Ikon Gallery in Birmingham is presenting a major exhibition of Dan Flavin’s (1933-1996) fluorescent light works. Flavin was one of the most important post-war American artists who stated; “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else” as a departure point, Ikon’s exhibition explores Flavin’s straightforward rejection of illusionism whilst asserting the importance of the context of artistic experience over art for art’s sake. The exhibition capitalises on the variety of interiors that Ikon Gallery has to offer, and is informed by Flavin’s refreshing “situational” approach to making and thinking about art.
Working from his statement “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else” as a departure point, Ikon’s exhibition exemplifies Flavin’s emphasis on the importance of the context of artistic experience, capitalising on the variety of interiors that Ikon Gallery has to offer.
After studying at Columbia University in the late 1950s, Flavin became acquainted with other emerging American artists whose work contrasted to Abstract Expressionism, including Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman and Donald Judd. He was especially close to the latter – both sharing an interest in artworks that refer to nothing but their factual presence, with an emphasis on industrial materials and intense colour – and significantly he dedicated a number of works to Judd.
One of the earliest works in the exhibition is alternate diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd), made shortly after Flavin centred his entire artistic practice on the use of fluorescent light. The bright red and yellow are Judd-like, likewise the fluorescent lamp combinations of white, pink, red, yellow, blue and green in untitled (to Don Judd, colorist) 1–6 (1987). These standard colours are as beguiling as they are industrial and ordinary, together bathing the exhibition space in pale radiant light.
Flavin dedicated many of his works to friends, family and colleagues. At the heart of Ikon’s exhibition is untitled (to Barnett Newman) one, two, three and four (all 1971), an installation that frames the corners of the room and alludes to the older artist’s celebrated series of four paintings, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. The work conveys both Newman’s disdain for the picturesque in art and Flavin’s interest in architectural environments.
Flavin’s characteristic emphasis on interior corners is shown in pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns) (1963), an 8’ lamp between two walls, that eradicates darkness from the extremity of the room to the point of obliterating any proper perception of it. Flavin was very aware of the traditional placement of religious icons in corners, like the Russian Constructivist Kazimir Malevich, known for his black squares, but instead he made icons of light, with what he referred to as “blank magic”.
The work of another Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin, made a lasting impression with his insistence on “real materials in real space”. Flavin’s Tatlin “monuments” are combinations of 8’, 6’, 4’ and 2’ white fluorescent lamps, suggesting architectural structures through modernist abstraction and a dash of ironic humour; as he explained, “These ‘monuments’ only survive as long as the light system is useful” and they can easily be turned on and off. Their temporariness is poignant given the impractical nature of Tatlin’s utopianism. The final room in Ikon’s exhibition is devoted to Flavin’s Tatlin “monuments”, reiterating the integration of Flavin’s work with the environment it occupies.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, including an essay by Jeffrey Weiss, Senior Curator, Guggenheim Museum New York, and installation photographs of the exhibition. Visit Ikon’s online shop for the full range of Ikon’s catalogues and limited editions.
Photo: Courtesy of Ikon Via Twitter