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Expositions > Musées > Dan Flavin

Centro Cultural Light, Rio de Janeiro, 1998

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Dan Flavin (1933-1996)

"The sublime is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of it, boundlessness is represented” Emmanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment.

A self-taught artist, Dan Flavin came early to light, the theme he would explore throughout his career. By introducing the use of the fluorescent light in the work of art, beyond allowing an analogy with Marcel Duchamp's ready-modes, Dan Flavin became one of the principal representatives of Minimalism. He was also one of the first artists to reject studio production, preferring to dedicate himself to proposals for site-specific works.

The number of works by Dan Flavin currently on exhibition is quite limited. The curious may seek out the phenomenal installation in Varese, Italy, commissioned by Count Panza di Biumo. Although part of that great art lover's collection has been acquired by the Guggenheim Museum, it is unfortunately not on display. At the Dia Center, in Bridgehampton, New York, there is a special space dedicated to Flavin. His final work was the installation which may be admired at the Chiesa Rossa in Milan. Small format works are sometimes exhibited in the major contemporary art museums. This practically sums up all that is publicly available today to someone who wishes to become acquainted with his work. Thus, it is with great satisfaction that we have organized this exhibition to introduce the work of this important artist of the second half of the twentieth century to the Brazilian public.

The first work in which Dan Flavin made use of electric light - monochromatic paintings lit by light bulbs or tubes of fluorescent light - date from 1961. But the matrix for what would soon come to characterize the artist's work and method was the diagonal of personal ecstasy, in 1963. In 1964, in his first individual exhibition, at the Green Gallery in New York, the pieces were exclusively made up of tubes disposed so as to compose various figures.

Dan Flavin soon became famous as one of the principal representatives of the Minimalism - beside Donald Judd and Carl Andre. As we know, a desire to reduce the means, and the serial utilization of elements which are always neutral materials, seeking to dissociate the act of conception from the act of execution of the work, are among the principles of minimalist art. Minimalism seeks the degree zero of signification. He was indifferent to art as it was understood in the classical sense and to its material characteristics. His fluorescent tubes maintained their own characteristics, always "anonymous and without glory".

In a radical declaration, Dan Flavin stated his belief that "art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realized decoration. Symbolizing is dwindling - becoming slight. We are pressing downward toward no art— a mutual sense of psychologically indifferent decoration - a neutral pleasure of seeing known to everyone... Electric light is just another instrument. I have no desire to contrive fantasies mediumistic ally or sociologically over it or beyond it. Future art and the lack of it would surely reduce such squandered speculations to silly trivia anyhow..." The electric tubes he used nearly always measured between 60 cm and 2,5m - standard measurements. If he sometimes used tubes of other sizes, he would arrange them according to a system of proportion based on mathematical progressions.Tube colors were restricted to the selections available on the market. Indirect lighting, ultraviolet and circular tube models constitute the few additions made by the artist to the arsenal of standard elements.

But if, according to the principles of minimalist art, Dan Flavin chose to use standard-sized bulbs, the use of light is not, in itself, an innocent choice. He chose to transform light from a merely external incidental into a real component of his work, yet was interested neither in manipulating that medium of electricity nor in its technological perspectives. The light of his sculptures models the space that surrounds it, is dissatisfied with its place on the wall, invading and transforming those spaces, disintegrating and reconstructing, conditioning passages and perambulations as well as the spectator's state of being. It is in the atmosphere created by the work, and not in its various parts or its whole, that the work establishes its relationship with the viewer.

Despite the formal organization of each work, their aesthetics are induced by the fluorescent light that emanates from them. The tubes diffuse the light more than they concentrate it. The gaze cannot rest upon a sculpture by Dan Flavin. Focusing is impossible, for the gaze is always drawn beyond the ambiguous and indeterminate limits of space and of the work itself. From among the tactile and visual characteristics of fluorescent light, the artist uses heat and luminosity, therefore rendering the created sculpture untouchable. And the light may either be directed upon the spectator or to the opposite side, so as to create effects of indirection and depth.

As we have said, throughout his career Dan Flavin came to carry out his work in the exhibition space or to connect them to in loco projects. In dematerializing the pictorial space and taking into consideration the dimensions of each room, the reflexivity of surfaces, and the specific conditions of each place in which he showed his work, his combinations were unlimited. To conceive the artistic creation in this manner represented a decisive step in the concept of creation, and demonstrated that artists can do without studios. Starting from the proposals created specifically for the places in which he had been invited to show his work, Dan Flavin constructed the elements which would make up the work at the exhibition's site. There are many diagrams and drawings in which he records specifications and instructions for projects. Each exhibition was conceived as a whole; spaces and bulbs as a single entity.

Many of Dan Flavin's works are dedicated to friends such as Judd and Lichtenstein, and to departed masters - especially Tallin -, but also to Josef Albers and Barnett Newman. Dan Flavin's "icons" are the "bare rooms". In these, his task would be to illuminate without revealing the passage to those who still ignore the trajectory. This form of sentimentality, the demand for faith and the exaltation contained in his work are always present behind a declared “parti pris” of austerity and rigor. This observation led Kim Levin to declare: "It is the art of austere hedonism, of a priest who, having forfeited his habit, claims a Jesuitical austerity while giving free reign to all sentimental excess."

One of the twentieth century's greatest artists, Dan Flavin participated in all the important artistic manifestations of contemporary art, such as the Kassel Documenta and the Whitney Biennial. His work has been shown in countless museums: the Guggenheim, the Kunstmuseum in Basel, the Chicago Art Institute, the National Gallery of Canada, MoCA in Los Angeles, the Ri|ksmuseum and the Stedelijkmuseum in Amsterdam, Kröller Muller (also in Holland), the Stadtische Galerie in Frankfurt, and others. Among the prestigious galleries which represented him are Castelli, Weber, and Pace Wildenstein.

Marc Pottier