A pilgrimage to light
DAN FLAVIN INSTITUTE
Rarely discussed in the photography world, artist Dan Flavin did not wait for good light, he created it. His minimalist light installations combine elements of architecture, sculpture, and early technology. While photographers spend most of their lives chasing light, Flavin turned the tables on art when he took on light, not just as the subject of his work, but as the medium.
The Strip Light
Who in their right mind would step away from the office to visit a gallery filled with fluorescent lights? It’s madness. Strip lighting is known as the cheapest, legal way to light everything from airplane hangers to Walmart. The greenish white lights are two steps shy of waterboarding and have been known to induce depression and suicidal thoughts in the minds of millions of office workers around the globe. They should be the antithesis of art, so why would Dan Flavin choose them as his medium?
Does not play well with others
Artists are not known for being team players. They are a temperamental lot, often fiercely independent, and highly critical of each other. Art history is filled with challenging figures. The saving grace is that many of the masters lived generations apart, because if they were all seated at the same dinner table, it might erupt into an all out war. And while Flavin’s docile light installations might seem to be the closest interpretation of “American Zen,” these quiet pieces do not play well with others.
Why is that the case?
Think back to the last time you were at a museum…as you walked from gallery to gallery, admiring the paintings of Goya, Velasquez, Rembrandt, and even modern painters like Pollack, De Kooning and Ellsworth Kelly, did you notice how they all hang very nicely together? They come in different sizes, but they all look good with similar lighting. One of the finest examples of a mixed collection to be found is at the Frick Museum here in New York. In less than 100 meters, you can look at early Renaissance Bellini, turn the corner and see a 19th Century Ingres. In spite of the tempers of these long dead artists, their work gets along nicely…but this is not the case with Flavin. His makes different requirements on the architecture and to the viewer.
Darkness over light
A repeated mantra in photography is “I want to find good light.” This deceptive idea really speaks to finding good shadows and a touch of darkness. Light on its own is of little value with out some darkness to balance the effect. The permanent installation of Flavin’s work, in Bridgehampton New York, allows the viewer to see his work in a light where almost any other painting or sculpture would fail. Flavin was aware that his work needed a dedicated space with little outside light, so he bought an old church to house his sculptures. It allowed him to control the environment and create the ideal space for absorbing his installations.
Describing Flavin’s work in text is like trying explain the feeling of scuba diving to someone who has never seen the ocean. No pile of adjectives will capture the sensation, which is why a trip to Dia is absolutely recommended. But while the experience is something we must do for ourselves, the reflection on his work reveals an unique approach to art making that seems to be lost on photographers. The environment where our work is shown is almost as important as the work itself.
His work defies photography. It silently rewards anyone who makes the pilgrimage and teases those who only look at his work in print. Every book on Flavin is different. The way a camera sees is neither as consistent, nor as dynamic as the human eye. A camera takes one aspect and freezes it into a single viewpoint. But Flavin’s work is three dimensional. It causes your eyes to shift as one color meets the next. There are no pure colors and the human brain plays catch up as yellow lights give way to green. The collective installation completely unsettles the way our brains and eyes work.
Many artists talk about “bringing awareness” to the table. They want us to notice things that interest them. But do people like being led? Rarely. Flavin, on the other hand, created an environment where we are invited to a realm of exploration. Each carefully designed space, lighting set up, and color palette was chosen because it changes how we see. The installations change how we see color, how we determine forms, and how to deal with space…nothing is as it seems in Flavin’s world…as Jacque Cousteau would also discover.
The Cousteau Experiment
In the 1970’s, diver Jacques Cousteau made an observation when he cut his hand underwater. In the absence of sunlight, we bleed green. The ocean filters out the red light waves, leaving green, blue and ultimately black as we descend into the abyss. When Cousteau looked down and saw green blood he was shocked and delighted. It was a visual discovery about how we see. He became aware that the colors we see in the ocean are enormously affected by the light that touches them.
The majority of Flavin’s work, and certainly the installation in Bridgehampton seems to focus on this idea. The sculptures spill light on the surrounding architecture. One of Flavin’s goals was to use light to dissolve the walls of a building. It has another effect which touches the viewer, just like Cousteau. Our flesh morphs from jaundice yellow to midnight blue. We are a moving palette that reacts with Flavin’s work. Each piece throws a color cast that silently shifts everything it touches. And as we step out of his work and back into reality, we must patiently wait for the ghost images to fade from our eyes.
The Morality of Gray
Any painter can tell you that color is relative. As much as engineers would love to create a perfectly neutral grey, white, black…they will never exist. It is why I’ve nearly given up using gray cards and software color balance. Our world is a complex field of shifting colors and once we let go of the fixed gray, the world becomes a much richer place. The world of Flavin has infinitely more to offer a viewer than a gray card could hope to achieve. Maybe analogous to life, color is always on the move. It offers us a visual coordinate that will lead us down a path of exploration, but it makes no promises about where we will end up. Along the way, we will have to make decisions on how we see and examine why we see things differently than the next person. But if one of the roles of art is to bring awareness to who we are and what we do, than it should all be a welcome challenge.
To visit the Dan Flavin Institute: http://www.diaart.org/sites/main/danflavinartinstitute
And I would like to thank Cadillac for providing our ATS Coupe for the excursion and to the homeless guy who stopped us and said “You look mack daddy in your big blue Caddy” Nothing like random NYC Street encounters.