Last December I found myself on an almost deserted train travelling the Long Island Railroad from New York to Montauk (a place familiar to me only as the bleak seaside resort Jim Carrey runs off to in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’) on route to Bridgehampton’s Dan Flavin Art Institute. This trip marked the culmination of somewhat of a pre-Christmas Dan Flavin art binge. The previous week I had seen the red and white wall-length sculpture at Donald Judd’s New York house, a work impressive in its size and length but that seemed rather rickety and precarious in its domestic installation. Several days following this, a train winding through mountains and forests transported me to Flavin’s rather more professionally installed works at Dia:Beacon. I wasn’t sure, then, what to expect from Bridgehampton’s Dan Flavin Art Institute – the grandly titled Dia outpost and tiny renovated firehouse cum church with a touch of charming but sinister Amityville Horror about it.
I reflect on all of this as I stand on the third floor of Dan Flavin’s solo exhibition ‘It is what it is and nothing else’ at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. The first thing I notice is the vaulted ceilings and suddenly I am right back in Bridgehampton, viewing Flavin’s work under the slightly more intimate roof curves of The Institute’s small permanent collection, a museum conceived by Flavin himself as a unified installation of his fluorescent tube works. I hadn’t noticed the ceilings, or indeed paid much attention to the architecture at Ikon for any show before, but this time the Ikon building lends a somewhat cosy and domestic vibe to Flavin’s work, which I enjoy far more than some of the often starker forms of presentation in larger institutions. Indeed pairing, or starting a conversation, between Flavin’s work and Ikon’s former school house building, is central to the exhibition’s design - as the exhibition blurb states: “This exhibition is not a didactic museum show, but rather an exercise of matching a judicious selection of Flavin’s work with the variety of interiors that Ikon Gallery has to offer.”
I begin my visit in Gallery 7 (I can never resist Martin Creed’s ‘Singing Lift’, so always seem to start on the third floor at Ikon) with ‘untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room)’ from 1968. This rarely shown work refers to Lichtenstein’s painting ‘I Can See the Whole Room! …and There’s Nobody in it!’ (1961), in which a man peeks out from a black hole in the canvas to the viewer. In Flavin’s work, a false wall has been created, splitting the gallery. White fluorescent bars are installed within a large gap in the wall so the viewer can peer into this newly created space but is prevented from entering. The bands of white light, suggestive of a force field or electrical barrier, create an illusion of not being able to get too close.
Corners of the gallery are used within the exhibition to create juxtapositions of light works and new light filled spaces created behind them. Gallery 5 displays four works sited in the corners of the room, the floor, walls and ceilings bathed in purple blue light. An ode to another fellow artist, these are all part of a series ‘untitled (to Barnett Newman)’ from 1971 and reference, of course, Newman’s four famous paintings ‘Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue’ (1966-1970). They mimic, through light, Newman’s ideas of moving to the edge of a canvas in order to understand a painting. Flavin goes one step further as the viewer is placed in the centre of these illuminated edges and is therefore physically contained within them.
Framed in the doorway of this play on Newman is the iconic ‘“monument” for V. Tatlin’ (1964), the simple Empire State of cool white light. This work leads the audience into a room of monuments for Tatlin, four of a collection of thirty-nine Flavin completed during his career. These works are always beautiful in their simplicity but I like Flavin in colour and for this, head to the first floor galleries for his later works.
On this level we find light works dedicated to the likes of Jasper Johns, Harold Joachim, Sandy Calder and Donald (Don) Judd. The first gallery is bathed in a blush pink light emitting from a single eight ft. fluorescent tube, which really demonstrates Flavin’s ability to totally change an environment or space by using minimal intervention. As you emerge again into the whiteness of the next gallery it feels as if you have been exhaled from an internal organ or marked somehow, with the pink light still upon you. Here, the hash brown-like waffle of ‘untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3’ (1977) is situated in a corner. This coloured criss-cross of bars creates a new but inaccessible green space within the gallery and faces the very simple streaks of lightening that are ‘alternate diagonals of March 2’, 1964 (to Don Judd)’ from 1964 and ‘untitled (in memory of “Sandy” Calder) V’ from 1977. The light in here remains pink but as you look back to the previous gallery, its pink light has now turned blood red.
Gallery 3 houses the largest and latest Flavin work in the exhibition, ‘untitled (to Don Judd, colorist) 1-5’ (1987). Five T-shaped combinations of coloured light - vertical bands of red, blue, green, orange and white, topped with cool horizontal layers of white - line the internal wall, placed close enough together that the emanating colours combine to create dreamy hues.
Finally, a work that I initially found the most disappointing and ended up later finding the most intriguing is located in the Towner Room, a tiny space that looks out from the Ikon building onto the public space of Oozells Square. In ‘Untitled’ (1968), two 10 ft. red and green fluorescent tubes are mounted right near the door facing the windows. Deceptively, the work has little to contribute to the interior space during daylight. However, this particularly ghoulish green Flavin is to be experienced after dark, and that is when things become more interesting. Instead of inwardly creating new architectural spaces within the gallery, this work creates a new dialogue with the space outside and nudges at the potential power of suggestion and association accorded to colour and light both inside the mediated gallery space and in the city at night.