By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
When Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb in 1879, he had no clue that one day it would become a medium for art. Indeed, he probably couldn’t have conceived of it; when listing 10 ways his new phonograph would improve the world, he ranked “reproduction of music” fourth, behind dictation, audiobooks and teaching elocution. It took almost 100 years for an artist to come along who truly grasped the potential of artificial light. The date of Dan Flavin’s revelation appears in the title of the work that arose from it, the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi). It was a single, 8-foot-long yellow fluorescent tube, placed at a 45-degree angle with one end in contact with the floor.
Flavin, a former guard at the Museum of Modern Art who studied to be an art historian in the late 1950s, did something that was both novel and rooted in art-historical tradition. His diagonal glowed with a golden radiance that called to mind medieval icons, and it pushed Marcel Duchamp’s “readymade,” the notion of repurposing mass-market objects as art, in a new direction. The dedication honors Brancusi for his 1938 cast-iron sculpture, Endless Column, which appears to exceed its physical boundaries in the same way that light spills beyond the confines of the fixture. Flavin was also inspired by Luminism, a style of painting associated with the Hudson River School that sought to capture a soft light emanating from outside the picture frame. He was fascinated by its landscapes and, according to Philippe Vergne, director of the Dia Art Foundation, which includes the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, N.Y., Flavin acquired several drawings hoping to show them alongside his own works. Flavin saw the light, and it was electric. He committed himself to fluorescent tubes exclusively for the rest of his career. “You cannot think about the use of artificial light without thinking of Dan Flavin,” says Vergne. “He identified a way to work that didn’t exist before he started to work.”
Flavin’s reputation hasn’t dimmed since his death in 1996, but Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, Iván Navarro, Keith Sonnier and other artists have explored the electrical medium with spectacular results. None of them works solely with artificial light, and only Navarro favors fluorescent tubes; Nauman and Sonnier prefer neon and Holzer likes light-emitting diode (LED) displays that are driven by computer software. Most revel in artificial light’s ability to escape the confines of the gallery walls; Holzer, in particular, designed a ribbon of text that hugged the curves of the interior of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The physical realities of caring for these artworks pose different challenges than those of paintings, drawings and sculpture. Plug-in masterpieces depend on parts that break, burn out and sometimes disappear from the marketplace entirely, and they run on electricity, which costs money and lacks a universal standard, as any gadget-laden world traveler knows.
With the earliest Flavin fluorescents approaching their fifth decade, the question of how best to maintain them grows urgent. Flavin insisted on employing commonly available tubes and fixtures, but today, the products that made up his palette are not so common and are becoming less so. “We’re in a transitional phase,” says Francesca Esmay, who curates Flavin works at Dia. “From my perspective, the first step is documenting what exists so there’s a reference point to measure against in the future.”
Steve Morse, conservator and exhibition coordinator at the Dan Flavin Studio in New York, says that while some varieties of the “lamps,” or fluorescent tubes, are scarcer, his discussions with suppliers and other experts give him confidence that the T12, the 1.5-inch diameter tube Flavin used for artworks in the United States (he used European fixtures for European commissions), will be around for at least another 50 years. But though Flavin’s palette included four shades of white, and he could distinguish the shine of a yellow tube from Sylvania from that of a yellow tube from General Electric, he avoided shackling his vision to his materials. Morse recalls restoring a 1964 Flavin for a museum that insisted on having the discarded original parts returned to be archived. “I tried to discourage them,” he says. “It’s not about the purity of the fixture’s inner workings. The fixtures themselves are not the artwork. The artwork is in the concept, and the fixtures are the physical manifestation of the concept.” Morse adds that Flavin formally described his sculptures as composed of “fluorescent light” rather than “fluorescent fixtures” for this reason—to place the emphasis where it belonged.
Since 2000 Morse has looked to a workshop in Connecticut to assemble some of the tubes. “As far as the fixtures are concerned, it’s more important that they function well than be original,” he says. He has discussed with Stephen Flavin, the artist’s son, the theoretical need to someday start a glass-blowing and fabrication facility to support Flavin’s sculptures, and both have dismissed it. “This is not your standard conservation issue,” Morse says. “Keeping the spirit of the work intact is vital. Material for the work must be found in the field as much as possible.”
Navarro acknowledges his debt to Flavin but uses artificial light to other ends. The artist grew up in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, and only learned the full extent of its horrors after moving to the United States. In Navarro’s hands fluorescent tubes are literal instruments of enlightenment, illuminating difficult truths. Nowhere Man, his recent show at Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris, drew some of its strength from a characteristic of the lights themselves. He translated 14 iconographic images of athletes, designed for the 1972 Olympics, into white fluorescent tubes to explore the notion of what is considered ideal—Olympic ideals, industrial ideals and the ideals codified by the golden mean, a mathematical formula for determining physical beauty that Leonardo da Vinci embraced. Navarro discovered that the dimensions of standard fluorescent tubes allowed him to assemble the athletes’ bodies in a way that reflected the golden mean.
Galerie Daniel Templon equips everyone who spends $30,000–40,000 on a Nowhere Man sculpture with a scale diagram that shows how to arrange the pieces to form the image of the athlete, a certificate on the artist’s letterhead and two boxes of replacement tubes. Anne-Claudie Coric, director of the gallery, says that long-term planning for Nowhere Man—what to do if the tubes are discontinued or the manufacturer goes out of business—has not yet been determined: “Until we reach that point, it’s difficult to judge.” She adds, however, that Navarro’s general attitude toward his materials matches Flavin’s. “He’s not at all into fetishism of the actual fluorescent tubes. What counts is the lights.”
Sonnier says he was initially attracted to neon in the late 1960s because it gave him the ability to “draw in space.” Though he has explored many media before and since, neon has retained its hold on his attention; it appears in several of the abstract pieces he is preparing for a January exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York.
“I tried using other forms of light, but I’m not as drawn to it,” he says. He likes the fact that neon, which is produced by fashioning glass tubes and filling them with gases that will glow when electrified, isn’t a mass-market product. “Neon is still an artisan craft, as opposed to fluorescents, where they’ve stopped making some of the tubes. With neon, it’s custom-made.” Sonnier has handled many large architectural projects, such as Tears for St. Francis, a 2002 installation of swooping curlicues for a Catholic church in Austria, and Route Zenith (1998), a 30- by 49-foot grid in arresting primary colors made for the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., but he says the January show will “go back to very early ideas of my neon work, combining it with cloth and very low-tech materials.”
Sonnier’s works have proven fairly resilient. Staff at the Mary Boone Gallery and at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, which staged its first one-man Sonnier show in 1970, say they have not fielded any requests from clients seeking repairs or restoration, but the artist recalls an instance that occurred about 15 years ago. “Someone donated one to MoMA that was very badly damaged,” he says. “They wanted it in the collection, and I wanted it in the collection, so it was remade.”
For Holzer, artificial light is just one of several vehicles for her text-based art. Since beginning her career in the late 1970s, she has used t-shirts, posters, stickers, stone benches, copper signage and the electronic sign outside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to communicate a range of messages—some political or feminist, others mysterious and unsettling. Her Truisms series featured the phrases “Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” “Murder has its sexual side” and “Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest.” Holzer’s LED works have garnered the most attention. Merrick Ketcham, director of graphic production at Sunrise Systems, an LED company in Pembroke, Mass., has worked with the artist since 1989, programming the software that generates the text on the electronic displays. “Jenny is great about finding cool places to exhibit,” he says. “We work from there.”
Ketcham often has the opportunity to spend hours or days testing and assessing the sign after it has been built and installed, and his observations and technical suggestions can inform the work. Speaking of Laments, a 1989–90 exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation in New York that featured 13 sarcophagi and 13 vertical LED signs displaying the thoughts of several (fictional) people just prior to their deaths, Ketcham recalled, “Some of the texts were shorter, but they all started at once. Gradually, one by one, they’d wink out. Then it’s dead black. I put a randomized wait at the end of any run (text display cycle), so you don’t know if you’re standing in the dark for five seconds or 15 seconds. So there’s suspense. You think, ‘Maybe one broke?’ Then they all go off. It raises the hair on the back of your neck.”
LED technology has changed a lot over the years—Ketcham arrived at Sunrise in 1984, before its signs were computerized—but aspects of Holzer’s LED sculptures are surprisingly robust. Diodes don’t require filaments, which makes them less prone to burning out, and they can blaze for as many as 100,000 hours without trouble, in contrast to commercial bulbs and tubes, which have working-hour life spans in the low five-digit range. (Neons are between the two, lasting roughly 50,000 hours.) “For conceptual art, these are incredibly stable,” says Adam Sheffer, a partner at Cheim & Read in New York, which has represented Holzer since 1997. “It’s probably easier to fix a problem on a Holzer than a torn canvas. You can repair a torn canvas, but it’s forever a torn canvas. With a Holzer, just tune it up and it keeps going. There’s no diminishment in value.”
This is not to imply that Holzers never need restoration. Ketcham recalls a project involving an ailing piece made by a defunct company. Sunrise replicated it and destroyed the earlier version, scrupulously recording its demise. “It’s acceptable as long as the original sign is junk,” he says. “But you have to document that it’s destroyed, so that the replacement becomes art.”
Bruce Nauman also turns words into light, but he does so with neon rather than LEDs. Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens, his installation for the United States pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, incorporated three sites and surveyed four decades of his work, including The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), a 1967 neon that renders the title phrase as a spiral in blue and red. Nauman received the 2009 Golden Lion for best national participation at the Venice Biennale, becoming the first to win the award for America since 1990, when Holzer got it.
Original neons did not appear in Topological Gardens; instead, exhibition copies were commissioned to suit the display sites. Jacob Fishman, founder and CEO of Lightwriters Neon in Northbrook, Ill., created the templates for the copies and fashioned some of the smaller ones. He started working with Nauman in 1984 and estimates he has fabricated close to 100 neons, originals and copies, including two he has remade as many as 10 times apiece.
The copies must be destroyed after an exhibition closes, and their demise must be recorded as photographs or video. The Topological Gardens neons will suffer this fate, with one exception: Carlos Basualdo, Keith L. and Katherine Sachs curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says the museum has asked to keep the copy of The True Artist for its own exhibition needs, and Nauman agreed. Fishman is of two minds about seeing his handiwork shattered. “No one likes to destroy something nice,” he says, “But it’s wonderful for me because I get to make the item again. It’s like that chip commercial—crunch ‘em up, we’ll make more.”
Fishman has repaired his share of neons but cannot take responsibility for one particular tweak. He encountered a Nauman that had been restored with argon, a gas that produces cool colors, instead of neon, which yields warmer hues. The tube radiated green instead of its original pink. Fishman says he alerted the Nauman studio about the rogue piece, whose owner he declines to name. “They thought that was funny,” he says. “If something changed enough that it was a completely different word, that might have upset them, but with this particular one, they were amused.”
Haphazard restorations are hardly the largest problems that come with transforming artificial light into an artistic tool. From a visual standpoint, artificial light is akin to shouting; any artist who dares to work with it had better do something compelling, which explains why so few succeed and even fewer excel. Living with artworks that are light sources unto themselves is another question entirely. Most dealers insist that integrating them into a home setting isn’t a problem, technically or aesthetically, but Barbara Castelli, director of the Leo Castelli Gallery, acknowledges that some collectors deliberately avoid them. “It’s really a matter of taste,” she says, and mentions an encounter at a Sonnier show the gallery held earlier this year. She recalls a collector who attended telling her, “I really want a Keith Sonnier, but I don’t want a piece with light. If I turn it on, it will change the atmosphere of my house.”
Artworks made of artificial light do possess the power to change the atmosphere, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fishman remembers setting up Nauman’s 1983 word-based neon Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art sometime in 2001 to test the recently conserved piece before returning it to public display. Several museum staffers gravitated toward the multicolored flashing artwork, talking about it and analyzing it. “It was almost as if people were gathering around a fireplace,” he says. “People tend to congregate around it and get a comfort value from it, it’s got that quality to it. People were drawn to it as insects are drawn to the light. I think that’s a positive.”
Bruce Nauman: Drawings for Neons
Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York
Through Dec. 16
Dan Flavin, Series and Progressions
David Zwirner, New York
Through Dec. 23
Fondation Beyeler, Basel
Through Jan. 24, 2010
Keith Sonnier: New Works
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Jan. 10–Feb. 6, 2010
The Dan Flavin Art Institute, Dia Art Foundation, Bridgehampton, N.Y.
Dan Flavin Studio, New York
The Estate of Dan Flavin, David Zwirner, New York
Jenny Holzer, Cheim & Read, New York
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Lightwriters Neon, Northbrook, Ill.
Bruce Nauman, Sperone Westwater, New York
Iván Navarro, Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Keith Sonnier, Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Sunrise Systems, Pembroke, Mass.