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Christmas Lights by Dan Flavin

Ah, Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C., when most of those pesky temporary residents (yes, him included) are gone and few tourists darken our doorstep. I have always thought of it as a perfect morning/afternoon to visit a museum, before I get all involved in singing liturgical services for most of the evening and following day. So I bundled my almost 3-year-old son into the car and went to the National Gallery of Art, to the show I promised myself I would see before the end of the year, Dan Flavin: A Retrospective. I remember being driven around in my parents' car on Christmas Eve night, to look at Christmas lights on neighborhood houses, and I suppose that this is my own artsy variation on that theme, which I now forced on my own child.

Dan Flavin, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), 1973The last couple times I have been near the gallery, or in the West Building for a concert, I have looked up at the otherworldly green light emanating from the East Building—from the atrium installation of untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), from 1973—and thought that I must go to see this exhibit. This has only been compounded by the positive reviews of competent arts bloggers.

I was correct in my assumption that a toddler would enjoy looking at rooms full of colored neon lights. His favorite was untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg) (1972–1973), an 8' x 8' wall of fluorescent bulbs, yellow on one side and green on the other. We went to see it several times, because he liked to see his hands tinted green by the rich, powerful light. However, I do advise other parents that it was indeed essential to keep my son strapped in his stroller, which kept him from touching the pretty lights or climbing on them. They are mostly displayed right at child level. The gallery does have one of its well-made brochures for kids on the Flavin exhibit (.PDF file), but my son wanted to spend most of his time looking at the sculptures and telling me and anyone else who would listen what the colors were.

I most enjoyed the works that Flavin connected with the artists who were most obviously his heroes:

These works are all dedicated to artists who, in spite of working with more traditional sculptural materials or even the "retrogressive" medium of paint, favored simplified lines and pure colors. Tyler is absolutely right in his criticism of the installation:
Flavin's work looks best when it is installed in galleries with reflective floors. The show's curators, Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell of the Dia Art Foundation and Jeffrey Weiss of the NGA, know this. In their beautiful catalog, every photograph of a Flavin shows it installed on wooden or concrete floors. But as a result of building logistics, the NGA has installed Flavin on speckled gray carpet. That carpet, and the overly dense installation of several galleries, hold back the show.
Those catalog images are what appear on the Web site, too, which looks so much better than the galleries themselves, which have the feel of motel corridors. That's a shame, but it did not detract too much from our enjoyment of the sculptures, particularly untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 (1977), dedicated to a Chicago curator.

If you are in or near Washington, see Dan Flavin: A Retrospective before it closes on January 9, 2005. It will then travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas (February 25 to June 5, 2005) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (July 1 to October 30, 2005).

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