Lighting Mechanics

Dan Flavin makes the comment in the Tiffany Bell interview, “…if I keep the fluorescent light media-mindedness, then that’s what’s really going on…  It’s such a restrictive medium, as I’ve said before, that I’ve developed an appreciation for it.  But then again, I may simply be lazy and conservative overall.”  His work is so specific to the fluorescent source.  He’s taking a very “everyday” lamp but using it with color or at specific diagonals to play with our perception and perspective in a space.

Optical response

Color is a huge part of Flavin’s work.  By juxtaposing pink and green or blue and yellow, he makes the opposite color appear more saturated.  There are also pieces that work to mix 4 colors into a white (like at the Menil Collection), and other pieces that very carefully separate them into discreet spaces so that they seem to create volumes of color (like the corridors in Marfa).


Flavin seems to have a nonchalant attitude towards himself as an artist (see quote above).  He works from his “history,” or as he calls it, his “residue.” (Tiffany Bell interview)  When Phyllis Tuchman presses about if he had anticipated certain effects happening in his installations (like how the yellow and green would mix at the John Weber Gallery or how the colors would change at the Guggenheim depending on if you were inside or outside the alcove), Flavin replies as if he hadn’t, as if so much of it is incidental.  I feel as if he operates on an intuitive level.   He wants to work with the ordinary light bulb, which lends a module and a system to his work. (“Posthumously” article)   He works well in this system, but he definitely doesn’t seem as precise and exacting as Robert Irwin in his execution or his attention to the evolution of his work or himself.

Emotional Response

The colors and angles in Flavin’s work can cause some of his spaces to be dreamlike.  I find the Marfa corridors especially overwhelming because they contain their color so well.  They make for a very saturated environment who’s angles greatly contribute to heightening your awareness of being in a special place.  This is not the case for all his work though – some of it is extremely “everyday” and is not trying to transport the viewer by any means.

Records and Representations

As he gets older, Flavin reports having less and less ambition to make drawings of his concepts.   He doesn’t compile iterations.  He says he is too “lazy” and “impatient.”  The drawings in the “Posthumously” article show how simple his line drawings are as representations: there is no attempt to really render light, only the basic form of the sources and space.

Seeing is Forgetting…

The way Irwin’s work was received by critics in New York versus in Los Angeles in the 1968 exhibits of his discs revealed how important context is to the viewing of art.  Preconceived notions can completely affect how the art is viewed.  At the Jewish Museum in LA, Irwin spent time “neutralizing the exhibition spaces,” or making them pristine to eliminate as many distractions from the viewing experience as possible.  He “meticulously repainted the walls, cleared the floors, squared the corners,” and so forth.  Yet when he did the same things at Pace Gallery in New York, it was perceived as “abrasive, fetishistic…indeed in itself a distraction to any calm viewing of the pieces.”  The difference in responses was fascinating to Irwin, and it proved to him that the art object can not transcend the context it is presented in, even if the context is the art itself, as Irwin was creating entire spaces.  People bring their own perceptions.  He found this to be true at his MoMA room too, when a teenager with no knowledge of his work seemed to understand it better than his highly educated art friends.

His room at the MoMA in 1970 is considered one of the two decisive breaks of his midcareer.  I’m completely enthralled by how the book builds it up as “three major gestures” in the space.  Yet they are insanely subtle.  He changed the fluorescents in the skylight cavities as alternating color temperatures.  Juxtaposed, they called out the color differences between them more pronounced than if separate: they appeared to alternate as pink and green lights.  He hung a partial ceiling scrim which is hard to focus on,, and divided the room into two volumes of light.  He also stretched a piano wire across one end that he painted at it’s ends, so it was barely perceptible against the back white wall.  All of these gestures are so daring to me – their subtlety seems so incredibly risky.  And sure enough, a lot of artists were disturbed by it because they didn’t get it.

Irwin also seems unbelievable audacious to me in the way he got rid of his studio to leave all of his research and habits behind and develop a new way of thinking and working.  He had the courage to drive out into the desert – literally out into the unknown – and trust that it would eventually come to him.  It would take an artist of his sensitivity to find what he was looking for – the “presence” spots out in those isolated places.  What did these feel like?

After that experience, he tried to engage in dialogue with people all over the country, offering to talk and work at universities and museums for free.  He knew that this dialogue was the antithesis of what he was really interested in: unmediated perception.  But he realized his questions were becoming so abstract and ethereal that he needed to engage in the world in order to offer anything back to it, rather than getting lost in the metaphysical questions bouncing around in his head.

Jim Campbell

Jim Campbell did a few installations in Madison Square Park two winters ago.  “Subway Voices” (above) was made up of light panels on the ground that reflected the sounds of the subway – voices and the incoming rumble of the train were faintly heard but understood and emphasized through interpretations in light.  “Scattered Light” (below) is a three dimensional field of light that made a low resolution image when viewed from one angle, that then distorted and became nothing but twinkling lights as one walked around it.


MIT’s 150th Festival

MIT celebrated their 150th Anniversary last year with a lot of interactive light installations.  Above, “Maxwell’s Dream” by Kaustuv De Biswas and Daniel Rosenberg was made up of magnetic handles that visitors played with, manipulating the magnetic field and corresponding light sources behind it.  Below, Meejin Yoon created “Light Drift,” where sensors detected people interacting with the glowing orbs on land and consequently communicated and changed the glowing orbs floating out in the Charles River, allowing people to see the effect of their play.