Dan Flavin: colored fluorescent light | David Zwirner

The handsome townhouse’s windows were glowing with warm pink light. A warm and welcome sight as I approached the David Zwirner gallery up Hay Hill on a gloomy afternoon in early February, the dark already setting in.

Warmth isn’t a feeling commonly associated with Dan Flavin, who wore his various intellectual inspirations heavily even by the standards of his fellow macho midcentury Minimals. But you can’t knock the fact that his central artistic innovation - using light as his material - was both radical and influential. Every one of today’s tacky ‘immersive’ Insta-friendly exhibitions that use ‘neon light’ can thank Flavin for every single repost and online like.

Dan Flavin - ‘colored fluorescent light’ (installation view)

This show recreates two landmark 1976 exhibitions Flavin staged in New York and Cologne. Arranged across two floors, it features about a dozen commercially available fluorescent light fixtures, bolted to the wall and switched on. Flavin deliberately limited his palette to six shades - white, red, blue, green, pink, ultraviolet; this time, as I’ve mentioned, pink predominates.

Previously, I’ve only ever encountered Flavin’s work in museums’ permanent collections, mixed in with other Minimals, jukebox-style. Now that I’ve got him alone, I was struck by the churchy, worshipful atmosphere cast by his simple industrial readymades, when they’re grouped together without any other artists in the mix.

The gallery was pretty crowded - perhaps the others were attracted by the pink glow from the outside, like I was. We all, bathed in pink light, attempted to photograph the unphotographable on our phones.

Using humble materials to achieve something ineffably grand is a common trick from the mid-20th century: for example, it was successfully performed by Antoni Tápies, who I featured on here recently and also has a show running currently at Timothy Taylor, down the hill.

But there’s something unique about these light sculptures, so pretty, so eerie, so hard to capture. And I liked them so much better than Tápies’ rather lugubrious arrangements of layers of sand and wood.

While Flavin himself eventually rejected gallery shows in favour of site specific installations (including, appropriately enough, in churches), there’s also something genius in the replicability of his big idea. All you need is a new light fixture in one of the pre-ordained colours and arrangements, get them on the wall and boom - it’s 1976 again. They’re all on sale, of course, in editions of five.

As the artist himself once said: “I know now that I can reiterate any part of my fluorescent light system as adequate. Elements of parts of that system simply alter in situation installation. They lack the look of history.

“It is as though my system synonymizes its past, present, and future states without incurring a loss of relevance.”

And, after all, a viewer from any time will look at a pink light glowing out of a window on a gloomy day and think, how lovely.

Dan Flavin: colored fluorescent light is at David Zwirner (London). 12 January - 18 February 2023