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Dan Flavin: A Retrospective - Hayward Gallery

Feature by James Haddrell

THERE really could not be a better time of year for a Dan Flavin retrospective to come to London. As dark, cold, gloomy January gives way to an apparently darker, colder, gloomier February, and the joys of the festive season fade into what seems the dim and distant past, the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank has been flooded with more warm, uplifting light than you would ever find on a desperation driven easyjet holiday to the Caribbean. For anyone suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, Flavin’s clearly your man…

Dan Flavin first emerged on the New York art scene in the early 60s as one of the leading exponents of minimalism. A direct opposition to both abstract expressionism and pop art, minimalism generally did what the word suggests, reducing the work of art to the absolute minimum, using simple, often cheap materials, and rejecting any figurative interpretation. Minimalist works do not mean or represent anything directly; they exist in space, they share that space with the viewer, and in doing so they allow the viewer to engage in some form of abstract, contemplative interaction.

Flavin’s simplified forms and utilitarian materials clearly locate his work within this tradition, but for him, it is the concern with space which is primary.

Where contemporaries like Donald Judd and Robert Morris were striving to create works which would somehow engage with the space around them, Flavin used light to almost physically commandeer that space. No point in a room was left untouched.

A Flavin installation takes over the walls, the floor, the ceiling, even the spectators in the room – the work continues for as far as the light is allowed to travel. The space is not the bit between the work and the viewer, the space is the work. This was far from unique in the work of the minimalists, but Flavin’s attention was not directed towards the space in the way that some minimalists celebrated absence – he took that space and made it a glowing, physical presence. Like Rachel Whiteread, making space into tangible solids, Flavin took the invisible space of the art gallery and painted it with glowing light.

The retrospective currently on show at the Hayward presents a generally chronological view of his career, from his first experiments with light in the early 60s to his death in the early 90s – with the significant exception of the curator’s grandstanding opening salvo.

Having gone through the mundane process of buying a ticket, checking your coat into the cloakroom and trying to leave the blustery winter weather outside, passing through the door into the first room is like moving into another world.

Dominated by one of Flavin’s ‘barrier’ works – a fence-like structure of cross-hatched green fluorescent tubes – the room is bathed in a bold green light. The barrier prevents you from taking the automatic route across the room, first physically stopping you with little more than glowing light (a trick common to all of Flavin’s so-called barrier works), before directing you off to the right and into the main course of the exhibition.

This work provides the exhibition with the Trainspotting narrative twist that cinema of the last ten years has become so enamoured with. The scale, the simplicity and the impact of the work, created in 1973, signify a key point in Flavin’s development, a high point in the narrative of his career. The story which then unfolds takes you back to the beginnings of his career, reveals the story that led to this point, and then carries the tale to its conclusion.

Flavin’s earliest light works, dubbed ‘icons’ by the artist, are simple three dimensional coloured boxes applied to the wall, with a single light fixture attached – from the most basic domestic light bulb to a small white fluorescent strip. Somewhere between painting and sculpture, but not confident enough to really challenge the rules of either, these works cling uncomfortably to the wall and the lights fail to command much attention.

It was with his first solely fluorescent work that Flavin had what he called his ‘eureka’ moment, and whilst it is simple, as so many eureka moments are, his change of approach was momentous.

A single 8 foot yellow fluorescent tube, beginning at the floor and displayed at a 45° angle, is dedicated to Brancusi, and evokes memories both of his Endless Column sculptures (which, like Flavin’s tube, were clearly not endless, but could notionally have been extended until they were) and of his bronze ‘Bird In Space’ series.

With this work, the diagonal of May 25, 1963, Flavin rejects the traditional positioning of a work of art on the wall and displays instead a single shaft of light rising from the ground, an artwork utterly simple, utterly beautiful and readily reproducible by anyone with access to a hardware store. From that moment he never looked back.

As the exhibition progresses there are a range of works displayed with varying levels of success. The weakest section is probably the series of works dedicated to Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian constructivist artist turned architect.

The connection to Tatlin is clear – just as the constructivists were determined to celebrate the industrial world and to produce artworks which were true to their materials, Flavin used readily available industrial materials and came to use them, in his most confident pieces, in ways which could not be more true to the light which they emitted.

However, whilst they may sit well together intellectually, Flavin’s works in honour of Tatlin are too figurative to have the emotional effect of the more successful, abstract works. One arrangement of tubes clearly suggests Tatlin’s Monument To The Third International while others more generically suggest sky-scrapers – but as soon as Flavin begins to arrange his tubes in figurative ways and the form is allowed to become the focus of the work, the transporting effect of the light is sidelined.

Similarly, upstairs in the gallery, the impressive corridor works which respond to their surroundings, redefining them with a wash of light, are more successful than the almost sculptural series of four works dedicated to ‘Lucie Rie, master potter’.

In the latter case, the four works seem to take the form of four chairs, or even the repeated form of a potter sitting with arms outstretched at the potters’ wheel. With the form at the forefront, the light seems to retreat back into the works. ‘Light as art’ works best when the intellect is disengaged, when sensory perception is allowed to take over – and Flavin is therefore at his best when form is relegated to second place.

It has often been argued that there is nothing fundamental to Flavin in these works, nothing unmatchable, nothing of the genius that we so often covet in our artists – anyone, it seems, could produce these works. They are, after all, simply arrangements of lights.

Since Flavin’s work began to take the art world by storm the allure of fluorescent lighting has captured the imagination of town planning departments everywhere – the most unappealing functionalist architecture can be given a fairytale touch when the sun goes down with the help of a bit of coloured light. But Flavin would surely have appreciated this. Why else would he, even at the height of his success, have restricted his materials to those available at the local hardware store?

Ultimately, whether you are looking for the art of a craftsman or a genius, this retrospective is an excellent survey of a career which, single-minded as it was, regularly produced incredible pieces. And don’t kid yourself. Whilst we may all be able to produce works like this, Flavin did it first, and Flavin called it art – and I suspect there won’t be another opportunity for some time to see such a complete retrospective of his work against such a complimentary backdrop as the stark, stripped back concrete of the Hayward Gallery.

Picture caption: Untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), 1973

Dan Flavin: A Retrospective
Until 2 April 2006
Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London SE1
08703 800 400;
Open daily 10am-6pm; Tue & Wed until 8pm; Fri until 9pm
Admission: £7.50 (various concessions from £3)