Paradox is an inherent quality in early Minimalism, which has caused some to dismiss it as nothing but a short quirk in the history of art. The Pop artists left a much wider and deeper impression on popular culture of the 1960s, with their residue still being felt today. Even among social and economic art-world circles of the period, the Minimalists were quickly replaced by a new stable of young artists dubbed — ad-hoc, of course — the Post-Minimalists. This loose group of artists, born out of a shared need to question the nature of what art is and can be, were now, suddenly, the very old guard they had left in their dust.
The quickly changing face of the artistic avant-garde was not a new idea, though, and in the speed the original Minimalists produced their work — in the gallery and on the page — we can see that they understood this notion. They were not the first group of artists who rejected those who came before them. The only problem being, because the work thrived on rejecting not just the art of the past, but any kind of critical reading or analysis, they were often brushed off as a joke (as when David Bourdon, in the Village Voice, commented sarcastically on the aesthetic superiority of a light fixture store window display over Dan Flavin’s latest show) or as simply confusing. The result was that the artists involved felt the need to speak up for their own work in a way, in volume and intelligence, that was above anything in the past. The Minimalists had no Clement Greenberg to create their world. They had to do it themselves.
Or not. Famously, Donald Judd did most of the talking (and writing), while others, including Dan Flavin, kept quiet (for the most part). And part of what makes Flavin’s work more interesting now than that of his contemporaries is that he seemed to enjoy this openness that his work embodies. Although some critics did champion, and try to jump on the train, of minimalism (such as Barbara Rose), they never became full-fledged flag wavers. Locating what was interesting about this new art was nearly impossible, most of all because all of it was so different. Categorizing these artists as a group, toward an attempt to better understand them and the ideas they were pursuing, seems to have been the first mistake. Judd, through his critical writings, was making a case for his own art and not necessarily doing any favors for other artists (although he sometimes used the work of his friends in an attempt to relate his work to some larger modernist force). Flavin was not so bold. Instead of making grand statements rejecting the grand statements of the Abstract Expressionists (as Judd did), the work, as cliché as it sounds, was able to speak for itself.
After many years, with an art world quickly turning back toward the old masters in a bid to reclaim some of the lost audience of the recession, Flavin’s work still speaks. Series and Progressions, a show of some of Flavin’s best fluorescent work, at David Zwirner, elegantly plays to his strengths. A key to this work is open space, which it desperately needs, deserves, and is given here in three separate gallery spaces stretched across 19th street. In the first, we are treated to two primary series and one secondary, the most typical work of Flavin’s in the exhibition, which features stand-alone fluorescent works, pointing straight up at the sky. Both rooms feature multiple variations on the same theme, using different combinations and configurations of color and position. These rooms dispel a common myth of Flavin’s work: Amid the seeming randomness of tubes, the way the colored lights blend into each other, sometimes even stretching into the next room, placement and position are carefully planned. This is precise work — move it an inch, and the whole thing can take on a different meaning.
Making your way toward the next gallery, stuck in the middle, is “the nominal three (to William of Ockham)” (1963), one of the artist’s more well-known works that is, unfortunately, easily overlooked here. Many people obliviously walk through, mistaking the daylight fluorescent for the normal lighting of the gallery. The attention paid to the work in the first gallery is sadly missing here, the way it is thrown in what is essentially a hallway between the two main spaces at Zwirner.
The largest, shocking, and most effective piece exhibited is “untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with respect and affection)” (1974), a literal fence that stretches across one of the bigger rooms, blocking off a huge section of the space from the spectator. It’s confrontational in a direct way, though paradoxical in that it draws you in with its endless grid of fluorescent tubs, bathing you in soft blue light. This push and pull is essential not just to Flavin’s work, but to all minimal art. While aesthetically beautiful (primary colors; clear, direct lines) the work is also distancing in that it has no trace of the author. The artist’s role is unclear in the work, which can be dumbfounding for a viewer, and difficult to comprehend. But it’s a mistake to immediately assume that the work is emotionless because of this. Lacking an easy way into the work (as if there needs to be a way in), the viewer is left to simply deal with the beauty of the object and light. Flavin’s fluorescent sculptures reject the metaphysical analysis of so much other art, and leave you, purely, with what is simply there. It may be easier to explain as an art of experience rather than an art of understanding.
The final installation, located in a separate gallery apart from the main rooms, features the large-scale alternating pink and “gold,” a breathtaking display that encompasses the entire room. Unfortunately, the room is not adequately blocked of light from outdoors and resembles a mildew-laden garage, causing the work to feel more depressing than it ought to. A disappointment, and a real testament to the way Flavin ’s work relies so heavily on its context to aesthetically please.
DAVID ZWIRNER GALLERY, NEW YORK
525 West 19th Street
November 5 – December 19