DAN FLAVINs Altering Light
On ViewThe Dan Flavin Art Institute
Bridgehampton, New York
There are few things in the real world that Dan Flavin’s light environments correspond to. Viewing a Flavin sculpture is about experiencing electric color inhabit its surroundings. This fluorescent-borne light washes blank walls with glowing, gradient hues, appearing painted. Usually enclosed by emptied geometries of interior space, the nuances of this light depend on the configurations of its enclosures to create atmosphere, and the architecture employed is oftentimes shaped with these effects in mind.
The Dan Flavin Art Institute is hidden away in Bridgehampton, Long Island, in an inconspicuous house whose street address is unlisted on the Dia Foundation’s website; it was designed by the artist in 1983 in a building previously used as firehouse and church. The upstairs and its connecting stairway house nine of Flavin’s sculptures (ranging from 1963 to 1981), permanently installed in stables of adjoined freestanding walls. Enclosed mostly by the partitioned structures, the emanating light of the work exceeds these boundaries, intermixing with each individual piece as well as the exterior light, which is tinted by translucent violet shades installed inside the outer windows.
Generally, Flavin’s work is exhibited in rooms without windows or bearing an indirect relationship to its outside surroundings. Through the institute’s shades, however, the noonday Long Island sky becomes extraordinarily strange and altered. I couldn’t exactly compare this experience to any regularly occurring conditions in the landscape, which prompted questions such as why did Flavin choose the color purple? My first thought was because this was the most synthetic or least likely color to tint or augment the landscape. Then again, maybe it only appeared this way during the early afternoon light when I visited.
I had it all wrong. Flavin was less concerned about the exterior view than he was with reducing the intensity of the light entering the space. These subdued parallelograms of blanched purple fall on the floor and divided walls, collapsing the inside and outside space. The slivers of exterior light appear unusual yet incorporated with Flavin’s fluorescent pieces. The works, when viewed counterclockwise and in chronological order, are experienced as both individual subdivisions and combined atmospheres of color that become more refined the longer your eyes adjust. For example, in “untitled (to Robert, Joe and Michael)” (1975–81), horizontally arranged rows of opposite facing pink and yellow tubes wedged in between two walls appear radically altered when viewed from either side. As the pink faces forward and the yellow turned away, the yellow coolly fades to green, spilling into emerald from the nearby “untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg)” (1972–73). Viewed from the opposite side, the frontward yellow and backward facing pink mix with the purple from the window shades. (Another factor here is the eyes’ tendency to see colors in complementary pairs, so hues appear warmer or cooler according to what they are placed next to.)
These mutated incidents of color and light evoked the fear and imaginings of a cold war nuclear disaster during my childhood. I will never forget the television movie The Day After (1983), which graphically depicted nuclear exchanges between the United States and Soviet Union. In a disturbing scene lasting over five minutes, a Soviet nuclear mushroom cloud irradiated a rural Kansas landscape and, in slow flashes, zapped figures into skeletons. When Flavin’s units are quarantined as the only light sources in an interior they feel infectious and sallow—as if radioactive—where the fluorescent tubes might be mistaken for plutonium rods, conjuring a dreamy nuclear fall out horizon. (To be completely honest, these tubes and their colors also recall light sabers from Star Wars, despite the fact that Flavin’s sculptures existed first and are experienced in the flesh rather than via film.) Beyond sci-fi possibilities, these illuminations call to mind the electric pinkish haze that accumulates over Times Square in the night and is visible for over 40 blocks south.
My intention is not solely to romanticize the technological sublime here: while at the same time these sculptures feel artificial, they are also hallucinatory distillations of natural conditions, such as the light-bathed, retinal experience of dusk, dawn, and stormy weather. These fluorescent hues may appear as CMYK gradients, yet all fluorescents exist somewhere in the real world, such as in a garden or the sea; the ambient atmosphere of Flavin’s sculptures feels similar to the light under the surface of water that applies a uniform, turquoise glaze to all it touches. (It is also known that Flavin greatly admired Monet’s water lilies and wrote a letter to MoMA in the 1950s asking for a piece of the original pair of paintings destroyed in a fire.) These experiences are emotionally charged and arouse a meditative and extrasensory state of awareness. The quality of light in our daily lives goes mostly unnoticed; only during those in-between states of dawn and dusk do we boldly experience the immersive effects of the medium. Although these sculptures evoked, in one of their first reviews, references to biologically luminescent glowworms, their seeping ambiances were largely ignored, with attention given, rather, to the modularity and arrangements of the object, a rampant strategy of artists such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt at the time.
When Flavin’s 1964 Green Gallery exhibition was restaged in 2008 by Zwirner & Wirth, Holland Cotter wrote that the sculptures appeared “both old and new, like Space Age antiques.” While these objects are simply the vessels for the artist’s electric color to emerge, they become obsolescent in a world of compact fluorescents and light-emitting diodes. Flavin’s work has aged into larger, more expansive institutional environments, where fluorescents often still provide core lighting. Yet, one cannot ignore the material thing of the fixture, for, just like the Times Square haze, Flavin’s world ceases to exist the moment it is unplugged from an electric current.
Corwith Ave, off of Main St // Bridgehampton NY