What possible connection has William of Ockham with strip lighting?
Richard Davey finds out
FOR MANY PEOPLE, there is something of the Emperor’s new clothes about
minimalist art. Works such as Carl Andre’s infamous "Tate bricks" challenge and
unsettle accepted notions of art. Their simple, repetitive patterns created
from everyday objects make no attempt to point beyond themselves. The artist is
an assembler, director, and identifier rather than an obviously skilled
One of the great architects of American minimalism, Dan Flavin, is the
subject of a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. His work is the
epitome of minimalism’s values. For more than 30 years, he constructed his
works from coloured fluorescent light tubes, frequently leaving the
manufacturer’s marks visible as evidence of their commercial origins. They were
then placed in simple patterns that made no reference to anything beyond their
own presence and identity. For a large part of his career, he did not install
his work, but used either his own technician or assistant, or provided precise
instructions to gallery-owners of what tubes to buy and how to position them.
Yet Flavin transforms these essentially minimal works into something far
from minimal: he turns the lights on, and in doing so he creates complex and
beautiful environments that envelop the viewer in a shower of liquid colour.
The fluorescent tubes are no longer the subject of the work, but the tools of
its creation. It is as though we are looking at a sculpture in which the artist
has left his tools on show as part of the work.
As we enter the exhibition, we pass from the black and white of Kansas into
the Technicolor of Oz. We have stepped into the heart of the rainbow. The large
open space that forms a foyer for the main galleries is bisected by a low,
open, stepped barrier or fence, constructed from squares of short green tubes.
Their pervasive green light transforms our engagement with the space, and yet
lies beyond our reach: it has no mass or substance, and its edges cannot be
This first work, untitled (
to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) 1973, highlights some
of the themes in Flavin’s work. First, it reveals his concern for the ephemeral
and fleeting. The impact made by his work may overwhelm the viewer with its
monumentality, but it is constructed from materials that are fugitive and
fragile. Light may be one of the building blocks of creation, but the colours
that make it visible are changeable and transient, and are affected by
everything around them. Red placed next to green will behave very differently
from a red placed next to white, and this is without the impact of changes in
But it not just the colours that are fugitive. Flavin’s fluorescent tubes
are also fragile. They can be turned on and off, and they have a limited life
that will eventually flicker and spit out of existence.
The optical games that can be played by placing one colour against another
are at the heart of Flavin’s work. The green tubes may generate a green hue in
the room in which they are placed, but they themselves appear white.
In untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg), 1972-73, he has
divided a corridor with a fence of vertical tubes. On one side, he has placed
green lights, on the other yellow. With a slight gap left at one edge, the
effect is magical and mysterious: a blue corridor transformed by a yellow halo
that seems to seep into the blue, generating the subtlest hint of green around
the edges. In other works, the interplay of differently coloured tubes against
each other generates iridescent effects like insects’ wings.
When Flavin first started using fluorescent tubes, these optical effects
were often unplanned, but, as he became more skilled and aware of the colour
effects that could be generated by combining different tubes, the creation of
these optical games became less haphazard and more intentional. This can be
seen in the later works, which become ever more subtle and refined.
The notion of playing a game is important in these works. By limiting
himself to the tubes that were commercially available, Flavin provided himself
with a defined set of rules that set the limits of his artistic task. He is
engaged with a self-contained world.
But his titles reach out beyond this. They are dedications to people Flavin
loved or who inspired him —family, friends, and artists. On the whole, they are
loving gestures, not suggestions of narratives; but sometimes they indicate a
response to an artistic inspiration.
In a series of "monuments" for V. Tatlin, he constructed a series of linear
white patterns that resemble buildings and structures as a homage to the
Russian constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin, who had sought to combine
science and art into a utopian vision.
His first breakthrough work, a fluorescent tube placed at a diagonal on a
wall, was dedicated to Constantin Brancusi, whose sculpture
Endless Column, 1937-38, had offered an elementary form that could be
combined to create limitless possibilities.
One series of works is dedicated to William of Ockham, a 14th-century
English Franciscan whose nominalist theology argued that things within the
world could point only to their own reality; universal truths could be argued
for only from a position of faith, not knowledge. This understanding of the
world lies at the heart of Flavin’s work. For this reason, he became
increasingly antagonistic to critics who suggested that his work might have a
spiritual quality. But this position completely ignores the viewer and their
response and engagement to the work.
Unlike most works of art, these light works do not seem to pierce the
solidity of the wall of a gallery, offering the possibility of a world beyond;
instead, they reach out to the viewer. The light from the tubes occupies and
interrogates the negative space that exists between every form. It makes
visible this invisible space, and highlights the connections that lie between
everything. As such, it can be seen as an art of interconnectedness, an
illuminator of the space between rather than a world beyond.
At Tate Modern, one of Flavin’s "Monuments" to V. Tatlin can be seen as part
of the new gallery hang. Surrounded by more conventional approaches to art, the
uniqueness of his vision is immediately obvious. The cool white light that
emanates from this work not only interrogates the viewer, but also the other
works that surround it. It transforms them, and causes us to respond to them in
a new way.
After visiting the Flavin show, I went to the Sainsbury Wing of the National
Gallery, where the rich colours of the paintings were transformed through the
experience of seeing the Flavin into iridescent jewels that declared the
presence of the Divine in their rich luminosity — with colours that reached out
to the viewer.
Flavin sought to control the boundaries of his works, and created a minimal
set of circumstances in which to make art, but he cannot prevent the viewer
from being transformed by his works of sublime light, and seeing in them a
glimpse of the original Creator of light.
"Dan Flavin: A Retrospective" is at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank
Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1, until 2 April. Phone 020 7921 0813.
Homage: Flavin’s the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin
Brancusi), 1963: edition: 3/3, Dia Art Foundation © STEPHEN FLAVIN/ARTISTS
RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK