Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Revisiting the Menil

Last week I wrote about visiting the Menil collection. I want to go again soon. It is an interesting place and I didn’t get to see everything on our first visit. One exhibit we didn’t have time for is entitled the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall. We did pick up a copy of the brochure, though. My description here is from the brochure.

Flavin was evidently a 20th century artist of some note, one of the founders of Minimalism, according to the brochure. It seems that in later years he specialized in creating artistic “situations” by arranging ordinary fluorescent lights of various colors in otherwise ordinary rooms. The Installation at Richmond Hall consists of a simple, repeating orthogonal pattern of light fixtures installed on the walls of a large, empty rectangular room. These are standard, industrial light fixtures mounted on otherwise bare walls. I can certainly see the advantage. It would be nice to know that whenever the Muse strikes you’re never very far from a Home Depot.

The brochure explains how Flavin stumbled into this convenient new medium:
In the spring of 1961, Flavin created a series of eight works, which he called “icons,” containing elements of electric light playing off painted surfaces. Two years later he attached a single eight-foot, yellow fluorescent light fixture to his studio wall, calling the work the diagonal of personal ecstasy. He renamed the work one year later the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Robert Rosenblum). Fluorescent light thereafter became Flavin’s signature medium in which he discovered the unexpected sensuousness and beauty of a seemingly sterile and ubiquitous material.
Help me out here. Am I the only one who snickered at the line “he attached a single eight-foot, yellow fluorescent light fixture to his studio wall, calling the work the diagonal of personal ecstasy”? I really don’t understand this kind of art. Can someone explain it to me? How does hanging a crooked light fixture on the wall qualify as art?

If you do try to explain this stuff to me, please remember to use layman’s language. When I read the descriptions of the art critics they don’t seem to have any connection to the artwork itself. I wonder if they really are looking at what I’m looking at. For instance, last week I wrote about visiting the Rothko Chapel. You will recall that it is an octagonal structure adorned only with featureless monochromatic paintings. As I was Googling for it I came across a book on titled The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origins, Structures, Meanings (Sales Rank 1,012,518). The publisher’s note states:

No painting in the set could be understood in isolation from the rest or apart from its place in the architectural setting. The Rothko Chapel Paintings explores this interdependence of paintings and place. As viewers move about the Chapel's octagonal enclosure, over whose walls the fourteen panels are continuously distributed, they discover systems of pictorial interactions which become the terms or characters of a cosmological drama in which the viewer is a necessary participant. In the act of vision, the embodied viewer is prompted not merely to witness but also to reenact that questioning of human destiny which has preoccupied the Western spiritual tradition.
Wow! I have to admit I didn’t notice all that when I saw the paintings. I thought they were dust covers! This seems like a complete fabrication to me, but it is perfectly postmodern. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and evidently the beholder does not feel terribly constrained by the actual appearance of the piece.

Clearly I need to go back and take a second look at those dust covers. I also can’t wait to see the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall. But if time doesn’t permit, we’ll just swing by the lighting department at Home Depot.

1 comment:

d - b said...

Perhaps you should attempt being born again (in a physical sense, as in re-wombed) and living through a different set of experiences that would allow you to open your mind to the possibilities of metaphor and subtlety in art, rather than religion.