Flavin: Constructed Light - February 1, 2008 - October 4, 2008

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The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
 

Introductions

Foreward by Director Matthias Waschek
Curator, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

Every installation at the Pulitzer is informed by Tadao Ando’s architecture, but the building asserts itself differently depending on the artwork with which it is in dialogue. With the art of Dan Flavin (1933 – 1996) the dialogue is, as never before, about light. In the context of daylight, the perceived intensity of fluorescent light changes, as does one’s perception of the building. After dusk, when fluorescence reigns, the building becomes a sculpture of light even from afar. But the conditional quality of light and, therefore, Flavin’s work also underscores the matter of installation itself. In particular, there is the question, how can Flavin’s intensely installation-based art be installed without creating completely new works?


For a response to the question marked by a wealth of expertise and understanding, I warmly thank Tiffany Bell, project director of the Dan Flavin catalogue raisonné, who is the first guest curator to conceive an exhibition for the Pulitzer. With equal warmth, I thank Steve Morse, exhibition coordinator and conservator at the Dan Flavin Studio, for all he contributed to the success of the exhibition through his oversight of the installation process. Together they have established an invaluable set of precedents and created a framework for resolving questions about how to install Flavin’s art in the absence of the master.


The last major presentation of the artist’s work in St. Louis, corners, barriers and corridors in fluorescent light from Dan Flavin, was thirty-five years ago at the Saint Louis Art Museum. It is a joy to extend Flavin’s history in St. Louis with this exhibition. Moreover, I am glad to do so with the help of that exhibition’s curator, Emily Rauh Pulitzer. I would like to thank her for sharing her understanding of Flavin’s art and her recollections of the artist’s time in St. Louis in an interview. I would also like to express our profound gratitude to Stephen Flavin, executor of his father’s estate, for lending all of the works, which literally cast the Pulitzer in a new light.

Preface by Guest Curator, Tiffany Bell

One of the major innovations of Dan Flavin’s art was the way in which he integrated his materials with architecture and the surrounding space of a room. With fluorescent lights strategically placed, he was able to transform the viewer’s perception of any given room and provide a new, dynamic experience of that space. The possibility of installing Flavin’s work in Tadao Ando’s building for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts therefore offered a wonderful opportunity. But it was a challenging proposition as well. Not only is Ando’s building an architectural jewel with a strong presence of its own, but also Flavin is not here to respond to it himself. My task then was to find in Flavin’s œuvre installations that could accommodate the spaces in ways that both complemented and challenged the architecture without compromising the integrity of Flavin’s art.


This assignment was made easier by the program and possibilities offered by the Pulitzer. From the beginning, it was agreed that the project should be exploratory, providing the possibility to try out different solutions. Two different approaches were considered for the exhibition. One emphasized the development of Flavin’s approach to installation; the other responded more directly to specifics of architecture and incorporated some of the formats which accommodate a change of colors so as to bring into play the repetition inherent in Flavin’s work. Matthias Waschek supported the latter plan because it dealt more directly with the building. With the Foundation’s amazingly capable staff and their willingness to make everything possible, mock-ups were then built to test the works within the space. In addition, every effort was made to respect Flavin’s specifications for the chosen installations. What becomes clear, I think, is that Flavin devised an art that is adaptable to many situations and can work its magic almost anywhere.

Phase II Introduction by Guest Curator, Tiffany Bell

Serial production is a fundamental characteristic of Dan Flavin’s art. Not only did he make groups of works presented in a series, he had favored formats such as his "near-square cornered installations" and grid structures that he used throughout his career.  By changing the colors of the lamps in these structures, he made very different works. In Phase Two of  Dan Flavin: Constructed Light, the colors have been changed in some of the installations on view to highlight this aspect of Flavin's art and provide an alternative proposal for the integration of Flavin’s lights with Tadao Ando’s architecture.


Interviews

Flavin in St. Louis: An Interview with Emily Rauh Pulitzer, by Tiffany Bell

This telephone interview took place on January 7, 2008.

 

 

 

 

Tiffany Bell: It is an amazing coincidence – one that gives a sense of continuity to what we are doing now. What exactly was your position at the museum then?

 

 

 

 

TB: Do you remember how plans for the exhibition evolved?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: Did you typically include drawings in your exhibitions in St. Louis or was that Dan’s idea?

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: Did people respond positively to the drawings in St. Louis? I know that, in general, his drawings were not always so well received as they were at the recent retrospective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: So he was glad the museum was involved with the exhibition?

 

 

TB: In the catalogue you credit Dan with “consideration of the museum’s physical as well as human possibilities.” Is that to say he was thinking about what was possible in terms of manpower and electricity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: I thought your phrase might refer to his titles. He dedicated a lot of the work in that exhibition to people in St. Louis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: Was Dan involved in the production of the catalogue? I ask because there are a lot of seemingly autobiographical comments like, “His ‘(first session) early morning’ was intense,” or this was “the kind of quick collaborative problem solving he enjoys.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: You mentioned in the catalogue that there is an element of chance in his work – that he would make plans but he would take the results whether they were successful or not. I know people often ask whether he could predict how the colors of his lights would interact and if he understood how the works would look after they were finished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: To some extent this exhibition at the Pulitzer will be the same. We can safely assume certain things will happen, but there will be an element of surprise as we turn the lights on.

 

 

 

 

TB: What do you mean by that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: So you are saying that despite the abstract nature of Dan’s forms there were associative elements. That he made associations to color.

 

 

TB: To feelings, to things…

 

 

TB: I think that has something to do with the dedications, too.

 

 

 

TB: He would relate the colors to people. He made that particularly clear regarding the green and yellow work he dedicated to Jan and Ron Greenberg. He actually noted that Jan Greenberg wore green a lot.

 

 

Emily Rauh Pulitzer: The Flavin exhibition I organized at the Saint Louis Art Museum was exactly thirty-five years before this one at the Pulitzer.

 

 

 

 

ERP: I was the only full curator at the museum, and focused mostly on modern and contemporary art.

 

 

 

ERP: Dan came from New York to look at the space. It was the space the Saint Louis Art Museum still uses for temporary exhibitions, except now they frequently cut it up. Basically Dan left the architecture as it was. The central gallery, which then had a balcony around it and a skylight three stories up from the ground floor, was used to particular advantage. There he built zigzag walls, twelve feet high, with two-foot fixtures along the floor-wall juncture and circular fixtures along the top, facing the ceiling. The view from the balcony was indispensable. I don’t think he would have done that in a space without a view from above.

Looking at the catalogue again, I am fascinated to remember how he handled the entrance gallery. It provided a bridge between the light installations and his drawings (which were outside the special exhibition space, in Sculpture Hall) as well as a preview of the experience that was to be enlarged upon as the viewer moved into and through the exhibition.

 

 

 

ERP: Dan and I shared a deep interest in drawings. That I had been assistant curator of drawings at the Fogg Art Museum also motivated my interest. I felt that a selection of drawings would give visitors an insight into his thinking process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ERP: I think people expressed interest. The drawings provided an intimate experience, and the cases in which they were displayed formed a kind of sculptural presence in the space of Sculpture Hall. In the catalogue there is a comment by Charles Buckley, the director of the museum at that time, that I think is a beautiful description of Flavin’s work. He wrote that it had “a quiet elegance and inner reserve transcending but not concealing the mechanical means which made it possible.”

 

 

 

ERP: Yes.

 

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ERP: Like the Pulitzer, the Saint Louis Art Museum had never done a show that involved nothing but electric lights. The use of electricity, the building of walls that would hold electrical fixtures, the hiding of electrical cords – all of this was a new challenge.

 

 

 

ERP: It is interesting to note to whom he dedicated works. He spent a long time in St. Louis with many people to whom he did not dedicate anything. Some of these people were in a position to help him, but they never did. In some funny way he must have sensed that. The dedications seem to have gone to people he had a real sympathy with. For instance, he dedicated a work to my assistant, Lexie Bellos, who helped in the exhibition details and with whom he discussed many art issues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ERP: The idea of providing a text for each work probably came from my background at the Fogg, where catalogues were written in that way, but those comments are clearly his. He wrote some of the text and edited much of the rest. He was very particular about the use of language.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ERP: There had to be surprises in the realization of the work or it would have been too cut-and-dried, too mathematical for him. But based on the way he planned the relationship of the colors from one room to the next, he clearly had knowledge of what the experience would be like.

 

 

 

 

 

ERP: I think Dan also responded to the emotional qualities of different light combinations.

 

 

ERP: He made analogies to people and things. A work for Los Angeles used vulgar colors; another for “the ‘innovator’ of Wheeling Peachblow” related to Wheeling Peachblow glass. It is interesting but not surprising that he was interested in – even collected – glass considering how light carries the color of glass beyond its material form.

 

 

 

 

ERP: Yes, absolutely.

 

 

ERP: To people, yes.

 

 

 

ERP: Oh, very much so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ERP: I am fascinated by this subject, not least because he dedicated a corridor to me. As you know, it is made up of four whites. Not too many years ago, without remembering this, I bought one of Flavin’s corner pieces made up of cool white and warm white. Now I realize he had me pegged!

Matthias Waschek: If Dan Flavin’s work is defined by its installation in a specific space, are you creating Flavin’s work each time you install it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MW: What differentiates the Pulitzer installation from the retrospective exhibition that traveled from Washington to Fort Worth and Chicago three years ago?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MW: Do you have an advantage over future curators because you knew Flavin?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MW: So if a grid piece like untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3   were to stand on a pedestal, would this be wrong?

 

 

MW: Why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MW: What if we look at the question of installation in a larger art-historical context. If you take an Old Master like Leonardo da Vinci, there are also categories of involvement with architecture: there are site-specific works, such as the Last Supper in Milan, and there are works that could circulate, such as the Mona Lisa. I doubt Leonardo ever wanted the Mona Lisa to be seen in a glass case, as it now is, but most modern viewers do not feel the glass alienates them from Leonardo’s ideas. Would it be disastrous if some of Flavin’s art met a similar fate?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MW: Elsewhere, Tiffany, you said Flavin did not want seating facilities near his work because he wanted it to be experienced on the go – to be about being “in and out.” At the Pulitzer we are organizing concerts in the Main Gallery and the idea is that one’s experience of the work will change with the natural light. Is this in fact counter to the intent of Dan Flavin?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MW: What do you think Flavin’s legacy is?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MW: We haven’t yet said anything about the fact that the colors of the lamps will change during the course of the exhibition.

 

 

 

 

 

Tiffany Bell: Flavin made site-specific works, but I wouldn’t categorize any of his work at the Pulitzer as such. Some of the works can be installed in a variety of spaces so long as the installation follows a few guidelines established by Flavin: they have a kind of object-like integrity. I would call the others, made up of repeated modules, “site-situational”: the dimensions of the installation are a function of the given space.

 

Steve Morse: To answer your question even more directly, Matthias, I would say, no, we are not creating Flavin’s work at the Pulitzer. He created it. We understand the language and we are acting as translators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: The retrospective was meant to show the range of Flavin’s work from beginning to end. Each time the venue changed, we fitted a relatively fixed group of works into a different building. With the Pulitzer, we were invited to respond to the architecture.

As a result, I selected works based on a response to the building and then a desire to show some of Flavin’s range in approach to space and content. Flavin could do the spectacular, he could do empty, very colorful and not-so-colorful, quiet, loud, soft…

The first idea we agreed upon for the Pulitzer was that the building could use some circular lights, because the building is so rectilinear and because we had not been able to use many of Flavin’s circular works in the retrospective. Then the large Main Gallery seemed to call for untitled (to my dear bitch, Airily) 2 – a quiet, subtle intervention. In contrast to that you have untitled (to Stephen with gratitude aplenty), the installation that blocks the Cube Gallery. It really shows how aggressive Flavin’s work can be. You have the denial of this wonderful, almost perfect architecture.

There are works Flavin did that would look fine inside the Cube Gallery, but with a ceiling of twenty-plus feet they might seem a bit diminished. The refinement of Ando’s architecture complements aspects of Flavin’s art, but the scale of it is larger than he usually worked with.

 

SM: When we first visited the Pulitzer, we immediately noticed the building’s grand scale. One question was, how do we integrate the prefabricated materials that Flavin used? When I was his technician, at the very most we used fixtures measuring eight feet as our standard tool, in terms of dimensional progression. Even for him the challenge was often how to add the fixtures up to meet the demands of contemporary spaces.

 

TB: Flavin was offered some very large rooms for site-specific installations, but he never made portable works at the scale of the Main Gallery. So untitled (to my dear bitch, Airily) 2 was never installed on a wall that big. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that the installation is within the range permitted by the work. Sadly, Dan is not here to approve our choice or to respond to Ando’s architecture himself. This is where the curating must come in. I expect some people will question the installation of works here, but if you want to see Flavin’s art, you have to install the lights.

 

 

 

TB: I think so, because I worked with him and also because I have done years of research for the catalogue raisonné. I should add that there is a team which has been involved with the question of how to install Flavin’s work, including Steve Morse and Stephen Flavin, among others. We have revisited the history of the work in an effort to develop a consensus as to how it should be installed. A lot of it is fairly straightforward. There were set standards. The work goes on the floor, it has a set height… We have a lot of drawings and documentation. Of course, questions come up in the process of installation. Then we try to record what we do and why we do it. That’s one reason why this exhibition is really exciting: it is an opportunity to pose questions that have come up, test premises we have worked with, and to draw people into certain possibilities.

 

SM: Having known Flavin and worked with him, we heard what I always refer to as his “encryptic verbal schematism” – his way of stating the guidelines for placing his objects in very succinct phrases, which he repeated over and over. These are his rules as I know them. What we want to do is make them apparent to the public. It is not obvious to everybody that a work needs to, say, sit on the floor or touch a corner or be at a certain height.

 

 

 

 

SM: This would be wrong.

 

 

TB: There is no precedent for it. My understanding is that Flavin wanted his work to occupy the same space as the architecture. If it is on a pedestal, then it is removed from that space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SM: Flavin had concerns similar to those the Louvre has about the Mona Lisa – Is the work endangered by confinement? Is theft possible? Is vandalism possible? – but he always found solutions within the parameters we are talking about. As for the parallels you drew, just the luminosity – what Flavin would call “the effulgent quality” of the light spreading out – differentiates his work from painting in general.

 

TB: I think of the “icons” – the first series of work in which Flavin used fluorescent light. Flavin grew up as a religious man and he knew what icons were, but he exhibited his icons in a secular gallery and thought of them as having no religious content, only what he called “blank magic.” You might take that as a comment on the kind of change that takes place when you transfer an altarpiece from a church to a museum.

Will his work be similarly changed? Certainly the understanding of his art will change with time. But I hope we can establish some guidelines for how it can be installed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TB: My sense is that Flavin was not trying to provide an experience like you might have in the Rothko Chapel, where you sit and contemplate the works. That is not to say his work lacks complexity but that it can be perceived quickly. The challenge he wanted to pose was an immediate physical challenge.

 

SM: I think Dan’s concern was that if someone sits in front of the work for too long, he would start to interpret. From my understanding, Dan always tried to say that his work was free of content – that it is the light, it is the situation of the light, and nothing else.

 

 

 

 

TB: There have been other artists who have used light, but their work is not necessarily related except through the selection of the medium. My sense is that Flavin’s legacy has to do with the temporal nature of his work. It has an ephemeral quality. It is (as he implied, when he used the word “exposition” instead of “exhibition”) a proposal. It is not so resolute or absolute as marble sculpture or oil painting. A single structure can have different colors, the quality of the light is elusive and changes over time, and the materials are replaceable. On the other hand, he made permanent site-specific work. His œuvre was open and contradictory in many ways. So I guess the legacy is and will be multifaceted.

 

SM: This legacy question reminds me of a symposium at Columbia University about copyright issues, which I attended with Dan. A law student brought up an incident when an artist working with fluorescent light had said, “Flavin isn’t the only one who can make art with fluorescent light.” Flavin’s response was, “Well, originality is something.” And that’s all he would say. He knew that the audience knew the artist in question had faded into oblivion. So I would say Dan’s legacy has to do with a kind of simplicity, purity, and balance that other artists using fluorescent light exclusively have not approached.

 

 

 

 

 

TB: Flavin sometimes changed the colors of installations during an exhibition, so there is a precedent for this. I think the change shows the range of the work despite its material limitations – how much the colors can transform the space. It is also a matter of temporality and even relativity – you see how a single construction can be this or that.

 

SM: Basically, you are going to see another exhibition. Of course, the natural light will change the appearance of things, too – just as you said, Matthias. This was built into Flavin’s work. Sometimes people would ask Flavin, “What do you want to do about that change of color in the environment? How do you want the environment controlled?” His answer was a question: “What would I want to do that for?”

Acknowledgments

Copyright 2008 The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
All rights reserved.

Curated by Tiffany Bell

Edited by Matthias Waschek and Camran Mani

Production coordinated by Rachel Gagnon and Elise Hall

Dan Flavin works courtesy of Stephen Flavin
All works by Dan Flavin copyright Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Still photography copyright 2008 Robert Pettus

Illustration copyright Conceptual Design Studio

Time lapse photography copyright 2008 Jacquin Studio Photography

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