; the color pairings are distributed throughout the work without apparent explanation, satisfying only the most basic requirement of variation. Rather than some mythic umbilicus, Flavin’s work reads, quite literally, as the middle of nowhere—the least mysterious of lights.

Thus Flavin’s Marfa project, at once pleasingly seductive and disconcertingly withholding, leads its pilgrims to the same dead end at which Wittgenstein found himself after years of contemplating color. In his late writings, which inspired the mid-twentieth-century resurgence of the tradition that has come to be called Minimalist philosophy, Wittgenstein was forced to conclude that, in most cases, the prospects for a substantial meta-theory are meager. Indeed, Flavin’s Marfa project may owe its apparent Bergamot-Chelsea freshness to the renewed interest in Minimalist philosophy as expressed in the colorful secularity of recent abstract painting. Certainly, the interest on the part of younger artists in Flavin and many of his contemporaries, particularly Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, and Gene Davis, indicates a sea change, both in the present culture and in the reading of ’6os abstraction. In short, Flavin’s fluorescent lamps hold their own in Marfa by holding onto an antimystical, antispiritual aesthetic—an elegantly decentered, thoroughly secular despoblado.

Libby Lumpkin is assistant professor of art history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.