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>> Dan Flavin: Journey into Light

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untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977,
Courtesy Stephen Flavin
Photo: Billy Jim. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation

Throughout his life, Flavin gave many of his untitled works sober-sounding dedications that were at the same time ironic, political, or poetic commentaries. Partially adorned with the addition of the word "lovingly", they were addressed to artist friends like Donald Judd (as with his series of lithographs in the Deutsche Bank Collection), patrons such as the founder of the Dia Art Foundation, Heiner Friedrich, his wife Sonja, and even his golden retriever, Airily.

(to Don Judd, colorist), 1986,
Deutsche Bank Collection

He dedicated the work the diagonal of May 25, 1963 to the sculptor Constantin Brancusi; it was the seed of all light works to follow. Minimal effort, maximum effect: Flavin mounted an ordinary fluorescent tube at a 45° angle on the wall of his studio – without any further artistic intervention. The bulb, which shone in a golden light, is not, however, merely an homage to the creator of the monumental Infinite Column comprised of identical elements that spiraled up into the Romanian sky; it also, of course, springs from the tradition of Marcel Duchamp's Readymades or the object-like early paintings of Jasper Johns. Yet Flavin's diagonal of personal ecstasy – its original, considerably more emotional title – is far more than just a Readymade. The fluorescent tubes became the central medium of Flavin's art, a module of which all his later "situations" or "proposals" were comprised – he declined to use the term "sculpture" in reference to his work.

the diagonal of May 25, 1963
(to Constantin Brancusi), 1963,Dia Art Foundation,
Photo: Billy Jim. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation

Like the Minimalists Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Flavin had also been working since the early '60s with industrially manufactured materials that were supposed to eliminate the "artist's handwriting" and call the artistic concept of Abstract Expressionism, which dominated American art at the time, radically into question. In working with this "modern technological fetish", as Flavin called it, he limited himself almost exclusively to neon tubes in four lengths and the colors blue, green, pink, yellow, and red, as well as ultra-violet and four different shades of white. He created an overwhelmingly multi-faceted body of work from these simple elements, which can now be experienced in Munich in almost all its various facets.

untitled, 1989, Courtesy Stephen Flavin,
Photo: Phillip Schönborn. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation

Untitled (two primary series and one secondary) (1968), for instance, subtly accentuates the space, immersing the walls, floor, ceiling, and not least the viewer in a gentle red and yellow light. On the other hand, untitled (1989), a packed charge of 248 red, white, and blue neon bulbs takes up the entire width of the room as a wall of light that pains the eyes. Another monumental light barrier, untitled (1973), blocks the way through one of the exhibition rooms. Its intense green light burns itself into the retina to such a stark degree that for a short time afterwards, the eye perceives white light as pink in an optical after-effect.

"Dan Flavin: Architektur des Lichts",
exhibition view Deutsche Guggenheim 1999,
Photo: Mathias Schorman, Courtesy Deutsche Guggenheim

Flavin repeatedly revealed himself to be a skeptic. Along the middle axis of the museum are a series of 24 of his most important monuments for V. Tatlin. Variations on a single theme: just as Monet captured his haystack in a wide variety of different light situations, Flavin played through various combinations of for the most part seven cool-white fluorescent tubes of various lengths in this 50-piece group, which he continued working on up to the 1980s. The early monuments recall Tatlin's famous design, the Monument for the Third International , the Art Deco aesthetic of the Empire State Building, but also resemble stylized rockets.

‚monument' for V. Tatlin, 1966-69, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich,
Photo: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

Flavin saw these elegant objects as a two-fold homage to the belief in progress and the gigantomania of the Russian avant-garde. Originally, Tatlin's monument was supposed to be twice as tall as the Empire State Building; its realization ultimately failed due to the realities of the new Soviet society. The American artist ironically commented upon Tatlin's lofty plans – with a "monument" that he deliberately set in quotation marks and that can be turned on and off at will.

‚monument' 1 for V. Tatlin, 1964, Courtesy Stephen Flavin,
Photo: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

Leaving the exhibition, they eye is once again drawn to one of Flavin's icons – a red square with a red neon tube on top. An icon without a saint; only the monochrome background remains, together with a glowing aura. "It is what it is" was one of the tenets of the Minimalists. And Flavin, who came from a devout Catholic family, always denied a religious content to his luminous objects: "My fluorescent tubes never inflame for a god." Yet all at once, they seem to possess a spiritual dimension. At least as long as the electricity flows.

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