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Gallery puts on 'light show'

Artist's work in fluorescent light tubes all aglow

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., samples of Dan Flavin's art created with ordinary fluorescent light tubes are on display.
At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., samples of Dan Flavin's art created with ordinary fluorescent light tubes are on display.
Rob Shelly, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Instead of canvas and paint, Dan Flavin created art with fluorescent light tubes, a technique that made him an important figure in the experimental art world of the later 20th century.

The National Gallery of Art is showing the first U.S. retrospective of his career, comprising 48 objects and installations, 110 drawings and a variety of sketches and constructions. Flavin died in 1996.

One piece, called "Icon 1," consists of a square roughly 2-by-2 feet, painted a uniform red, with a red fluorescent tube mounted along the top. Its title: "(the heart) (to the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone)."

McGovern worked with Flavin when the artist had a job as a guard in New York's American Museum of Natural History. In a later autobiographical sketch, Flavin wrote that his own uniform pockets were always crammed with notes on using lights as art — a project he was then mulling over. Told he wasn't being paid to be an artist, he quit.

The National Gallery installed a much larger object than "Icon 1" in early September, well before the official opening of the show on Sunday in the modernistic East Building. The work looks like a fence, four feet high and 120 feet long, made of straight fluorescent tubes. They shine with a bright green glow that can be seen all over the building's central atrium and — through a glass wall — on Pennsylvania Avenue outside.

The intense light has a special effect that surprised Flavin: after gazing at it for a while, the onlooker who turns away discerns a rosy tint on everything within view for a minute or so, until natural vision returns.

"There's a physiological explanation," said Jeffrey Weiss, the show's curator. "But I don't know what it is. Flavin wasn't interested in it either, but he exploited it in other work later — like a painter mixing colors."

Flavin gave the fence piece no title but dedicated it to a friend, Heiner Friedrich, an art dealer in Munich. People working with it sometimes refer to it as "the green barrier."

Flavin was interested in art at an early age. His mother reported what he later called a "vivid, if naive, record" of hurricane damage on Long Island, drawn when he was 5. He recorded that by age 10 he had filled a cardboard box with hundreds of drawings on the horrors of World War II.

After military service in Korea, Flavin returned to New York and took courses with the idea of becoming an art historian to support his artistic ambitions.

His first show at a New York gallery in 1961 consisted of "constructions and water colors." There were no electric light works in it, and Weiss said he believed none of the work sold.

It was another three years before he had a show of art made with electric lights, and then there were two shows in the same year. In 1976 there were eight one-man exhibits of his work, from Portland, Ore., to Cologne, Germany.

Critics call Flavin a "minimalist," not a fashionable style today but still praised for its innovations. His work has remained prized. One 12-foot piece using fluorescent light brought $679,500 at a New York auction last May.

"Dan Flavin A Retrospective" will be on view through Jan. 9, 2005. Admission is free.