Straight-talking minimalism in Dan Flavin show
April 25, 2016

‘It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else’ – Flavin’s iconic fluorescent light works at Ikon Gallery offer an immersion in a spiritual sense of space

Since the early 1960s, Dan Flavin’s work has consistently enacted a conflict between material qualities and conceptual meaning. Ikon Gallery’s new show It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else, playfully titled after a characteristically no-nonsense statement by Flavin, presents sixteen works from three decades of Flavin’s work. The pieces selected for the show are brought together to engage with the problem of artistic meaning that its provocative title raises, asking whether can art just exist without having to mean anything in particular.

As the 1950s got underway, Flavin and artists like Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd, began to break away from the prevailing personal gestures and subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, minimalism was ‘about’ the denial of transcendence, the symbolic and the sublime. Inspired by the readymade, Flavin looked to prefabricated rather than hand-crafted materials. He discovered his signature fluorescent bulb in 1963. The bulbs were manufactured in lengths of 2, 4, 6 and 8 feet, and in ten colours: red, pink, blue, green, yellow, four whites, and ultraviolet. This basic form could be repeated and reconfigured in infinitely varied ways.


Even as the Minimalist label took hold, Flavin swore it off, going so far as to identify himself as a “maximalist”. Undoubtedly his work is more than just light and materials; he was site-specifically ‘sculpting the space.’ The gallery became a de facto studio in which he used fluorescent light to respond to its architectural settings. The first and earliest work shown at Ikon gallery is a single pink fluorescent tube fixed vertically in the corner. Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns) (1963) could be identified as a readymade more easily than later work, in which multiple fluorescent tubes form single works. It is what it is, but the effect on the space of the soft pink glow brings it into the realms of sculpture and installation.


Undoubtedly his work is more than just light and materials; he was site-specifically ‘sculpting the space.’ 


Untitled (to Dorothy and Ray Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room) (1968) is a telling instance of a work that responds both directly to a space and to an unseen external source: a Lichtenstein painting, I Can See The Whole Room!...and There’s Nobody in it! (1961). Eleven vertical bars block off a doorway, while their unseen fluorescent tubes shine cool white light into the empty room. This is more like an installation, but one that physically excludes the viewer. Throughout the exhibition, the fluorescent tubes themselves are as often obscured as visible, lighting into the walls rather than beaming into our eyes. This is another way in which Flavin’s work is what it isn’t: sometimes what is important can’t be directly apprehended at all.


The largest single work is Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 (1977). Pink, yellow, blue and green fluorescent lights cross to make a 6x6 grid arranged like a gigantic trivet. Yellows and reds at its front while green and blues from an unseen source on the back light the two walls of the corner to give it visual depth. There are only two works that employ diagonal as well as the predominant horizontal and vertical tubes. One of these is Untitled (to Cy Twombly)(1972). A ‘cool white’ eight foot tube stretches horizontally forming a triangle with the corner. Facing the wall, behind it and tilted diagonally a second tube lights the wall behind it. Each is like a shadow of the other. In the alternate diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Donald Judd) (1964) four short red tubes and one long yellow one resemble a light saber in action. Diagonals give an active quality that makes this piece feel out of place among the more austere works.


This is another way in which Flavin’s work is what it isn’t: sometimes what is important can’t be directly apprehended at all.


The four parts of Untitled (to Barnett Newman) (1971) bathe the fifth gallery space in a soft purple glow; with the arched roof, it feels like you’re in a chapel. The next gallery is more like a church. The large room is split into three by the arches of the roof. The four large vertical works from the Monuments for V. Tatlin(selected from 1964-67) are patterned symmetrically (two with perfect symmetry and two rotational) and fill the space with pure cool white light. These memorials have a spiritual suggestiveness that reminds us that Flavin originally trained for the priesthood.


Set off from the rest of the gallery, the Tower Room is an arch-shaped annexe that fills with natural light. You can see outside to the square, which is lined with cherry trees in blossom. The Tower Room is tinted by the fluorescence of untitled (1968), a vertical work with two red and two green tubes, but the work feels drowned out by the abundant natural light. Here the space and the work have an uneasy relationship. A little boy comes in and shivers. “Eurgh, this gives me the creeps!” he says, leaving immediately. Looking at the works at Ikon, there is a certain eeriness, a dissonance between the bright fluorescent colours, and the factory-made materials, and the way they transform a space and affect you as a participant.


How it affects you is an important part of what it ‘means’. Creepy to some, eerily peaceful to others. It’s an odd feeling that communes with the aseptic glow of fluorescent tubes. This is work that doesn’t give you a whole lot back to work with emotionally, even though pieces such as the Monuments clearly hold some profound inspirations. Perhaps for meaning we should be content with what we ourselves bring to it.


Dan Flavin, 'It is what it is and it ain't nothing else' is on show at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, from 13th April to 26th June.