St. Louis

Dan Flavin

It appears we are in the midst of a Dan Flavin renaissance. In recent years, his work has seen a host of exhibitions around the world, including, most notably, a comprehensive retrospective organized by the Dia Art Foundation and the National Gallery of Art and accompanied by a catalogue raisonné. Coming on the heels of that survey, whose extensive tour ended last year, “Dan Flavin: Constructed Light” might have gotten a little lost. It shouldn’t have. Although modest in size (consisting of seventeen works, ten of them undergoing color changes halfway through the exhibition’s run), “Constructed Light” proved one of the most revealing of the artist’s shows to date.

Flavin’s light installations are site-specific in the most general sense (he called them “situational”), their qualities varying according to the space in which they appear. More often than not, however, their architectural context is that of the typical modernist white cube. The Pulitzer is modernist, to be sure, but its gallery spaces are hardly typical. Architect Tadao Ando’s design is rooted in traditions of the open domestic structure (think Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or Philip Johnson’s Glass House), incorporating luscious features such as velvety gray concrete, monumentally high walls, intimate alcoves, and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Guest curator Tiffany Bell, an eminent Flavin scholar, was charged with selecting and installing the artist’s works in response to Ando’s architecture. Some of her curatorial moves were surprisingly straightforward, including the exhibiting of two pieces consisting of repeated circular elements that serve to contrast the building’s insistent rectilinear forms (Untitled and Untitled [in Memory of Barbara Schiller], both 1973). Other decisions were pluckier: Untitled (to Stephen with gratitude aplenty), 1974–89, was positioned so as to completely block access to one modestly sized gallery. In general, Bell remained faithful to the original spirit of the works, installing them in corners and corridors and on surfaces that allowed them to alter the experience of the building’s refined spaces.

The overall effect of “Constructed Light” was to enhance the Pulitzer’s architecture. The fluorescent fixtures appeared gorgeous, fluent, never overpowering their surroundings. Their functionalist styling complemented the sleek modernist building, aestheticizing its interior and reminding the viewer that Minimalism—for all the blustery theory about industrial materials, nonhierarchical organization, repetition, and site-specificity that surrounds it—can make for some beautiful high-end design.

The central installation was untitled (to my dear bitch, Airily) 2 from 1984, a stepped row of blue and green lights spanning a staggering ninety-eight feet across the rear wall of the main gallery. During the day, the work barely made a dent in the colossal gallery’s light-flooded space. In fact, it appeared to retreat into objecthood, engaging comfortably with the contained, hard-edged flatness of Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black, 2000, an enormous site-specific work permanently installed on an adjoining wall. As evening descended, however, the blue-green lights claimed more of the ambient space. Indeed, the changing light conditions throughout the exhibition turned it into a kind of slow-motion light show in which viewers might lose themselves, watching it unfold over time.

But Flavin wasn’t interested in sustained viewing. He made it known that he cared instead for his works’ immediate effects, remarking, for example, in this magazine in 1966: “I believe that art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realized decoration.”

Ivy Cooper