April 21, 2008

Monkey Business: Curatorial Practice, Pt. 4

A vague sense of disquiet came over me when I first learned of Zwirner & Wirth’s “recreation” of an important mid-1960s exhibition by Dan Flavin. The 1964 Green Gallery Show was purportedly the first time Flavin exhibited fluorescent lights alone as art. Flavin’s seven pieces were installed at Richard Bellamy’s space and as originally conceived dealt with the “formal and chromatic relationships that were engendered by his fluorescent light works when they were shown together.”(1) Thus, we are encouraged by the curators of this new “recreation” to accept that Flavin was also first engaging the consideration of his sculptures as a whole to be perceived within an architectural site.

This is heady discourse within the Minimalist canon and if we agree on the chronology then 1964 might very well be the beginning of site specific sculpture, i.e., sculpture created for a particular space. Further distinctions in site specific work later evolved into two explorations: assimilative work integrating harmoniously within the environment /architecture, and interruptive work that “functions as a critical intervention into the existing order of a site.”(2) Certainly this would cast Flavin’s 1964 Green Gallery Show, in its dual incarnations at the original site (Bellamy’s Green Gallery) and the 21st Century site (Zwirner & Wirth) as both assimilative and interruptive.

In the 1964 space, Flavin is said to have integrated the colored fluorescent lights within the space, which speaks to his concern with the harmony of the “whole.”(3) However, in the 2008 Zwirner & Wirth 1964 Green Gallery we have a theoretical attempt at a “recreation” that results in an interruptive intervention. It is first and foremost a simulation of a show that found its true harmony in a different space and, in all sincerity, in a different time. This retrospective adulation over a long-ago-and-faraway art experience is a nostalgic longing for an interaction that is impossible now. We know too much about minimalism, site specific sculpture, phenomenology and art history to perceive these seven sculptures in their current site as nothing but art market positioning disguised as “curatorial practice.”

On a more practical level, one may learn from Flavin’s conservator that General Electric’s chemical formulation of the fluorescent lights changed in the 1980’s, resulting in Flavin’s estate having to special order fabricated bulbs from GE as needed.(4) It is mere wishful thinking for an exact replication of a “1964” color in a 2008 fluorescent bulb. Furthermore, Flavin himself acknowledged the transitory nature of his art in a 1982 interview:

“One has no choice but to accept the fact of temporary art. Permanence just defies everything. . . I would like to leave a will and testament to declare everything void at my death, and it's not unrealistic. I mean it, because only I know the work as it ought to be. All posthumous interpretations are less. I know this.”(5)

On one issue, at least for the time being, it appears that Stephen Flavin, the artist’s son, has agreed to limit “posthumous interpretations” of any new work; Dan Flavin, Ltd. has announced to the Dia Foundation that no new work will be issued that was not certified by Dan Flavin during his lifetime.(6)

So what are we to make of the Zwirner & Wirth Green Gallery? Dia’s director Michael Govan has said that Flavin sought “to implicate the entirety of the architecture that contained his work in a three-dimensional environment” and that Flavin's fluorescent light sculptures are “especially sensitive to arrangement and context.”(7) No matter how much of a “resemblance” Zwirner & Wirth bears to Bellamy’s 1964 gallery space, it is a different three-dimensional architectural environment. The current Green Gallery uses existing photographs, eye witness accounts and sketches to recreate a 44-year-old exhibition. Thereby, an epistemic critique of this 2008 “environment” must acknowledge its failure. In yearning for the distant “1964 art context” conditions, Zwirner & Wirth negatively influence whatever perceptual art experience might occur in their visitors by attempting a simulation of a unique site specific work that no longer exists.

As “recreation” of an art experience the 2008 Green Gallery is destined to fail; as simulation it is an unqualified success. It seduces with the desirable frisson of time travel (Weren’t there in ’64? See it in '08!) and the gee-whiz wonder of Disneyland. It is an institutionally sanctioned art marketing strategy: position a deceased (yet still “blue-chip”) artist in a high-visibility commercial gallery or art fair to boost speculation in the work and sales at auction. Inevitably these kinds of "historic events" become little more than vapid experiences emptied of the original intent of the artist. Yet they are a hard-and-fast component of the “monkey business” continually afoot in the art world.

Image: Dan Flavin's 1964 installation at Green Gallery; © Copyright Artists Rights Society /Dan Flavin, Ltd.


1. From Zwirner & Wirth press release.

2. Kwon, Miwon. “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, (Zoya Kocur, Simon Leung, Eds.) Oxford, 2005, 50. [See Rosalyn Deutsche’s “Tilted Arc and the Uses of Public Space,” Design Book Review 23 (Winter 1992): 22-27.]

3. “Flavin changed the colors of some of the lamps that he had planned to use once he saw the actual interaction of the colored light in space.” - From Zwirner & Wirth press release.

4. greg.org.

5. Allen, Greg. “Lights Out: The Dark Side of Success,” The New York Times, January 2, 2005.

6. “Perhaps the most important decision made for the estate was to close Flavin's editions and not posthumously produce over 1,700 that the artist had declared, but which remained unsold at his death. Instead, only work that was certified by the artist in his lifetime would be declared authentic.
Stephen Flavin: I felt that it would have left things open to what Dan called monkey business. I just could see, you know, a lot of potential for forgery, with people not really knowing what to be looking for as far as an official estate certificate. Even over the years, there are variations in the certificates, so I thought it best to keep it limited to things that had his signature. It'd make things simpler.” - From “Re-inventing the Light Bulb: Stephen Flavin” at greg.org.

7. Govan, Michael. “Irony and Light,” Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights 1961-1996, New York, 2004, 56.

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