Dan Flavin

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What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week: Dan Flavin

No matter what you think of the work of the American Minimalist Dan Flavin, a pristine exhibition of early efforts titled "in daylight or cool white," is worth seeing. His signature fluorescent-tube sculptures are rarely as impeccably selected or installed as they are here. The gallery’s spaces seem made for them, meaning that the show illustrates both Minimal art’s utter dependency on but also its glorification of the "white cube," Brian O’Doherty’s well-known term for the unblemished exhibition space that became an increasingly essential framing device for so much art after 1960. Zwirner, which represents the estate of the artist, who was born in 1933 and died in 1996, fully complies with Flavin’s demanding installation protocols: The outlets and cords for these plug-in pieces must be completely invisible.

The total unity of the space, the sculptures and the light they emit (there is no other lighting in the show) is, as intended, a bit awe-inspiring. The exhibition is also indirectly dispiriting, since probably no American museum can give Flavin’s work the space and care, as here, to make it so convincing to the neophyte.

The 10 pieces on view date from 1963 to ’72; as the show’s title implies, all use one or both of the most generic shades General Electric produces: the warmish Daylight and the relatively clinical Cool White. The lack of color underscores how shocking these works once were.

Without disguising themselves as hardware store items, the tubes argue, in different arrangements, for their effect as art. They also indicate how carefully Flavin used their every aspect—the fluorescent tubes, their spreading glow and their white enamel base elements (which face outward or in, making the light more mysterious), as well available architecture, especially corners, which three of the works occupy. In "untitled (to Cy Twombly) 2" of 1972, a tube of Cool White and one of Daylight, cross each other and a corner evoking Russian Constructivism. The show culminates in a gallery that contains three works from a series of "monuments" dedicated to Vladimir Tatlin, one of the most prominent Constructivists. The display feels at once like a chapel and an Art Deco dance floor. Doing the best with the least so overtly and seductively, Flavin is the most magical and emblematic of the Minimalists.

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