Dan Flavin: A Retrospective

Alun Jones, ‘Dan Flavin: A Retrospective’, in: Blueprint (London, UK: April 2006)

DAN FLAVIN: A Retrospective

Hayward Gallery, London, 19 January – 2 April 2006

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The first time the work of Dan Flavin bunt its way into my memory was at a show in a Clerkenwell warehouse in the late 90s. Lurking in a darkened corner of this dilapidated building was the ethereal glow of naked fluorescent tubing. It was truly shocking. The seemingly casual arrangement of bald fluorescent battens demanded my attention; the potency of this image haunts me still.

Beneath the door to the Hayward Gallery now is an ominous green glow. On entering you are confronted by “untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), 1973”, a fence-like structure of 4 foot green fluorescent tubes that bisects the gallery. The phenomenal presence of this work is quite staggering, filling the whole gallery with pulsating green light; the relationship between the art and the space slowly mutating as your mind and your eyes compete for your attention.

When asked what his work ‘meant’, Flavin famously remarked ‘It is what it is, and it ain’t nothing else.’ But this position hides an intellect and a wealth of philosophical knowledge that underpins his work. Flavin, the son of an Irish - American father and German mother, was schooled at a Catholic Seminary, from which he ran away to join the US Army. After the Korea War, he studied art history at Columbia before dropping out to pursue a career as an artist. Flavin’s work raises many questions about perception, artifice, authorship and the elevation of the mundane. However, the aspect of his work that I find most interesting is the tension between an almost palpable sense of numinous and Flavin’s rejection of his faith. Unsurprisingly parallels are drawn with James Joyce.

At its best Flavin’s work is stunning. The most powerful piece in the exhibition is the installation “untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg), 1972”. It takes the form of a screen of back-to-back 8’ tall battens, yellow on one side, green on the other, which fills a space created to house it. Crucially there is a small gap between one of the vertical edges and the wall of the enclosure, which enables a small amount of light from the opposite side of the screen to seep into your view. The power of this piece resides in the relationship between itself and the space it occupies, and the effect that has on your capacity to perceive nothing else. The light occupies your whole being.

In the corner of a gloomy Clerkenwell warehouse a solitary Flavin piece has the capacity to move you, principally by being unlike any other art; but in the context of 50 such pieces in a large gallery, their intrinsic individual power is somewhat undermined by their profusion. Which raises a paradox indeed: do we need a retrospective of Dan Flavin? Is this gathering together anything more than a taxonomical exercise? Or is this the point in history that marks out Flavin as being among those artists worthy of a retrospective? Make no mistake, Flavin’s work is fantastic, and he is without doubt an important artist, but I am not sure that this exhibition is the best way of elucidating such a thing.

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