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Shining glories

An exhibition at LACMA shows how Dan Flavin made ordinary light seem luminous.

May 12, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

THE Dan Flavin retrospective that just arrived in Los Angeles has been on the road for nearly three years. But even if you saw the first full survey of the renowned Minimalist's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., or in Fort Worth, Chicago, London, Paris or Munich, the version at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opens Sunday, is not to be missed.

Its centerpiece -- a stunning re-creation of a 1982 installation that Flavin made for the E.F. Hauserman Co. showroom at the Pacific Design Center -- has not been seen in 23 years. It's the drop-dead highlight. It makes everything else in the exhibition look like a preparatory study or prototype, a necessary step on an impressively direct path toward the masterpiece.

To walk through the 11 galleries in which the exhibition has been chronologically -- and beautifully -- installed is to observe a mind in action. It's flat-out thrilling to go from room to room and see the results of decisions that Flavin (1933-96) made as he eliminated ineffective elements from his art and elaborated upon others, sharpening the focus and amplifying the power of his radically streamlined Minimalism.

The first gallery recaptures the heady inventiveness -- and nutty derring-do -- of believing it was possible to make a sculpture out of light. Eight of its nine pieces are so flat-footed that it's hard not to fall for their lumpen charm.

From 1961 to 1963, Flavin attached 2-foot-long red or white fluorescent tubes and variously shaped yellow, red, green and clear incandescent bulbs to flat panels and faceted blocks of Masonite. Each was painted a single color and hung on the wall like a painting or low-relief sculpture. Some lights flash, like tacky barroom advertisements. A pink square, bedecked with 28 flame-shaped bulbs, recalls a movie star's dressing-room mirror. Accompanied by elaborate titles that refer to religion, blood, soil and death, the easel-scale icons are fascinating failures, curious experiments that reveal a young artist casting about for the right stuff and coming up short.

The simplest piece in the room provides the eureka moment. "The diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)" is an 8-foot-long yellow florescent tube and standard metal fixture fastened to the wall at a 45-degree angle. Its bottom corner rests on the floor. Electric light forms an industrial halo of oddly affecting illumination.

Unlovely, institutional light never looked better. It's subtle and sensuous, so hot it's cool. You catch yourself waxing poetic over a commercial fixture regular folks install on outdoor porches to provide light without attracting nighttime bugs. Flavin's version is both glorious and ordinary, perfectly mundane and a delight to behold. You can practically hear the 29-year-old artist slapping his head and saying to himself, "Why didn't I think of this sooner?"

In one fell swoop, his work was on equal footing with viewers. No pedestal, frame or pictorial illusion got in the way of one-on-one engagement. Flavin's simple piece emphasized the space between the fixture and each of us. Far from empty, it was filled with modern mystery. Take it or leave it, the jaunty "diagonal" seems to say, I can't be bothered by sappy sentimentality."

In the next eight galleries, where 20 pieces made from 1963 to 1981 are spaciously installed, Flavin plays out the possibilities presented by his breakthrough piece. He combines colors: red, yellow, blue, pink, green, ultraviolet and four distinct whites; tube-lengths: 2, 4, 6 and 8 feet (with circular lights, of 1-foot diameter, providing the exception); and compositions, arranging florescent lights on the walls and floors, horizontally, vertically and diagonally, leaning in corners, cutting through space, standing like fences.

Flavin's art takes on architecture, softening its hard edges and abrupt angles. It scrutinizes time, setting up visual rhythms. It requires mobility, drawing visitors into peripatetic engagements. It examines visual perception, rewarding acute attentiveness to subtle shifts in light, color, tint and temperature. And it activates memory, compelling you to compare past experience to present. None of this, however, prepares you for the re-creation of Flavin's Hauserman Co. installation, originally commissioned by architects and designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli and on view at the Pacific Design Center showroom from 1982-84.

At LACMA, a gallery has been transformed into a cross between a maze and a rainbow, with three parallel corridors slicing diagonally through a big rectangular room. Laid out beneath a drop ceiling, all of the corridors are 8 feet by 8 feet wide.

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