Monday, May 5, 2008

Dan Flavin - The 1964 Green Gallery Exhibition at Zwirner & Wirth [Review]

Noting the recent proliferation of galleries restaging entire, earlier exhibitions in their spaces (highlighted by Karen Bookatz in Art Critical, among others), it’s tempting to suggest that some form of collective historical crisis is motivating the phenomenon. Indeed, with the threat of an art market collapse seemingly eminent and the concomitant fear that some of the excesses of the past decade will be wiped away very much present in the minds of many, there’s a clear comfort in retreating into the past.

In Zwirner & Wirth’s replication of Dan Flavin’s 1964 Green Gallery show, one encounters everything necessary for such a project to be effective: a familiar name, acclaimed and accessible work, and a landmark event. It was here that Flavin abandoned paint to work solely with industrial lights for the first time, establishing the iconic brand that would define the rest of his career. Coming at a time when, as R. C. Baker puts it, “Gotham [was] both on edge and brilliantly edgy,” the Vietnam War and Andy Warhol in their ascendancy, the exhibition, for Flavin’s minimalist allies, then, was also a significant register of change.

Many Flavins that have become trademarks are here: the 45 degree-tilted Malevich-made-electric Diagonal of May 25, 1963, the effervescently pink Untitled (to Jasper Johns) glowing in the corner, and my favorite, The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham), composed, in sequence of sets of one, two, and three shining white lights. But there are also revelatory details: drawings by Flavin that show him working out the arrangements of the colors for Primary Picture and the works inside the gallery (configurations he would later change after seeing the pieces in the space).

Architecture, design, and art were being put effortlessly and instantly together. Shown all together, their power cords stretching along the walls and floor into visible outlets, Flavin’s works look a little less pure, a little more sexy than they tend to when sitting pristinely-installed inside museums.

Historical recreations (at least in the art world) are by their very nature triumphalist affairs. They applaud coherent narratives and, in a sense, function as kitsch, simulating for the viewer the experience of encountering genuinely revolutionary art. Entering the gallery, we already know we’re supposed to enjoy the work. Encountering Flavin’s pieces at the very start of a cloudy evening on the Upper East Side, though, as the warm color from the sculptures stretched further into the gallery’s shadows, one couldn’t help but ratify that judgment, even while hoping that some of the confidence and risk on display would spill over into the present.