Dan Flavin: Installation Artist

I finally get it. It’s amazing when something becomes so clear after I had thought that I had it all figured out.  I have never been a fan of Dan Flavin’s work. Despise would have been an accurate description of my feeling towards the work.  At least until this show.  To me it was always fluorescent light art. Who cares about fluorescent lights propped up in a corner, or colored lights hanging on the wall. He used commercially-available fluorescent lamps, which to me had little artistic merit. You see those lights everywhere, and growing up, the quality of light they gave was a poor attempt at lighting, given the terrible hue they emitted in libraries, office buildings, and shopping malls. They always made one look deathly ill. It has never been flattering.

But the recent show at David Zwirner Gallery opened my eyes to a whole new Flavin. The Flavin I see now, is not a sculptor but an installation artist.  His work is not about the object, it’s about the environment.  It isn’t about the lighting fixture, or the bulb. It’s about the light. How it bounces off the wall, or what happens when two colors comingle and combine into another, brighter light.

To those who haven’t studied color the way we do as artists and designers, here’s a crash course. When combining colors in pigment (i.e., paint), the colors change in ways that we expect. Red and blue turn purple, yellow and blue turn green.  The more colors you add, the darker, and muddier the colors become. Eventually, if you add enough pigments, you end up with black. But things work very differently with light. It works almost in the opposite way. As more colored light is added, they combine to make white.

This is especially apparent if you are a print designer. For a little more than 2 decades, designers have been doing their work on computer screens. Because the final output is print, the colors you see on screen are almost never the colors that end up in print. Print designers have had to rely on colored paper swatches to ensure they get the colors they are expecting.  It’s worse than designing in the dark, because in the dark you only have your imagination. Instead, your ideas are competing with what you see on screen. You have to learn that what you see is not what you get.

Technically the color gamuts of light vs pigment are not the same. They are like a Venn diagram—two overlapping shapes where there are areas which do not intersect. You can get much richer, more nuanced hues in light. It’s a wider color gamut. In print, especially 4-color CMYK process, the color gamut is small, and not very nuanced. The mixed pigments get muddy very quickly. It’s almost impossible to get a rich, bright orange in print, for instance, by combining inks.

To some, probably to many, who have seen Dan Flavin’s work have thought of it in the way that I used to see it. Ugly fixtures that have bad associations. But the art isn’t about the fixture, it’s about the space. The way the show was installed—very large rooms, empty except for the light—made the difference. The fixtures shrank, and sometimes almost dropped away. The glow of the rooms from the street, or the glow peering around the corner from one room, while experiencing the glow from another, made the experience poetic.

The contrast between the uncolored light installation and those that were multicolored, forced one to think about the information that the eye is receiving. One of the reasons why my impression of Dan Flavin’s work changed is due to how much technology has changed in the past few decades. Fluorescent lights come in so many different shades now. There is daylight fluorescent, bright white, cool white. The unpleasant associations that once existed—studying for hours with your head buzzing from the flicker, or trying to shop for clothing, but looking in the mirror and seeing a jaundiced figure staring back—they could not be easily dismissed. Today’s lights are so accurately developed, the colors so nuanced, and the fixtures in the public arena has been replaced with more appropriate daylight bulbs, so I can finally see past the functional use of fluorescents, and I think of the medium as emotionally neutral. Minimal.

1 Comment

    I, too, have always struggled to understand fluorescent light art..however, you’re comments have “shed some light” on the subject and it all makes sense! As you stated, it’s all about the feeling in the environment, not the object itself. Thanks for this post!
    If you have the time, check out our blog. We are always looking for inspirational things like this to post.

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