Exhibition held in early 2006
Dan Flavin is known for his tubes, but I’d presumed that he had done other work using other types of material, or at least incorporated light into larger installations. But I was pleased to discover that Flavin’s sole source material has been the humble fluorescent tube (if one discounts the early works and the preparatory sketches etc. also laid out in the exhibition). And not only has he restricted himself to this medium, but he has a palette of, I counted, only ten colours (gold, red, pink, green, cyan, ultra-violet and various shades of white) and, for the most, only four sizes of tube (two foot, four foot, six foot and eight foot). If one had told him at the start of his career that his complete oeuvre would almost entirely consist of this vocabulary, I am sure there would have been a genuine sense of disbelief that so much would be possible with so little.
Such an approach of course forms part of a broader minimalist philosophy; discard decoration and strip down to some fundamental basics, embracing a (seeming) lack of complexity and artifice in both original material and final product. But the narrowness of Flavin’s choices trumps the other minimalists. While Carl Andre or Donald Judd experimented with new discoveries, materials and contexts (although still drawn from an industrial / technical world) Flavin stood rigorously by his committement to the tube, and rarely strayed from it.
The success of Flavin as an artist, and the Hayward exhibition, is to indicate how much can be done with such a limited range of materials. The fluorescent tube is an object of insistent mundanity, but through tireless manipulation Flavin continually appeals to, and surprises human perception. It is stunning to see how much intensity of experience can be conveyed via such simple means, and how such a simple vocabulary can be manoeuvred and rearranged to create infinite effects. While Bob Dylan saw god in the eye of a daisy, Dan Flavin sees something special in the glow of a neon tube. The sheer diversity of Flavin’s oeuvre is testament to the power of the artistic imagination; a clear declaration to how much can be extracted from restricted materials.
While it is clear that Flavin shares much with the minimalists, it is, for me, the differences that make him such an interesting artist. His insistence on the importance of colour, light and perception in the audience’s experience of the artwork divide him from the more impassive approaches of other minimalists. He has much in common with Anish Kapoor, in the way that simple, elegant shapes provoke responses at both an intellectual but also a more physical level. They constantly ask not what the spectator thinks about the artwork but what they feel about it too. The level of engagement is much more animated than the detached outlook of other minimalists.
Another way to describe it would be that whereas, Andre, Judd, LeWitt, Stella are all cool and possibly rather mechanical, Flavin is, for want of a better word, hot and, in his immediate engagement with the audience, much more human. This is true at a tactile level (compare the cool metal slates of Andre to the Flavin’s burning fluorescence, hot to touch) as well as artistic level.
(It was interesting to view the make-up of the audience at the gallery; a large queue had formed outside (a master stroke to hold a Flavin exhibition in one of the coldest winters for many years) among which there were many children. Kids react not just to Flavin’s colour but the generous sense of space which the curators have sensible provided the artworks on show.)
The glowing green of Untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) attacks the senses even before entering the particular space where it was housed during the exhibition. By affording those in the ticket-buying queue a view of the glowing (a common word in writing on Flavin) green through a frosted window, the curators allowed the audience a mysterious foretaste of what was to follow. On entering the gallery itself the omnipresence of the green (emanating from the fence of green tubes, perhaps 100 feet long, laid out at a slight angle across the floor) is overwhelming. Then strangely, the original colour fades, to be replaced by a faded green-white on the walls, and tubes that have turned almost white. On leaving, and then espying the artwork from another room, everything has returned to its vivid green. The seemingly changing colours are a trick of the human perception that continues to beguile. But it’s more than an optical trick that Flavin is playing; the colour floods and dominates the room in a godly fashion, demanding human participation.
With this heat comes a sense of humour. At times, Flavin seems to be performing of a pastiche of the hard-won concepts of the minimalist family. Flavin announces that he will explore the concepts of minimalism but “I will be doing this (get this!) simply by using coloured office lighting!” Sol LeWitt develops instructions for a repeating rectangles built into a cube; Flavin produced a neon-green fence of rectangles. Andr&eactute; lays down a line of alloy tiles; Flavin lays down a line of white lights. In the way that Liechtenstein reduced Old Masters to pixellated dots, so Flavin reduces his colleagues to fluorescent lights.
Dan Flavin, untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim), The Dia Art Foundation
The upstairs floor, exhibiting work from the 1970s, shows Flavin’s increasing confidence in handling colour – a fact amplified by the excellent installation at the Hayward. I heard the occasional gasp when visitors reaching the gallery’s upper floor turned and confronted the tall block of glowing ingots that form one side of untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg), and there was always a flow of visitors to inspect the tiny chink of green light emanating from the side. The tapestry of colours used in untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) , a work which is enticing because of its colour but threatening because of its grille-like configuration, throws luminous blocks of coloured light on the white walls, again engrossing the curious spectator. Whereas Judd’s boxes are ponderous, or sometimes even brooding presences, Flavin’s tubes demand instant attention. I don’t think any other of the minimalists elicit such a response.
But there’s a flipside to Flavin. A few days after my visit to the Hayward Gallery, my later reflections found it difficult to recall what the exhibition was about, what had so moved me to be generally positive about it. A bunch of lights? What’s so dramatic about that? The sheer abstraction of Flavin’s work does not create an obvious set of themes that the reflecting reviewer can easily hang on to. Sure, in citing Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Flavin may be directing the viewer to some of his concerns. But is this really a serious engaged commentary with Communism or simply a passing pastiche of utopia? And he touches on other themes – icons, monuments, barriers. But the brightness of his works overwhelms this. One is dominated by the perceptual concerns, by the basic observation of the coloured poles and their outcrops of light. Flavin himself acknowledged this (and in a sense embraced it), openly stating that you get what you see with his art. There are no hidden tricks, no extra material beyond the glow of the lights. And, to reverse his maxim, once you can’t see it, you don’t get anything. It is almost as if on leaving the gallery the lights are switched off, their power immediately fading.
But then every so often, travelling on a bus and passing a wall of shops, I would catch sight of a blue fluorescent tube and it would remind me of the Flavin show. The tube was no longer just a tube, but it could also be something waiting to be liberated, waiting to become a something less functional, more intense, an agent working on behalf of human perception. And with this, the beauty of Flavin’s shimmering rainbow of colours would return, even if momentarily.