The Space of Light

At lunch yesterday I walked over to the MCA and zipped through the Dan Flavin Retrospective currently on view until October 30. The same show was on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth when I was down there for a wedding a couple months ago. Housed in a Tadao Ando design, the exhibition was a delight, breaking out of the typical "white box" galleries of many modern art museums to interact with the ground floor reflecting pool and the concrete walls so prevalent in Ando's architecture.

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So walking on over to the MCA, I couldn't help but anticipate how Flavin's multitude of fluorescent tubes would work in their new location, and not in a good way. It seemed like his pieces gained something in the unique spaces and textures of Fort Worth, but I was wrong. The colored glow of the tubes is not only amplified by the MCA's plethora of white walls but it is used to full effect by the museum in the placement of the pieces and the location of the exhibit's temporary walls.

The retrospective is housed in the museum's top floor, typically accessed by an elliptical stair located at the northwest corner. Before arrival at this floor, one senses the soft glow of the colored tubes, fading away ever-so-softly from its source. The small gallery atop the stairs houses Flavin's beginnings into what became an obsession for the rest of his life, his "icons". These first pieces seem crude in comparison, but nevertheless they are extremely important in the artist's development.

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The strongest presence at the top of the stairs is the green glow of the piece above, this time located in front of the MCA's bank of windows above its monumental stairs and plaza. This location makes for a striking view from the plaza and the park across the street, especially at night (makes me wonder if they "leave the lights on" after close).

Without going into details about the remaining parts of the exhibition, the white walls of the museum become canvases for Flavin's icons. Sometimes it's merely a corner that reflects the glow of a hidden, colored tube. Sometimes whole walls are bathed in blues, reds, yellows. The best situations come as one moves from room to room, slowly gaining a read on what's to come. The MCA sells a couple books to accompany the show, though his is an art that must be experienced to both understand and appreciate. And from my experience the more one can see his work in various places, the more one sees how his light shapes space and alters our experience of it.


  1. I never really appreciated the Light Artists until I experienced James Turrell's Atlan, at the time being exhibited in Koln.

    I was a little surprised to find a review of the piece with just a quick google. It's a little hard to describe, so I'll save some time and quote here: Surprising in its simplicity, "Atlan" is a work that plays on viewers' sense perceptions. Entering a dimly lit room, viewers find what seems to be a deep blue rectangle or monochrome painting on the far wall. As one's eyes adjust to the darkened room, the blue appears to swell in color. Compelling for the way in which the color is evenly and luminously distributed, the viewer is drawn closer to the work for a detailed inspection. Inviting exploration, a surprise is in store for anyone who dares to reach out and touch the work. What at first appears to be a solid rectangle or drawing on the wall is actually an open window onto an empty, light-filled room.

    It was a completely unreal experience. As I approached what i thought was a large scale painting hanging alone in the room, I was overcome by a disorienting dizziness that I could not understand. Not until I was inches from the piece did I realize it was an opening into another room. A room whose space is quie difficult to discern upon first glance. It is impossible to express to confusion I felt as I walked towards the installation. Truly amazing. An experience I'll never forget, and one that will forever remind me of the power of light and space.

  2. I saw the same - or similar - artwork by Turrell in Frankfurt many years ago. A couple turns down a dark corridor brought one to the space with the barely discernable rectangle on the opposite wall. Unfortunately the security guy who followed us rushed the experience by taking us over to the opening and showing us the effects of the black light. Regardless, it was something I'll never forget.

    Since then I've seen a couple more of his gallery installations, both at a small Chelsea NYC location. One was a room you could walk in after strapping on booties, though I don't recall the actual lighting. The other escapes me now. Obviously they didn't have the same effect on me as the earlier one, but I owe that to the fact it was packed and a bit loud, especially being right off the street. I think his installations are more suitable for quiet contemplation and meditation, or at least they can have that sort of effect on somebody.

    Interesting thing is that his skyspaces are like Atlan, though natural instead of artificial. The blues of the sky also swelling in color. I don't think he's recreating this in the gallery installations, he's moreso exhibiting the consistencies of light in nature and our perception of it, be it natural or artificial.


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