Unreal Nature

July 4, 2017

From a Single Cylinder of Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… the sometimes funereal or mystical quality of his work, with its fluorescent gloom or triumph, redolent of Machine Age populist spirituality, has become ever more potent.

This is from ‘Dan Flavin: Name in Lights’ found in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (1999):

The death of Daniel Nicholas Flavin Jr. on November 19, 1996, sent my memory rushing back to the early sixties, now a mythic moment in the history of art.

Flavin’s astonishingly familiar-yet-unfamiliar objects — mass-produced cylinders of artificial light — at first seemed to have everything to do with the tabula rasa of Minimalism and little do do with anything else. At home with the rock-bottom geometries portentously unveiled by other artists of his generation — Andre, Stella, Robert Morris, Judd — and, when lit, ethereally defiant of gravity and corporeal presence, his early work appeared to inhabit a pristine world of disembodied intellect, reexamining elementary principles of mensuration or, as in a primary picture (1964), rediscovering, via a hardware store’s fluorescent spectrum, the three primary colors once sanctified by Piet Mondrian (and reinvented in the 1960s by Newman and Roy Lichtenstein).

[line break added] Moreover, the tonic cerebration that allied Flavin to Minimalism was further underlined by a growing awareness of his connection to Marcel Duchamp, for what was a store-bought fluorescent tube if not a readymade that could be declared, by intellectual fiat, a work of art?

By the time of Flavin’s death, however, the narrow boundaries that constrained the original perception of his work had vanished. For one thing his evolution, like Stella’s, moved relentlessly from minimal to maximal, creating what in the early sixties would have been unimaginable complexities of exquisitely reflected colors, of intricately circular and latticelike patterns that could expand into sumptuously engulfing environments. And the associative power of Flavin’s art, at first repressed by the chill of Minimalist polemics, has kept growing too, recalling, for one, the intensity of his Irish Catholic background.

[line break added] Hoping to have a priest for a son, his father had consigned him to a Brooklyn seminary, where he was drawn to the drama of the liturgy and its often luminous artifacts. Perhaps that is why the sometimes funereal or mystical quality of his work, with its fluorescent gloom or triumph, redolent of Machine Age populist spirituality, has become ever more potent.

… then there is a Flavin who can root us in American soil, master as he is of urban melancholy. I often think of this when, rushing to or from a train, I suddenly notice on some other platform at Grand Central Terminal his public commission untitled, 1976-77, lighting the platform of tracks 18-19, 30-40, and 41-42.

[line break added] These funneling modular streaks of pink, daylight, and yellow ceiling tubes may relate, of course, to the issues of calibrated linear extension that haunted many Minimalists, but any would-be purism is almost camouflaged in the station by its utilitarian neighbors on parallel tracks. Seen not in a museum but in a workaday city space, Flavin’s fascination with America’s ugliest and most commonplace form of public lighting seems to revert to grass-roots sources. The world of George Segal’s Cinema and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is not far away.

… Now that the light of Flavin’s own life has gone out, we may begin to grasp the astonishing range of his art. From a single cylinder of light, the bone-dry attribute of a Minimalist monk of the sixties, he went on to create a teeming infinity of shapes, colors, and phantom spaces, and an equally rich domain of associations, both public and private, sacred and secular.

My most recent previous post from Rosenblum’s book is here.

-Julie

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