Dan Flavin at the Hayward Gallery

This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

Strange to say, on the day after I’d been round the major Dan Flavin retrospective currently showing at the Hayward Gallery, I found myself in a DIY shop, staring at a display of fluorescent lighting.

For most of us, these days, fluorescent lighting is sufficiently ubiquitous as to have become invisible through sheer familiarity. This is a pity, because in some ways it’s surprisingly interesting. For one thing, as technologies go, it is a lot older than most of us might assume. Its origins stretch back as far as 1856, while by the 1890s recognisable forebears of the present-day models were already in production. In 1938 General Electric bought Edmund Germer’s patent and brought fluorescent illumination into widespread commercial use. The strip-light, and all that followed on from it, was born.

In doing so, it must be said, this unwieldy American mulinational helped to create the world we see around us. One of the practical distinctions between incandescent and fluorescent lighting is that the latter generates more light with less heat, and hence is cheaper to run over long periods. From this dreary sum follows the open-plan office, the call centre and the light-industrial building, the 24-hour shopping mall and the bright new hospital whose clever design cannot quite obscure its faint air of private tragedy — the cold, white, unforgiving light that illuminates each of these not only makes their existence possible, but colours their character, too, so that we cannot really imagine our lives without it.

Fluorescent light may affect us in other ways, too. Fluorescent lighting, especially as fixtures age and become faulty, ‘flickers’ in a way that incandescent lighting does not. Although this variation is rarely visible at the conscious level, people who suffer from photosensitive epilepsy, for instance, are advised to avoid fluorescent lighting. Whereas over at the more excitable end of the healthcare spectrum, intense fluorescent light has been blamed for everything from infertility and high blood pressure to hyperactivity and agoraphobia. Silly? Downright ridiculous? Well, possibly. Still, it worth reflecting how much of our indoor lives are presently observed in a series of tiny, intermittent, arbitrary vignette, rather than as a continuous totality. Who can say what this has meant, or whether the texture of modernity would have been different, somehow, perhaps incalculably so, had it been otherwise?

A bright idea
By the time of his early and diabetic death in 1996, aged a youthful 63 years, Dan Flavin knew quite a lot about fluorescent light — not its technical side, which never interested him particularly, but rather its potential as a high art medium. The New York-born artist’s career had not started auspiciously. In his early 20s he was drafted into the US Air Force, serving as an air weather meteorological technician in Korea. There was also a false start during which he studied for ordination in the Roman Catholic church. Both may have left a mark. By the late 1950s, however, he was back in New York, working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim — and at the same time, attending the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts, art history classes at the New School for Social Research, and drawing and painting classes at Columbia University.

The start of the 1960s found Flavin experimenting with the use of electric light in a series of works he called ‘icons’. Only in 1963 did he achieve his breakthrough, with the Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) — an 8-foot long yellow fluorescent tube placed at a 45-degree angle to the gallery floor. To a great extent everything else that followed over the next thirty years would simply be an elaboration of this basic formula. Working with standard two, four, six and eight-foot fluorescent tubes in only ten colours — prefabricated industrial products, incidentally, all commercially available at the time in more or less any neighbourhood hardware store — Flavin carved out fo a place for himself alongside Donald Judd and Carl Andre at the (rather austere, presumably) summit of the Minimalist pantheon.

Now, it’s easy enough to make fun of an artistic oeuvre concocted entirely out of fluorescent tubes. Indeed, the basic juxtaposition of ‘art’ and ‘fluorescent tubes’ can be made to sound, with a bit of hard work from those seeking that end, self-evidently ridiculous. The estimable Hilton Kramer, for one, denied that Flavin was an artist at all, rather than simply someone who’d been given gallery space. Meanwhile the equally estimable Roger Kimball is scarcely more enthusiastic, singling out a particularly silly claim on the part of a former director of the Dia Foundation — the notion that Flavin is ‘as important as Michelangelo’, which he clearly isn’t — for particular derision. And the virtually infallible Brian Sewell recently pronounced Flavin ‘tedious’. Many of this website’s regular readers may instinctively agree with this eminent consensus of scorn and derision. Can something available in any hardware store in 1960s America really be considered art? Isn’t it just, well, a bunch of lighting fixtures given a boost by good PR in ArtForum?

Certainly, this is a respectable point of view. It is, in some ways, very hard to dismiss. Maybe what’s at the Hayward isn’t really art. And if there’s anyone out there who is still confused about the relative merits of Flavin and Michelangelo, this ought to set you straight.

High Art Light
On the other hand, there are plenty of things in the world that don’t quite measure up to Michelangelo — things don’t even count as ‘art’, as far as that goes — that are still worth having. All of which explains why I am not about to pretend that I didn’t enjoy the Hayward’s Flavin retrospective — why, in fact, I am happy to admit that I found parts of it genuinely beautiful.

It probably mattered that this wasn’t my first experience of Flavin’s efforts. The Hayward is publicising its current show as ‘the first comprehensive exhibition of the work of major American artist Dan Flavin’. While almost certainly technically true — the technicality here residing in the construction of that word ‘comprehensive’ — it’s a claim that may surprise those lucky enough to have visited the Serpentine in the late summer of 2001.

Not that anyone could confuse the two shows, or indeed, fail to notice the difference between the impact made by a massed exhibition of Flavin pieces versus single items stranded in far-flung survey collections. Flavin, as an astute art dealer friend recently commented to me, just doesn’t do well on his own. And while some might be all too ready to take this as yet another sign of Flavin’s heinous deficiencies as an artist, for the rest of us it nonetheless offers a key to understanding his work.

Here’s the crucial thing about Flavin’s installations. Most of us — the polite, gallery-going readers of art reviews — are used to viewing art, even three-dimensional art, very much as an object. We look at it, contemplate its surfaces and textures, shape and scale, masses and volumes. If we are feeling particularly energetic, and if circumstances allow, we might even make the effort to walk part way round a three-dimensional work, to see how its appearance changes when viewed from different angles. But the point about Flavin’s work is that the real drama takes place not on the surface of the work itself, but rather, everywhere around it. We may look at the fluorescent tube, but ultimately, it’s only the messenger. The message is elsewhere, radiating from the chemical reaction occurring deep within the tube, filtered through the coloured glass and then projected into the world beyond, so that everything near it — the gallery walls, the floor, the ceiling, other nearby works, even our own hands and faces and figures, are all implicated in the commentary of its insistent, artificial light.

This is why environment matters so much when it comes to experiencing Flavin’s work. The Serpentine show differed from the Hayward retrospective not only through being more selective, but because the whole atmosphere in the Serpentine Gallery is in every way so different. The Serpentine Gallery is, after all, a neo-Georgian tea-pavilion turned to new purposes, airy and light-hearted, offering views across the domesticated arcadia of Kensington Gardens. The Hayward, in contrast, is a windowless, Brutalist bunker, resembling nothing more than a concrete multi-storey car-park — albeit a very high-spec, slightly decadent one — where wood has been pressed into the concrete to give it a rich, grainy texture, and where the concrete or wooden floors are burnished to a soft, lustrous finish. Therefore the Serpentine gave us, back in 2001, a vision of Flavin as a conjuror of light entertainments, a strangely lyrical, even romantic figure capable of turning the greenest distant prospect an odd shade of gilded tangerine, while at the Hayward in 2006 we re-encounter a sterner, more serious Flavin, more interested in geometry and grammar and realism, less so in the more evanescent logic of pleasure.

And thus it’s the distance between the two Flavins — the one I glimpsed in 2001, versus the different one available now — that finally convinced me of the artist’s real merit. For someone who’s instinctively attracted to everything that’s most gestural, haptic and hands-on ‘human’ in art — a gross aesthetic prejudice that takes one all the way from Titian to Auerbach, which is quite a long way really, but that certainly doesn’t have much time either for Duchamp or his epigones — an oeuvre that could be passably replicated on a quick trip to Homebase can feel cold, alienating, ‘mechanical’ in the most perjorative possible sense, if only because it lacks the moods, the passion, the palpable risk-taking and occasional naked failure that speaks to us from that other, more explicitly handmade sorts of work. But I’ve learned that despite his limited, in some ways limiting materials, Flavin has enough scope to speak in different tones when his work finds itself faced with different situations and circumstances, and so can change and grow with each successive installation. No, Flavin’s not like Michelangelo, but why on earth should he be? Am I the only one out there who lives through moments far better suited to the low-key nostalgic glow of a Flavin than the full tortuous metaphysical force and scarcely contained fury of a mature or late-period Michelangelo?

Light fantastic
Needless to say, Duchamp, with his DIY superstore ‘readymades’, is often cited as a source for Flavin’s work. Two other more interesting links, which mattered to Flavin himself and which in fact show up in the titles of some of his installations, are with Russian icons on one hand, and with the work of Soviet Constructivist artists such as Vladimir Tatlin (himself once an icon restorer) on the other. From the icon-making tradition Flavin derived something about the undesirability of ego in the production of his works, and perhaps also (with a nod to his own truncated theological studies) a consciousness of the permeability of the physical world by the genuinely numinous. From Tatlin, on the other hamd came a more tangible inheritance — glass, tower formations, and a sense that ‘art’ might be revolutionary simply by being something accessible to everyone, rather than to a small, wealthy elite.

There are ironies here. A young friend of mine, having been dragged round the private view by his glamorous art-curator girlfriend, lamented plangently the lack of free drinks, but admitted that the show had at least given him some good ideas for cheap ways to decorate his new flat. In saying this, I suspect he was trying to be outrageous. Yet in some moods, Flavin himself would have very much agreed with the latter sentiment — indeed, perhaps with the former as well. A down-to-earth New Yorker by birth rather than conversion, Flavin occasionally, the weight of his high-art training notwithstanding, lapsed into a New Yorker-ish rhetoric of ‘it is what it is’ when speaking of his own art. In this, he was to some extent an emperor proclaiming his own nakedness whilst wearing a rather expensive body-stocking, because he knew his Tatlin as well as anyone. In that sense he’d perhaps have liked my friends to go out and buy some fluorescent tubes and make a work of art out of their London flat. He’d have enjoyed the democratisation of his practice that this would imply. This was, I suppose, part of the Revolution that Tatlin desired and that Flavin, by implication and hence through a sort of imperial beau geste, invoked.

And yet, and yet … revolutions in art, as well as politics, have a nasty habit of eating their own young. No matter how cleverly my friends made their credit card orders and installed their tubes, what they would have created wouldn’t have been a Flavin, any more than the Dia Foundation, which conserves and displays a great deal of Flavin’s work at a site in Marfa, Texas, could simply go out and raid their local hardware stores if they wanted to top up their collection.

And this, ultimately, is why Flavin’s democratic urges never quite bore fruit. I once read an unforgettable article, which sadly I have not been able to find online anywhere, about the conservation issues raised by Flavin’s work. For while it was all very well to create art out of what one could buy, in terms of fixtures and fittings, in any hardware store in 1960s urban America — well, it was quite another thing, in the early years of the 21st century, for anyone to repair them when they broke down, or to source replacement tubes when the brands and models in question had long since gone out of production. So the rich collectors tried to buy up the few tubes still out there with a bit of life left in them, and contine to look out for electricians who still understand the old ways, the old fixtures. Mostly, the article concluded, they just leave the works unplugged, so as not to wear them out. So the end of Flavin’s dream was, in a way, as poignant as the end of Tatlin’s, if far less serious — history, as Marx would have it, replayed a second time as farce. Will the last one who still believes in a truly revolutionary role for art please switch off the lights when he leaves the building?

The light fantastic
In the Hayward, of course, as we all would rightly expect, the Flavin pieces are shown off as precious relics, displayed to gain our attentive patience, respect and eventual reverence. Even this raises questions, though. If the quality of the individual installation is so central to how a Flavin work comes across, doesn’t it matter that Flavin has now been dead for a decade? Apparently not.The curators invoke Flavin’s sense that there was something downright liberating in the sheer unrepeatability of each installation — whilst belt-and-bracing this assertion with an assurance that each work in fact replicates earlier installations, was put in place by people who know and understand Flavin’s work intimately, and who thus can provide the requisite warmth of authenticity, alongside the bracing rigour of theoretical purity. Well, who could argue with any of that?

As I mentioned above, however, the result is of all this is often memorably powerful, and sometimes downright beautiful. For me, the high point came on the first floor, part way down a corridor. There’s a work called untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg) (1972-73) which is basically a small alcove full of tall, yellow fluorescent tubes with one green tube at the right-hand end. Gazed at frontally, it hurts the eyes a bit. But if one stands, as I did, close to the tubes but with one’s back to them, and looks outwards from the alcove, an extraordinary thing happens. There’s a nearby installation which throws its own sheen of luminous violet across a white wall, and thus where the ‘yellow’ wall of the first work meets the ‘violet’ wall of the second work, the result is amazing. Both walls, of course, are really white, so what one is seeing is reflected light, pure and simple, rather than mediated through earth-bound pigment. But since yellow and violet are what used to be called, back in pre-pixillated times, ‘complimentary colours’, the chance to view a real-life stand-off between the two is astonishing. As one traces the distinction between the two, the line separating them (which exists nowhere but in one’s own mind) seethes, trembles, boils. It’s hot, it’s icy, it’s alive and it’s moving somewhere — where, through? It’s mad and slightly scary and at the same time, totally enthralling. And there’s a purity about the experience that makes it all the more powerful. Who knows whether it’s what Flavin meant us to see, or what he’s have liked to have seen himself, but it was unforgettable. Oddly enough, there wasn’t a single ‘work of art’ in sight, yet it’s an experience I’ll treasure forever.

That, though, was a high point. Admittedly, not everything in the Hayward retrospective measures up to it. The show starts forcefully enough with untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) (1973) which is basically a lengthy fence made up out of incredibly bright, green fluorescent tubes. It’s a clever piece of installation, because the fence itself is an unsubtle trope for liminality in the context of the High Art Experience (‘this is the world of Art, not the world of Life — we do things differently here’) yet at the same time, as charming and accessible as a fairground attraction, turning everyone’s faces a funny colour and making the Hayward look new.

Back in the normal world, though, there are also some works capable of projecting wit or charm. Smaller works like ”monument” for V. Tatlin (1964) have a delicate Art Deco charm. The upstairs room showing Flavin’s sketches, on the other hand, simply reminds us all how right he was to stick with the genre in which he ultimately made his reputation. There’s a sweet humility about the fact that he apparently always carried a little sketch-pad with him, because it connects him with a world where ‘artists’ could actually create illusionistic, representational works. But — well, he couldn’t draw, could he? There’s one handsome illuminated work here (Chamber Music I, no. 6 (to James Joyce (1959) that shows both Flavin’s reverence for literature, and perhaps even a weak affinity to Blake, which will make those of us happy who believe that Flavin was, for all his claims, ultimately a Romantic, capable of seeing angles in unlikely places and the warm patron of hopeless, discredited causes. But that’s about it, as far as drawing goes.

On the other hand there is always Gallery 3, which is a tour de force by any standard. Here the curators are apparently replicating a work installed at the Institute for the Arts at Rice University, Houston, Texas in 1972. Forget, for a moment, rigour and toughness. Forget that the Vietnam War is raging, or that in a year or two the weird liberal coup d’etat now knownas Watergate would be well underway, with all its rich penumbra of plumbers, naval heroes with guilty liberal consciousnesses, and unindicted co-conspiritors galore. Forget one of the most tedious and lengthy recessions in US history. For Gallery 3 is a different proposition altogether. Here, an arrangement of tubes around so-called ‘crossed walls’ melds together blue, apple green, a gentle pink and an orange which recalls to anyone who lived in America in those days the taste, smell and faintly scary synthetic ambience of a drink called Tang — apparently consumed by NASA astronauts, so those multitudinous, mysterious E-numbers that stained our mothers’ kitchen counters so imutably must have been quality ones.

But in all seriousness, if Marie Antoinette had wished to have a pleasure-garden executed in fluorescent lighting fixtures, she could hardly have done better than this amazing realm of slightly unlikely sweetness, this paradise of soft insistent colour and gentle lusciousness, this demi-paradise of highly artificial luxe et volupte. It’s like being cuddled by light, like being wrapped in a big warm duvet of colour and radiance and sleekly commercial softness. Be honest, now, you incidental voyeurs: have you never looked out an urban window and thought how lovely people tend to look when they are lit only, and all unconsciously, by the light of a huge and overbright television screen? If so, Gallery 3 is your chance to be like that consciously, for a few minutes, and to enjoy it to the full. I don’t think anyone has really lived fully in our own debased age until they have been briefly pink, radiant and insubstantially beautiful in the Hayward’s Gallery 3.

American Beauty
The unforgiving doctrine of science teaches us that our perceptual world is nothing but a slurry of more or less badly-reflected light, filtered out by whatever happens to be right or wrong about our own flawed brain-chemistry. Well, fair enough. At one level, Flavin simply brings us up against the limitations of a world in which chemistry is only just inflected by culture and perception. Why stand and stare in a gallery? Why admire there, in that peculiar context, something we’d most likely ignore elsewhere? Why give ‘art’ a space for looking, while in general we simply skim over most of the life around us, seeing as little as we can manage, detained by as little as we dare?

This, ultimately, seems to me the challenge posited, however involuntarily, by one of the greatest artists of America’s most affluent, most anxious, most self-doubting era. Flavin, like most of his left-wing peers, attempted to make art about the Vietnam War. An example is present in the current Hayward Exhibition. Monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P. K. who reminded me about death) (1966) was, apparently, meant as a gesture of protest. What is present today, instead, and however far in default of the artist’s intentions, was a gesture of abstract beauty. For the work in question isn’t about high humidity, strange food that gives you the runs, homesickness, fear that makes your bowels empty involuntarily, a bad smell in the air, a bad feeling, the sound of live fire, the sense that no one in your home town understands where you are or cares about the cause for which, in a few minutes’ time, you are just as involuntarily about to die — rather, the signal impact of this work is that, shown over a highly-burnished concrete floor, the extended jutting tubes sketch out half a prism which, once reflected back from the floor, assumes a fully prismatic form, half of which is ghostly and half of which is palpably real. As art, it’s simply and analytically beautiful — as a reference to boys who die, unwittingly, for a state that never actually gave them very much, it’s derisory. Do we blame Dan Flavin for this? Or do we blame whoever drove modern art into the cul-du-sac in which it’s presently enjambed?

No matter. Flavin is a full-force, A-list American artist. There will be other retrospectives, other pleasure-gardens. Tomorrow it will all look different. Infinite frangibility is the hallmark of this age in which we all live.

Death, premature and perhaps unnecessary, may seem a strange context in which to recommend this present Hayward retrospective of Dan Flavin’s work. So may romance, broken and lost and impossible. Still, to avoid this show is to avert one’s gaze from something important, significant if sometimes sad about The World That Is. The Hayward deserves credit for having staged an important show about an important artist. The Hayward’s Flavin retrospective has something to say to all of us, even here, even now. And, no, you can’t quite get this in your local DIY shop, no matter how fully stocked.

Bunny Smedley, who was born in the United States at the end of 1965, has a PhD in History from Cambridge University, and her toddler son apparently quite enjoys fluorescent lights.

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