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‘The diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)’, Dan Flavin, 1963

Dan Flavin’s was once reputed a difficult art—a fact difficult to grasp retrospectively when it can be seen for its sheer beauty. Should we now try to recapture the old sense of obduracy and negation, or rather give ourselves over to the visual fascination exercised by Flavin’s bundles of light? Walking through the National Gallery, where Flavin’s retrospective premiered before moving on to Fort Worth, then an international tour set to continue through 2007, it’s easy to decide on the second course. The installation is ravishing, and the artist’s ever-increasing mastery of his chosen medium, white and coloured fluorescent light in real architectural space, becomes patent as one follows his progress: from the early ‘icons’ (Johnsian painted monochrome boxes mounted with fluorescent or, more often, incandescent bulbs) through the inaugural pure fluorescent piece, ‘the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)’—a eureka point in Flavin’s story comparable to, say, ‘Onement I’ (1948), in Barnett Newman’s, marking the moment of greatest conceivable reduction or contraction (the Kabalistic zimzum that gave its name to one of Newman’s sculptures) in which it momentarily seemed that ‘little artistic craft could be possible’ but from which all further creation would proceed. And then the polychromatic mixes with which Flavin began experimenting in 1964 but which really took off in richness and complexity around 1970, when Flavin made ‘untitled (to Barnett Newman to commemorate his simple problem, red, yellow, and blue)’. As shown by this corner construction with its vertical red and blue lights facing away from the open space and back toward the wall while the horizontal yellow fluorescent tubes face outward, the ‘simple’ combination of three primary colours as they interfuse in space becomes something almost ungraspable, and indeed escapes language altogether with resulting colour combinations no longer nameable red, yellow, or blue.

What this indicates is that difficulty remains secreted within the suave beauty of Flavin’s ‘propositions—an intellectual rather than an emotional difficulty, at least for the viewer. All the more curious, then, that it should have taken such an irascible character to produce this work. Although Flavin famously wrote of his material as ‘common light repeated effulgently across anybody’s wall’ and of his subject as ‘a neutral pleasure of seeing known to everyone’, he was in fact notably possessive, one might even say illiberally close-fisted about the notion of his art, compulsively but always eloquently ‘deflecting away from the methodological comprehension of his work,’ as Jack Burnham put it. Whereas most artists seem to believe that their work will unfold itself through time to reveal unforeseeable meaning, Flavin mused of leaving ‘a will and testament to declare everything void at my death … because only I know this work as it ought to be. All posthumous interpretations are less.’ Robert Morris, of course, had already made ‘Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal’ (1963) removing ‘all esthetic quality and content’ from a previous work of his but the result was the addition of a new work, not the subtraction of an existing one from what Arthur C. Danto was about to dub ‘the art world’—meaning, not the social milieu of artists, dealers, collectors, and so on, but the realm of things accepted at a given point in history as belonging to art. No more could Flavin have asserted the ultimate control over the artistic existence of his work by the supreme and sovereign act of disowning it, yet he needed to believe in such control in order to produce something fine enough to escape it. His art’s posthumous existence cannot be switched off like an electric light; despite all the situational uncertainties that surround the effort to represent the effects he sought, the work continues to shine forth, expansively.

Barry Schwabsky is an art critic and author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press) and Opera: Poems 1981-2002 (San Francisco: Meritage Press)