- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

“I’ll never see light again in the same way,” comments a visitor viewing Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures and environments at the National Gallery of Art. Like others, she’s mesmerized by the artist’s washes of vibrating light and colors.

“Dan Flavin: A Retrospective,” is — surprisingly — the first major exhibition of the artist’s seminal work.

Mr. Flavin is credited with creating two of the major art movements of the late 20th century. The first was the largely misunderstood “minimal,” or “reductive,” arts movement of the 1960s, which rejected traditional painting and sculpture as expressive materials. The second resulted from the ever-expanding scale and space of his work — as well as that of fellow artists Carl Andre and Donald Judd, among others — which created room-sized environments.

Though the artist’s medium — fluorescent light — might seem unusual, it belongs to a larger tradition. “Artists have always obsessed on light,” exhibit curator Michael Govan says. “The passion began with the 16th-century Italian chiaroscurist Caravaggio, continued with the spiritualized darks and lights of the Dutch painter Rembrandt — one of Mr. Flavin’s favorite artists — to the light and color of the French Impressionists.”

In 1961, while working as a guard at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, Mr. Flavin (1933-1996) began sketching sculptures that included electric lights.

A short time later, in 1963, he found the crux of his artistic vocabulary with the spare, geometricized light sculpture “Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi).”

In this breakthrough work, he used a single, standardized fluorescent light — available in prefabricated lengths and colors and untouched by him — as his single expressive tool. The “Diagonal” consists of one 8-foot-long, yellow fluorescent tube attached at a 45-degree angle to a wall. The lighted piece created a highly unusual space, one he would use for the next 30 years.

The artist carried this new approach into his famous “Monuments to V. Tatlin.” Created from 1964 to 1990, the series constitutes his longest continuous treatment of a subject.

Mr. Flavin had an almost lifelong interest in the life and art of Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, one of the first nonobjective artists to free his art from the constricting framing of paintings and works on paper. As Mr. Govan notes in the show’s catalog, Mr. Tatlin wanted to push art out into physical, 3-D spaces.

Visitors can’t help but be moved on entering the exhibit’s octagonally shaped gallery of all-white “V. Tatlin” fluorescent light configurations, which envelop viewers in the intensity of their strong lights and quivering reflections on walls and ceiling.

Later, Mr. Flavin made arrangements of unadorned fluorescent tubes and expanded his artistic vocabulary to encompass what he called “corners,” “barriers” and “corridors” to create the environments he wanted.

The 120-foot-long “Untitled (to You, Heiner, With Admiration and Affection)” (1973) of green fluorescent light, one of his first “barrier” installations, shows what Mr. Flavin can do with color. Stretching across the National Gallery’s mezzanine level, it is visible from Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Although Mr. Flavin’s materials — standardized fluorescent tubes in prefabricated forms and colors — were simple, there’s nothing simple in how he used them.

Fluorescent lights come in 2-, 4-, 6- and 8-foot strips. The colors are basic: blue, green, pink, yellow, red, four whites and ultraviolet. From these elements, the artist created often subtle color combinations, as, for example, in his “Untitled (to Henri Matisse)” of pinks, yellows, blues and greens, and “Daylight and Cool White (to Sol LeWitt)” of two cool white tubes flanked by two daylight bulbs.

“Fluorescent light is so named for the phosphors that fluoresce in the presence of other light or radiation,” Mr. Govan explains in the catalog. “They consist of a sealed glass tube filled with a mixture of mercury vapor and argon gases, which, when electrified, emit an ultraviolet radiation that causes the phosphors that coat the inside of the glass tube to glow.

“Each of the bulb colors in this kind of light has a specific output that can be increased or decreased only by changing the length and quantity of fixtures in an assemblage; the quality can be adjusted by the light’s placement in relation to other lights.”

Mr. Flavin’s sensuous, almost baroque, use of fluorescent light may have its roots in the artist’s Roman Catholic upbringing. As a choirboy, he absorbed the colors and illuminations of the services. “In time, I grew curiously fond of the solemn high funeral mass which was so consummately rich in candlelight, music, chant, vestments, processions and incense,” he wrote, according to the catalog.

His father even sent him to a junior seminary to study for the priesthood. Mr. Flavin rarely discussed his principal influences. They surely included, however, in addition to the church, the work of his 1960s minimalist and conceptual artist friends in New York, as well as the Rembrandt paintings and Chinese Sung Dynasty ink drawings he saw in Washington in the 1950s.

The ambiguities of Mr. Flavin’s art seemed to challenge both him and his admirers. At the beginning of his career, he created tense kinds of expressions by reconciling painting and sculpture. By midcareer, he had reduced his artistic means, acquiring the label “minimalist.” Yet, almost simultaneously, Mr. Flavin expanded his art into larger, brilliantly colored installations later described as “environments.”

Delightful contradictions and sensuality were both characteristic of Dan Flavin’s work, which is among the most enjoyable art presented in our city for a long time.

WHAT: “Dan Flavin: A Retrospective”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Mall, between Third and Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Exhibit continues through Jan. 9. Closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.


PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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