By Chris Nineham
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Turn on the Light

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
Review of Dan Flavin, Hayward Gallery, London
Issue 304

At first Dan Flavin’s art feels like pure pleasure. Flavin became famous in the 1960s by working almost exclusively with fluorescent light tubes of various colours. It is extraordinary how his careful positioning of these fingers of light transforms spaces and influences moods.

People wandering about this exhibition look genuinely exhilarated. I can’t remember ever seeing children so transfixed at an exhibition – they explore the magically lit spaces with wonder in their eyes.

But Flavin was also a radical. One room of installations is dedicated to the Russian revolutionary artist Vladimir Tatlin. The works are clever improvisations based on the theme of the Tatlin tower, the artist’s unbuilt monument to the Russian Revolution. Another installation commemorates the anti-war students who were killed by state troopers at Kent State University in 1970.

Flavin discovered his calling in 1963 when he placed a fluorescent tube diagonally on his studio wall. The strange effect produced by turning something so functional into a decoration in its own right struck him immediately. He pursued the discovery and all its permutations single-mindedly for 30 years.

Surprisingly the results are engrossing. Flavin’s work is precise. Each installation is designed to produce washes of carefully calibrated colour that immerse everything in sight. The variations of rhythm and colour are intoxicating. Their precision communicates something of the optimism and confidence of the 1960s, but Flavin’s work also suggests the decade’s spirit of subversion. That something so everyday can be made to produce such beauty is a reproach to the kind of design that we have to put up with most of our lives.

Like a lot of 1960s art, Flavin’s work sometimes strays close to high class interior design. But it is mostly more intense than that. Flavin developed a visual poetry from the most unpromising material, and in the process he encouraged fantasies about how the world might be transformed.

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