Published  31/08/2001

Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin

Serpentine Gallery, London,
through 23 September 2001.

Dan Flavin’s work is exemplary. Of what?
Yet, he preferred to call his works simply ‘proposals’, rather than sculptures. This indicated, above all, a willingness to communicate an idea, even to negotiate, with both the past, the present location for work, and the viewer. In all that, Flavin’s career proved exemplary. He died in 1996 while at the height of his career, yet still, seemingly, young. Posterity has lent greater meaning to Flavin’s oeuvre, and we can begin to see how history, of which he had always been somewhat conscious for referencing ideas, may view him in years to come.

For example, Flavin liked to refer to the texts of the l4th century monk-philosopher William of Ockham, (‘no more entities should be referred to than are necessary’, said William.) In ‘The Nominal Three’ (l963–64) Flavin dedicates the series of one, two and three equally spaced-out, vertical light tubes, to the monk. There have been subsequent dedications; to Henry Matisse, to a Mrs Reppin (her survival), to Flavin Starbuck Judd, to Piet Mondrian who lacked green, to Jan and Ron Greenberg, and others. Looking back now at the Serpentine over 30 years of ‘proposals’, and more, one is reminded not so much now of the originality of the medium, as of its historical quality of resonance. The fluorescent light tube is also obsolescent by its very nature – but never, one trusts, actually obsolete – obsolescent in the way it dies out flickering, like a candle in the wind.

By night too, Flavin’s work should be independent of its location, defining its own limits. And yet, the best examples seem always to complement the room corridor, or entire building that they illuminate so positively, yet so fleetingly, in the end. In Giuseppe Panza’s collection at Varese (Villa Litta), Flavin’s ‘Varese Corridor’ was memorable, 1974, illuminating a long, vaulted corridor from horizontal strips fixed midpoint: a perfect complement to his friend Don Judd’s own sublime ‘Varese Window’, looking out to the pine foliage. At the Serpentine Gallery, by contrast, the long, trellis-like array of regular tubular squares, ‘untitled (to you Heiner with admiration and affection)’, l973, perfectly complements the long gallery there, with its floor-to-ceiling, astragal framed windows. Looking in from Hyde Park (always a two-way bonus at the Serpentine) one is also dramatically aware of ‘greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green)’, 1966. Here, Flavin assumed the mantle of revising modernism, punning the primary coloured inherited dogma of early moderns, introducing green, as of nature. Likewise too, from inside the gallery, the leafy tree canopies of the park seem mysteriously to be washed in an enigmatic pink; landscape turned synthetic by conversion. So do worlds unite – and Dan Flavin stands the undoubted master of the big proposal.

The Serpentine Gallery, in 2001, has had its best year ever it seems. One can now step outside to the cool splendour of Daniel Libeskind’s café-pavilion. Here too – in parenthesis – the denial of ‘postmodernism’ as having any lasting relevance other than as a diverting interval can be found. Both Flavin and Libeskind will stand in history as modern masters, of a modernism that is constantly revising, and evolving from the 20th century through the 21st. Could Tate Modern not now acquire the ‘temporary’ Libeskind pavilion, and locate it permanently in the Turbine Hall? That truly would be a meeting point; a superb antechapel to the cathedral of art. Why? Why not? Well, it is only a ‘proposal’.

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