Dan Flavin’s brand of minimalism is the kind people love to hate. His installation pieces, which are created from store-bought fluorescent light fixtures mounted on walls and floors, at first inspire the groan that every art aficionado hates to hear from fellow gallery-goers: “Why is he so special? I could do that.”
No, you couldn’t – and here’s why: As simple as Flavin’s creations appear, his art is far more complex that the mere mounting of a single 8-foot-long lighting fixture. The retrospective, which consists of 46 installations in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, celebrates the career of an artist whose talent in creating color far exceeded that of typical mediums.
While the primary colors of paint are red, yellow and blue, the primary colors of light are instead red, green and blue; the combination of these produces white light. Flavin has mastered the blending of light to the point of optical illusion – he can make corners disappear, and unexpected colors reflect on the walls behind each structure. Flavin also plays with the notion of a gallery’s space, mounting his work in little-used areas like corridors and corners. “Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns)” is a single fluorescent tube mounted vertically in the corned of a gallery space, with light that bleeds throughout the room.
Inspired by many other modern artists of his time, Flavin pays homage to them in the titles and content of his work. “Untitled (to Henri Matisse)” combines four vertical tubes of pink, yellow, blue and green fluorescent light, which together emanate a brilliant white light. He also dedicated works, many of which he called “icons” and “monuments” to artists such as Barnett Neumann, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman and Alexander “Sandy” Calder. Flavin shows his sense of humor in two works dedicated to the artist Piet Mondrian, whose art employed only the primary colors. “Untitled (to Piet Mondrian),” like the artist, uses only red, yellow and blue fluorescent tubes. In the adjacent room, a large bridge-like structure of green lights is entitled “greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green).”
Flavin’s lights, bright enough to cause guards in each gallery to wear sunglasses, further broadens the ever-expanding definition of art. His first work to use exclusively fluorescents, “the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)” is a single yellow light mounted to the wall at a 45 degree angle. Similar to artist Marcel Duchamp, whose ready-made objects found their way into museums, Flavin took a banal light fixture and made it a work of art that illuminates a room and causes colorful shadows to dance across walls – which not just anyone can do.
“Dan Flavin: A Retrospective” will be at the National Gallery of Art until Jan. 9, 2005. The exhibition is located in the East Building’s Upper Level, North Bridge and Mezzanine. The National Gallery East Building is located at 4th and Constitution Avenues N.W.