Works of art often last forever, or nearly so. But exhibitions themselves, especially gallery exhibitions, are like flowers; they bloom and then they die, then exist only as memories, or pressed in magazines and books. Unless someone has the time, money, and obsession to regather the work, research how it appeared, and rehang a show—and the Zwirner & Wirth gallery has all those things, plus the understanding that forays into recent history burnish the reputation.
This Upper East Side establishment has done the art world a tremendous favor, restaging Dan Flavin’s historic breakthrough exhibition that took place at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery in 1964. Between 1960 and 1965, Green exhibited the work of artists who were redefining what art was, taking it into new directions, and using materials and forms in innovative ways. Claes Oldenburg made soft sculpture, Donald Judd deployed geometry and industrial materials in new ways, Yayoi Kusama painted webs of the mind, and Lucas Samaras made mind-expanding objects, paintings, and photographs. Flavin’s show pushed the Duchampian line of thinking a giant leap forward, arranging unaltered ready-mades, in this case standard fluorescent fixtures and tubes, into intensely optical aesthetic experiences. Just as Pollock found and deployed the drip—something that had always been there—Flavin wed medium, message, and space: Light fixtures became the form and the content of his art. What you saw was the material and the message. The space became part of the work as the work melded with the space. He used only fluorescent fixtures for the remainder of his career and deployed them only in geometric configurations. Even though the form is so restricting that ultimately he was a limited artist, he’s a dazzlingly original one, especially early on.
At the time, the Green Gallery show was called an “instant turn-on” and a “giant purist step.” But Flavin was also dismissed as “no artist at all.” The artworks were priced at around $1,000. None sold. (The same works now command up to $2 million.) Flavin said he wanted his work to elicit no “hidden psychology, no overwhelming spirituality … no invitation to meditate, to contemplate.” Indeed, he remains one of the most irreducible, instantly recognizable, and purely visual modern artists. He’s also someone skeptics like to snip at, saying, “I could make that and it wouldn’t be art.” Someone said this to me at Zwirner & Wirth and I responded, “Actually, you could make this, and it would still be art.” (I didn’t add, “Now, please shut up.”) Skeptics also might imagine that the Zwirner & Wirth gallery is doing this to cash in. But all the works are on loan, and none is for sale. It’s nice to think that the gallery did this for the love of art and so others could travel back in time.
The re-created show starts off with a declarative slash and a large dose of name-dropping: the diagonal of may 25, 1963 (to Robert Rosenblum). This single eight-foot-long cool-white fixture, set at an angle about two feet off the ground and dedicated to the rebel art historian, is the first work in which Flavin used only fluorescent light. Flavin said, “The radiant tube and the shadow cast by its supporting pan seemed ironic enough to hold alone.” This is Flavin saying that industrial equipment on its own could be art—that he didn’t need to add accoutrements, doodads, frames, or pedestals.
In the large gallery you see Flavin coming to terms with his eureka moment and dropping more names. In pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), Flavin simultaneously merges the pieces and the room while dissolving the architecture of the space. Everything merges. Noninitiates and skeptics often scratch their heads at Flavin’s work. They look for deeper meanings or are stymied by the simplicity and ephemerality in his art. Yet for all the rigor and reductivism, Flavin’s ideas are very romantic: He wanted art to be new, to ravish the eye, and to do it in a simple, direct, dumb way.
Much has been written about Flavin, but to my knowledge only the artist Wade Guyton has cannily noted how important the electric cords are in his work. Zwirner & Wirth has wisely left them showing (I overheard a number of viewers question this). The cords are key because they eliminate any pretense of magic, autonomy, illusionism, or theatricality. They are outward manifestations and acknowledgments of the ways in which art is connected to the space of the gallery and to the world itself. The cords snake around corners, along the floor, and rise up from baseboards to outlets; they connect you to the workings of enormous industrial systems, supplying power and equipment, “out there.” Most exhibitions and books on Flavin hide the cords, putting his work into some disembodied mystic limbo. That’s not right: He was after the Whitman-like body-electric experience of the whole world acting together.
Zwirner & Wirth’s redo makes one think about other long-gone gallery shows that might be restaged. My short list includes Pollock’s retina-ripping 1950 show at Betty Parsons that contained Autumn Rhythm, One: Number 31, and Lavender Mist; Jasper Johns’s astounding solo debut at Leo Castelli 50 years ago this past January, in which he exhibited Flag paintings, Targets, Numbers, and letters; and Cady Noland’s 1989 debut at American Fine Arts, if only to recall the shock that came with not knowing what one was looking at. Once upon a time in 1964, Flavin’s show produced that revelation of not-knowing, too. If only we could persuade galleries to observe a fallow period in which, for two months every other year, new and old works of art could be sold in back rooms and all main galleries would be devoted to revisiting shows gone by.