American sculptor Dan Flavin made impressive art. His installations of fluorescent tubes dazzle the eyes and confound the senses.
One Flavin is a four-foot-high wall of bright green bars of light, meant to extend the length of whatever gallery it's shown in. Once your eyes and brain have stretched to cope with it, the rest of the world looks pink.
Another work gathers so many tubes into a single space that you feel a wave of heat as you walk in. You have to squint to come up close.
Several sculptures play complex optical tricks. There are works that cast an unearthly pastel glow on the walls around them. Others throw your color vision out of true: You can know two Flavin tubes are the same color and yet swear they're different.
There's huge pleasure to be had in Flavin's art. And if that's all there is, it comes up short. When work is this immediately fun, there's always a nagging doubt about how much deeper it goes.
Flavin, who died in 1996 at age 63, is getting a full-scale survey at the National Gallery, and that should help allay some doubts. With "Dan Flavin: A Retrospective," which opens today, the gallery has ventured closer to the contemporary avant-garde than it has ever done before. It's hard to imagine the National Gallery throwing this much weight behind a patent mediocrity, especially the first time out.
It can be tempting to see Flavin as another of those 1960s light and op artists who fooled with our minds. And to account for his current appeal by citing all the psychedelia that's back in style lately. But most of the hipster neon art of Flavin's '60s peers has been forgotten. Only Flavin's work still circulates among today's toughest tastemakers and trendsetters.
Maybe that's because, for all his flash, Flavin seems to preserve some core of thoughtfulness and depth. At his best, there's truly more to him than strikes the eye.
Flavin's value-added light is there already in his very first illuminated works, which open the retrospective. In some of Flavin's "Icons," a series conceived in the very early 1960s, light bulbs aren't there for optical effect at all. A piece dedicated to a gay friend consists of a thick, flesh-pink square of canvas, with 28 flame-shaped incandescent bulbs attached around the sides. The light cast by the tacky bulbs is nearly incidental. Instead, Flavin's light bulbs work as almost allegorical motifs, calling to mind high-camp decor, a Times Square marquee and the glare implied by any open homosexuality, circa 1962. The bulbs are a kind of cultural diversion from a straightforward sexual fact, an electrified distraction from the fleshy center they surround.
This kind of worldly content carries over into Flavin's trademark work with fluorescent tubes.
It all began on May 25, 1963 -- which happens to be the title shared by Flavin's breakthrough sculptures. On that day, the artist stuck a plain old hardware-store fluorescent fixture on the wall of his studio, and realized he'd found an artistic medium to last. Flavin discovered that he could transform a standard feature of our everyday life simply through its re-imagining as art.
Flavin's fluorescent tube, once it is hung like a painting on the wall, is transformed into a truly resplendent thing -- different from artworks that came before, and in some small ways more impressive. It's about real light, for once, instead of light as painted in a picture. But it's also about the shadows cast onto the walls around it, about where the work sits in the room and how it changes how we feel about the space it's in -- things barely broached by most older art, or barely noticed when it had been broached.
Flavin's first sculpture seems to have started life as a piece of radical conceptual art, an "instruction set" work, as such things are called: "Take a fluorescent bulb, hang it somewhere on the wall, and see just how much happens." It's a kind of statement of principle -- about what the artist has done, rather than what his art may do to us.
Very soon, however, Flavin realized that he'd made more than a single piece of high-concept sculpture; he'd invented a sculptural material, which could turn into many different works.
Run a single four-foot yellow tube up from the bottom of a wall at a 45-degree angle, and you have one iteration of the breakthrough piece, subtitled "To Constantin Brancusi." (Flavin cited a link to Brancusi's famous "Endless Column" of 1938, a single, 98-foot zigzagging post that became a kind of totem for modern art. The new sculpture's industrial materials and slanting "gold" tube -- as the color was listed by the manufacturer -- may also have reminded Flavin of Brancusi's "Bird in Space," with its novel use of pared-down polished brass, borrowed from machine parts. And then there's the fact that Flavin was always eager to forge links between himself and other big-time art world names.)
Or make the bulb cool-white, and see how it casts a much more modern, abstract glow, all about rarefied shape and shade and space. That white version of "May 25" gets named for art historian Robert Rosenblum, prestigious champion of the Abstract Sublime. (Most of Flavin's pieces are labeled with a devil-may-care, modernist "Untitled." And then he gives them titles anyway, in the form of parenthetical dedications that slip us extra thoughts about them.)
That single bulb can also stand upright in the middle of the wall (shown in green, and left entirely untitled, in 1963), or it can turn an antiheroic pink and move to hug a corner of the room ("Pink Out of a Corner [To Jasper Johns]," also from 1963 and included in this show).
That corner bulb, now in white again, can be shown in an installation that also includes a pair of tubes set in the center of the wall and three more gathered as a bookend at the wall's other end: Now it has become a study in unity, symmetry and multiplicity that's named after the medieval sage William of Ockham, wielder of the famous razor that pares things to the minimum required. Flavin has taken the plain black line that is at the heart of draftsmanship, and replaced it with white light. (That may be why art historians billed him as a minimalist -- though he was never happy with the label.)
And in every one of these works, that radical gesture of May 25 still lurks: They aren't a denial of the fluorescent tube's hardware-store roots, but an affirmation of all the things such humble lighting can achieve. Flavin takes care to leave his fixtures just as bought, complete with union stickers and quality-control stamps and visible mounting screws.
Flavin's art transcends what we think about standard fluorescent tubes, and how we use them. But it doesn't want to transform the tube itself into some ideal Platonic image of itself. Flavin's art, at its best, isn't only about the light cast by his fluorescent fixtures. It's also about the fixtures that cast it, and what they mean to us. He's taken the factory ceiling and moved it to the gallery wall, and that isn't an empty gesture.
It's interesting to note that Flavin's pieces almost never capture any of the nastiness we imagine when we think "fluorescent light." There's nothing worse than a restaurant lit by bare fluorescent tubes, and yet there's hardly a moment in Flavin's retrospective where you feel that same aggressive buzz. That's not to praise Flavin for taming his medium so that it leaves us swaddled in an arty glow. I mean to praise him for the opposite: for making us always note and remember the gap between the fluorescent norm and how fluorescents feel as art.
Flavin's sculpture is clearly about how fluorescent light transforms a museum space. But, as one art historian suggested to me, it's also about how hallowed museum space transforms fluorescent lights.
Look at a Flavin, and you first notice the simple, straightforward fact of the bulbs it uses. A 1964 piece called "To Henri Matisse," for instance, is a plain quartet of eight-foot verticals, in pale shades of pink, yellow, blue and green. But give it a longer, museum-style look -- as you would any painting worth its salt -- and you realize that there's much more there than the bulbs' quiddity.
Even as each tube sheds its own light, its glossy surface also reflects a neighbor to either side; a single stripe of glowing color is overlaid with finer stripes of barely different hues.
Then there's the white metal strips that sit between the bulbs on the sculpture's four-tube fixture: The strip between any two tubes takes on a color of its own -- orange, white or a dark cyan -- depending on the light to either side.
Then there's the blank wall that frames the quartet, which also has to count as part of the piece. On the left a wing of dull pink light flares out from the work; on the right, there's a similar wing of green -- extending the reach of the two outermost bulbs, and belittling the force of the middle yellow and blue.
And then -- we're almost done -- you turn your back to leave the piece, and realize that the blank walls facing it ask to be noticed, too. Shadows cast onto one side of the empty space have bands of yellow and pink alongside them; across the way they've got halos in blue and green.
Even the most vibrant stripe paintings of Morris Louis and Gene Davis, Washington's world-famous masters of painted color, never managed as many effects as this. They're almost static by comparison with Flavin's "Matisse." As your attention changes focus and your eyes and brain try to pin down the things they see, the Flavin seems to change the fundamental parts that make it up -- four simple stripes become four stripes plus the reflections on them, plus the space between them, plus the walls around them, plus the shadows cast by you as you look.
Flavin has completely dissolved the boundaries of art, making it include everything in sight. And yet your mind always returns to the essential fact of the four standard-issue fluorescent bulbs that stand there dumb before you, causing the mess. There's always a little ironic dig in making hardware do the work of highfalutin paint.
Flavin starts to lose his hold only when the balance in his art falls too far toward spectacular effects, and away from the immediate presence of his materials. The more instantly fascinating his light show becomes, the less staying power it has.
Flavin's early, radical gesture soon became a style like all the others that had come before. And eventually that artistic style could become lighting design.
By 1977 already, Flavin had made a stunning work, "In Honor of Harold Joachim," that is perilously easy on the eyes. He closes off the corner of a gallery with a grid of two blue and two green tubes, set vertically and facing toward the wall, along with two yellow and two pink horizontals that cross them and face out toward us. The special effects produced by this complex array are so absorbing and appealing that they don't leave room to respond to other things in the work.
The Flavin piece that heats up its gallery, and its viewers, was conceived in 1989 and calls for 248 four-foot fluorescent bulbs. Sixty-two four-foot white tubes are tightly packed upright along the left half of a wall, covering its base like a kind of glowing wainscoting. The right half gets covered in a similar bank of 62 blue tubes. And then Flavin cantilevers another 124 red bulbs above his blue and whites, like a shelf of crimson light that reaches out toward us. The whole installation is stunning, just in sheer quantity and varied quality of light. If Flavin were a rocker, he'd make sure his amplifier could crank up to "11."
There's also a subtle side to things: The red tubes set above the white ones seem to glow a dark and brooding scarlet; precisely the same bulbs -- get close enough and you can tell that they're the same -- when set above the bank of blue, seem to glow a much more flagrant pink.
And yet despite the sheer number of fluorescent bulbs used in the piece, their down-to-earth "bulbness" almost disappears. They become disembodied sources of wow-cool light, rather than the embodiment of how light is cast in factories and rec rooms everywhere, but now transfigured into art.
It's as though Flavin has bought into the Old Mastering of his own work. He loses the bratty, conceptual edge of his first innovations -- "Watch me call a fluorescent fixture art!" -- and becomes an officially Great Artist whose palette happens to be colored light.
Which makes Flavin's later works fine company for the National Gallery's Bellinis and Monets. And his important early ones an even better, more interesting match.
Dan Flavin: A Retrospective is in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the Mall at Fourth Street NW, through Jan. 9. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov. For Blake Gopnik's video review of the exhibition, visit www.washingtonpost.com/museums.