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Dan Flavin: A Retrospective At the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, until 2 April

In a 1966 Artforum article, Robert Smithson described Dan Flavin as making 'instant monuments', precisely summarising a dichotomy at the centre of his work and this exhibition.

Following his artistic 'epiphany', in placing an 8ft yellow fluorescent light on the wall of his studio, Flavin concentrated on pieces constructed through the interplay of these standardised fittings, right up to his death in 1996. But, despite their ephemeral and elementary nature, he was also concerned with contextual relationships, referring to his work as situational rather than installation art and describing pieces as structural proposals - a position affirmed in his permanent exhibit at Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation.

Entering the first space of the Hayward, the leaden winter light is blasted away in an intense, green luminescence, which fades only slightly as your eyes adjust. The single work, untitled ( for you Heiner, with admiration and affection), is one of Flavin's 'barrier'pieces. Overlaid 4 x 4ft modular units obliquely traverse the space, denying movement across it. This feels less a disruption than a recalibration. The lights capture the glass balustrade of the now inaccessible ramp beyond, their reflections measuring length and angle of inclination.

The concrete shuttering of the staircase is thrown into shadowed relief, its rhythms and the diameters of its gridded boltholes echoing the forms and scales that the work establishes.

In subsequent areas, however, the pieces converse less with the building. A room devoted to the early 'icons' is followed by spaces that reassemble elements of seminal exhibitions, and one devoted to Flavin's most extensive series, 'monuments' for V Tatlin. The critic Tiffany Bell suggests that, although Flavin delegated fabrication to others, he never relinquished control over representation and relationship.

The artist's absence perhaps makes such historical retrospection inevitable.

The works themselves have lost none of their power.

Moving from the starkly iconographic 'monuments' to the sublime effects of pieces such as untitled (to Jamie Lee), their austerity and explicit manner of construction engage you at once, and are then transcended in delicate colour shifts and transformations.

But the control of the artist is occasionally missed. A display of drawings conveys Flavin's concentrated relationship with the architecture he worked within. This graph-paper clarity is not always present in the exhibition. Unlike most contemporary galleries, the Hayward offers a strong formal presence in its materiality and also in the ever-present structure of its floors and ceilings, which one imagines Flavin fully appreciating. Without him, misalignments relative to these background 'orderings' occasionally appear.

This is particularly apparent in the placement of four crossed walls, from a 1972 exhibition at Rice University, Houston. The marginal offset of their symmetry, relative to the rhythms of floor and ceiling, becomes visually intrusive.

If this is an oversight, it nonetheless exposes a curatorial dilemma, between historical exactness and contextual adjustment. Flavin, perhaps, offers a judgement on this, in the variable heights and lengths of room-scale works.

Fittingly, the final piece, untitled (in memory of my father D Nicholas Flavin), reaffirms these situational characteristics in a series of 1ft-diameter circular tubes, which 'measure' the gallery wall.

Criticism aside, this is a joyful exhibition, which refutes Flavin's description of 'dim monuments of on-and-off art'.

re-emerged into the daylight of the South Bank with residual images on my retina and a smile on my face.

Daniel Rosbottom is a director of DRDH Architects and teaches at London Metropolitan University

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