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Painting with light

A retrospective of Dan Flavin's pioneering sculpture reveals an undimmed power and a newer fragility.

April 03, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Fort Worth — In the large exposition of Dan Flavin's Minimalist sculpture at the Modern Art Museum here, the work is installed throughout all the galleries on the second floor in every conceivable place except one. Although the sculptures are made from ordinary fluorescent tubes and standard-issue light pans, no different from the ones you'd find at a hardware store, none are on the ceiling.

On the walls: yes. On the floors: yes. In the corners: yes. Beneath soffits: yes. Inside doorways: yes. Interrupting hallways: yes. Out in the middle of the room: yes.

On the ceiling: no. The ceiling is where utility lighting goes.

Putting fluorescent lighting everyplace but there, where functional convention dictates it belongs, is a clear sign that you are in the presence of something else. Inutility is among art's chief assets. It is no accident that an artist as generally fastidious and conceptually precise as Flavin made inutility essential to sculpture composed from otherwise useful, industrially manufactured objects.

"Dan Flavin: A Retrospective" is the first full survey of the artist's career. With Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, he was a chief exponent of a New York variant of 1960s Minimalist sculpture, which helped transform art at the end of the 20th century the way Cubism did at the start. The show brings together 57 light works and 57 drawings, studies and diagrams. It was organized by the Dia Art Foundation in association with Washington's National Gallery of Art, where it was seen last fall. I can't imagine, however, a more exquisite environment for Flavin's fluorescent lights than the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

The museum's acclaimed new building by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, which opened late in 2002, is a poetic essay in contemplative volumes of luminous space, constructed from simple industrial materials in serial arrangements. Since that also describes Flavin's art, they seem made for each other. I didn't see the exhibition in Washington, and it travels next summer to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art before heading to Europe, but if you want an unforgettable experience, Fort Worth is a sure bet.

Flavin (1933-96) had one simple idea, which he elaborated for three decades. Light, as both substance and metaphor, has been central to Western painting since at least the Middle Ages, when artists stippled gold leaf on devotional icons to reflect the flickering of candle flames. Flavin went for alternating current. His fluorescent lights continue to captivate and impress.

"The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)" was the first of these light works, and it is an elegant thunderclap. An 8-foot-long yellow fluorescent tube in a white enameled light pan is affixed to the wall on a 45-degree angle. No more, no less.

Any cord or electrical socket is hidden within the drywall, so that the sculpture isn't so much a portable lamp as an environmental feature of the building. Exactly where the art begins and ends is not as clear as one might suppose -- a fact amplified by the illuminating color that bathes whatever happens to be nearby in a warm golden light. Including you.

Light in a time of war

In the sense that Flavin's sculpture performs with the presence of an audience in mind, it is theatrical. Exactly what that audience might have been thinking in the tumultuous early months of 1963, when the artist made this breakthrough work, is anybody's guess.

But with the Cold War recently threatening to go nuclear over Cuba, bodies piling up in Vietnam, and racial violence in Birmingham, Ala., it is no stretch to read the distinctively odd title of Flavin's first fluorescent light piece as a pointed reference to Goya. (The dedication to Brancusi was added later.) "The Diagonal of May 25, 1963" does document the precise date of Flavin's artistic eureka, but it also recalls "The Third of May, 1808," Goya's famously harrowing commemoration of the execution of a group of Madrid citizens by Napoleon's soldiers.

Goya's incandescent painting glows from within, illuminated by a mysteriously glowing lamp in the center of the nocturnal picture. Painted by a Spanish genius -- arguably the first truly modern artist -- the composition was later bluntly echoed by Edouard Manet. His 1867 "The Execution of Maximilian," which places the viewer behind the blazing fusillade of rifle-wielding soldiers as they murder a colonial emperor, was partly painted to demonstrate that Manet could handle the kind of grand historical themes demanded by the French Academy.

Flavin's work is abstract, of course, although some have speculated on its figurative allusions. As an object the 8-foot bulb, which begins at the junction of the wall and the floor, rises to the height of a standing person. There is a direct bodily connection with a viewer.

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