Many wonder how splashes of paint and fluorescent tubes can be considered of creative substance. But armed with a bit of information, viewers visiting modern art exhibitions can be engaged by seeing something new. Such is the case with the current retrospective of Dan Flavin's work at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., organized in collaboration with the Dia Art Foundation. The exhibition, which runs through January 9, 2005, is well worth the visit for established and new devotees of art.
Flavin (1933-1996) first emerged on the art scene in the 1960s against a backdrop of artistic explorations in abstraction and minimalism (although he never favored this term to describe his work). Like his contemporaries, Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd, and Frank Stella, Flavin sought to challenge established artistic conventions and condense art to its purest essentials of form and materials, making use of everyday items easily found and available in multiples. He limited his material palette to commercially available fluorescent tubes in standard lengths (2, 4, 6, and 8 feet) and colors (blue, green, yellow, pink, ultraviolet, red and four kinds of white). While it might not seem novel today, Flavin's use of electric light as an artistic medium was revolutionary. While he employed both incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes in his early pieces, by 1963 he was working with fluorescent light exclusively.
Flavin was intrigued by the quality of light fluorescent tubes produced-the secondary effect of the phosphorescent compound inside the glass tube mixing with an electric charge, and the subsequent creation of phosphors. This 'glow' was the perfect medium for Flavin, whose work is about understanding space through light and color. Space is marked with fluorescent tubes, and the wash of light on the surrounding vertical and horizontal surfaces. 'Objects' are carefully installed at the corners of wall, ceiling, and floor planes, articulating the edges, while the 'installations' are placed between these planar surfaces and emphasize the interstitial space. The use of fluorescent tubes creates an illusion of height and width, making the galleries appear larger than they are, extending the viewer's sense of physical space outward and beyond. The curators have carefully positioned the pieces so that there is a sense of visual continuity as pieces are viewed between adjacent galleries.
Toward the end of the exhibit is one of the most dynamic moments: here, curators have brilliantly used the irregular shaped galleries to best effect, showcasing three different Flavin pieces, and in effect, creating a fourth piece as the spaces interact and collide with one another. Owing to the human eye's response to color, the combination of the pieces-which use green, yellow, and white light sources-dynamically change depending on which color the viewer has just seen. White surfaces seem to turn pink, and green turns to blue. The experience of the space is reminiscent of a Turrell ganzfield piece, where the viewer's complete sense of space and scale is altered through the ephemeral quality of light.
Flavin's work highlights the juxtaposition of concrete and abstract, ordinary and unusual. His work interacts with the architectural surroundings and becomes what Flavin referred to as 'situational.' His strict use of specific lamp lengths and colors creates a unique visual language that eliminates the boundries between light, color and space, leaving a rich legacy for art, architecture and architectural lighting.