Don’t come see this show hungover. Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light installations – or ‘situations’, as the late American minimalist called them – are real eye-melters. They sting the pupils and singe the sensitive brain. And they’re totally inescapable: you can’t look away like you would with a painting; the light they pulse out fills and dominates the whole room. It’s his big trick: he reconfigures space not with physical objects, but with light, changes the dimensions and feel of a room with just red, pink, blue, green, yellow and four shades of white.
The works here are a recreation of two 1976 exhibitions in New York and Cologne, sourced from the same kind of commercially available fluorescent lighting Flavin used back then (which means you can just pop to Homebase and make your own Dan Flavin if you fancy). Four long pink tubes fill the first room, each accompanied by a smaller coloured sibling of yellow, blue or green. It hurts to get too close, it’s just too bright, so the room is halved, like there’s a laser barrier keeping you away.
Much more bearable is the ‘situation’ of mainly white light in the next room, a softer, more welcoming world, a bit like someone’s put an office ceiling on display.
Upstairs, it all goes pink again, and another wall shimmers with blue. It hints at seedy nightclub neons, at mediation rooms and tanning booths. It’s great, overwhelming, gorgeous, and just as smart now as it was in the 1970s.
Flavin wanted to totally remove the artist’s hand, using commercially available, industrially made materials as a reaction against the mega-popular, overtly gestural, ultra-emotional work of the abstract expressionists that was so popular. Flavin – and the other minimalists – were kicking back, rebelling as hard as possible against the dominant art of their day. That’s the context for back then, but it’s not hugely relatable in 2023, and, if anything, just holds you away from the work.
So forget it, it doesn’t matter. Because Flavin’s art is still good, and that’s because it still physically affects you. It still assaults and punishes you, or soothes and placates you, it’s still sensory, still immersive, still beautiful, still brutally modern, almost 50 years on.