New York

Dan Flavin

Somehow, no matter how many times I see Dan Flavin’s work, I always seem to harbor the exact same misconceived expectation, namely that I’m going to encounter things of striking perceptual luxury—light mobilized within spatial scenarios à la James Turrell or Olafur Eliasson, say, in which the physical apparatus of the lamp is simply a vehicle for producing the radiant focus of the show, a nonphysical (even metaphysical) form of illumination that envelops and swallows the viewer in its lyrical maw.

Of course, this is for the most part misremembered bunk: Flavin was no mystic and his work—as this recent exhibition, the first appearance of the late artist at David Zwirner since the gallery began representing his estate, clearly demonstrated—is in practice more correctly aligned with the unadorned, system-based Minimalist programs of Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, or Donald Judd than with any of the notionally transcendent impulses with which I reflexively associate it. Granted, this show, which was curated by Flavin scholar Tiffany Bell, was focused on the artist’s “Series and Progressions,” a central, if not the exclusive, organizing principle of his oeuvre, and one that suggested the exhibition would draw from a soberer side of his production. Nevertheless, the experience was a salutary reminder of the degree to which Flavin’s work is actually as much about the lights as it is about the light; about what he himself called “a clearly, openly, plainly delivered . . . ‘get-in-get-out’ situation,’” conspicuously lacking “overwhelming spirituality” and purposefully refusing to extend any “invitation to meditate, to contemplate.”

The plainly delivered “thingness” of Flavin’s works was vivid across Zwirner’s Nineteenth Street complex, where each of the suites on view had its own character, traits generally seeming to emerge less from ineffable emanations and a perturbation of surrounding conditions than from the individual sculptures’ own physical structures—the simple one-two-three rhythm of 1963’s white the nominal three (to William of Ockham), for instance, or the sprawling, hall-size arrangement alternating pink and gold of 1967, with its sequences of eight-foot-high vertical bulbs ordered in series of eight, ten, and twelve units, respectively, each built as symmetrical wings flanking a single central pillared pair on their own wall. In between these two poles of scale lay a grouping titled “two primary series and one secondary,” 1968, composed of three vertical two-four-six sequences, one each in red/yellow, red/blue, and red/green, each set of which was arrayed in its own room. Here, in smaller enclosed spaces, these works—which in fact represent a more portable, less strictly site-specific thread of Flavin’s practice—did seem to engineer an ambience greater than the sum of their parts. Yet even soaking in the faint purple wash of the blue/red admixture, one was always mindful of its literal source: Flavin’s choice of blandly commercial fixtures and bulbs as his sole material was a strategic one, a calculated decision to remove the hand arrived at after experiments with more gesturally explicit work. This engagement with the stuff of the world (like its related distancing of the artist from the processes of fabrication) works powerfully against whatever latent romanticism might seem to lurk in the pieces, their evocations of nocturnal spaces and liminal states between light and dark leavened by always-visible technical appurtenances typically constructed for the classroom or the office cubicle.

The show’s final rooms held what seemed like two intriguing outliers from its program. In a late work called untitled (for John Heartfield), 1990, Flavin turned his bulbs away from the wall and strikingly into space as a series of three perpendicular tubes shift one at a time from red to blue over the course of the four-piece set, not simply implying a spatial reordering but effecting one. And the extraordinary 1974 barrier work untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with respect and affection), originally created for (and only ever shown at) a 1975 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, fairly buzzed with blue-white energy. A fencelike series of seventeen four-by-four fluorescent squares dividing the large gallery, it represented by far the show’s most dramatic intervention into real space, one that in fact did extend, amid the other more restrained “get-in-get-out” moments, a clear invitation to pause and contemplate, and produced the sort of overwhelming sensory experience that will no doubt be later remembered, rightly or wrongly, as awe.

Jeffrey Kastner