A prime archetypal example of Flavin's unique artistic language, Untitled (to Henri Matisse) concisely communicates the complexity of readymade art. The artist only uses commercial, readily available fluorescent lights which come with limited formats, a finite palette and a pre-determined parameter of brightness; as in true Minimalist fashion, the presence of the artist’s hand is erased. Yet reductive limitation in his materials constitutes precisely the source of Flavin’s creativity. Colors, for example, behave very differently in fluorescent lighting as opposed to a painted pigment surface. In his essay for the 2005 retrospective of Flavin’s work, Michael Govan wrote in regard to the present work, “in light, green is not only a primary color, but the addition of more colors produces white, whereas the result in paint would be black. Flavin’s 1964 light dedicated to the great modern colorist, Henri Matisse, consists of Flavin’s ‘primary colors’ of pink, yellow, blue and green in 8-foot tubes close together in one vertical four-bulb fixture. It presents bright pastel colors directly to the viewer, but ….the Matisse work creates an overall white light made by the four colors blending nearly into a full spectrum.” (Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art (and travelling), Dan Flavin: A Retrospective, 2005, p. 59) In other words, Flavin’s creative process lies not only in arranging lamps of varying lengths and colors within a given space, but also in engineering the optical chromatic appearance of his sculptures, thus enhancing the work’s status as art.
Furthermore, the precisely arranged industrial standard lamps challenge their physical object status by emitting an unbounded, splendid luminosity. Fittingly, both the space the work occupies and its beholder are inescapably encompassed and transformed. From the Renaissance painter’s depictions of Christ and his acolytes to the Impressionists’ haystacks and lily ponds, the evolving depiction of light has always been central to Western art history. Rather than recording an object’s reactions to natural light like the Impressionists, Flavin creates works using light itself: a cool, purified yet dramatic industrial urban glow, unconcerned with the vagaries of natural light. Perhaps Flavin’s project is closer to that of the Abstract Expressionists than most would think: similar to Mark Rothko’s “color field” or Barnett Newman’s “zip” that creates the illusion of light, Flavin’s work is a literal three-dimensional exposition of light itself – at once ineffable and concrete.
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