Dan Flavin: A Retrospective Yale University Press, 2004. £30
Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights, 1961-1996 Yale University Press, 2004. £85
Like his friend Donald Judd, Dan Flavin made art out of everyday commercial/industrial materials - in his case, fluorescent light tubes, writes Andrew Mead. Like Judd, too, he disliked being labelled a Minimalist, but the label has stuck. Moreover, both artists rejected the idea that there was a metaphysical or spiritual dimension to their work - Flavin spoke instead of 'keenly recognised decoration' - but critics have persisted in finding it.
It's easy to see why Flavin has become a source for such lighting designers as Speirs and Major (AJ 29.10.98). He made a 30-year career out of fluorescent tubes, but was remarkably resourceful in the ways that he deployed them: the different configurations of individual pieces; their placement (wall, floor, corner, corridor, etc) and the intervals between them; the combinations of colour. Like Judd yet again, Flavin's art was at its very best when he installed it himself in a particular architectural setting - the properties at Bridgehampton, Long Island, for instance, which the Dia Foundation maintains. His installation in Wright's Guggenheim Museum in 1992 was a rare occasion there when the contents weren't at odds with the building.
Flavin devotees will want The Complete Lights, with its catalogue of some 700 works, but it's really just a deluxe version of the much cheaper volume - the companion to a Flavin restrospective which is at Ando's Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art until 5 June, and then in Chicago from 1 July to 30 October. The essays, the dominant illustrations, the informative interviews with Flavin, are the same in both.
Some of the full-page (digitally enhanced? ) colour photographs are stunning - but misleading too. The main problem is that they put so exact a frame around works that have no such thing. Just as there are no precise boundaries between the different colours that the pieces cast (they merge), so the cast colour gradually fades to invisibility at quite a distance from the work itself. The effects are particlarly subtle when Flavin deals with natural as well as artificial light, and few viewers would concur on the point at which colour disappears. It becomes a vague, elusive emanation: one reason, probably, why people find these pieces 'spiritual', and a source of ambiguity that enriches Flavin's art.