Flavin proved light alone is art

The depiction of light on canvas has long been one of the central pre-occupations in the history of art. But it took Dan Flavin, an American artist of the Minimalist school, to realize and prove that light itself was art. He built his remarkable oeuvre around works composed entirely of light emanating from fluorescent fixtures.

But Flavin's work is not about the fixtures: It's about the light. For his works, the artist deliberately chose the most mundane commercial fluorescent bulbs of various shapes, sizes, and colors, many available at a hardware store.

He did nothing to disguise the banality of his materials. Their ordinary quality provides stark contrast with the ultimately mysterious light that comes from within them, a light that almost seems to live.

"Any work made of light is an instant environment," said critic Elizabeth Baker in Art News. "It retains, after all, a hint of the age-old magic and attraction of fire or the sun - or of brightness in any form, signifying warmth, mystery, life."

This unique atmosphere, created by 46 examples of Flavin's light works, is on view in "Dan Flavin: A Retrospective" at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Flavin passed on in 1996.

The show features Flavin's arguably most famous composition and first major light composition, "The diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)," an 8-foot fluorescent tube poised at a 45-degree angle emanating gold light.

Pictured at right, "Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3" (1977), is an example of a composition designed for placement in the corner of a gallery. Six 8-foot fluorescent tubes (three pink, three yellow) are arranged horizontally across a vertical grid with lights affixed to the back, projecting a cool, blue-green glow.

Though Dan Flavin always denied that his work had spiritual overtones, his art compels contemplation of what light represents and how it transcends the boundaries of its material container to create an ineffable atmosphere of its own.

"Dan Flavin: A Retrospective," is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until Jan. 9, 2005.

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