Shine a light

    So, when you go to see the Dan Flavin retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, which you should, because it is an enchanting show, keep your wits about you and guard your Christmas light switch. The fact is that, confronted by coloured glows, we tend to go, “Ooh”. It’s a simple reaction. And one of the more annoying aspects of Flavin’s artistic behaviour is the effort he put into making his achievements sound, read and even feel immensely complicated.

    Flavin emerged in New York in the early 1960s, where he quickly became associated with the minimalists. Minimalism is best understood, I suggest, as a deliberate opposition to pop art. One movement was about shopping, the other about giving it all away. Pop art was packed, so minimalism was empty. Pop art was into curves and arabesques, so minimalism was into straight lines. While pop art celebrated the commodification of modern life, minimalism appeared to abhor it, insisting instead on gravitas, rigour and restraint.

    I could go on: rarely in art have two sets of alternative characteristics squared up to each other more obviously. Alas, where pop art was not basically pretentious, minimalism most certainly was. Flavin, for instance, insisted that his shows be called “expositions”, and instead of producing works of art, the things he made, he claimed, were “proposals”. The Hayward has now brought before us an excellently representative assortment of these proposals that traces the main stages of Flavin’s tango with lights. And the story of this show is the tale of a flashy, emotional and ultimately superficial artist pulling off some fabulous moves.

    The Hayward looks liberated for the occasion. They have stripped off more of the cladding than I ever remember seeing stripped off before, revealing the much insulted brutalist concrete as it was meant to be revealed, with circular ramps in full view, interesting peekaboo vistas at every turn (flooded, on this occasion, with delicate washes of Flavin’s fluorescence) and that macho floorboard effect of the concrete walls set off nicely by pleasing expanses of wood. It’s all so exciting. Flavin and the Hayward are a natural pairing.

    For most of the “exposition”, the “proposals” are chronologically arranged to give a legible sense of Flavin’s development, but right at the start, in a clever piece of gallery showbiz, we jump the gun with a huge green light piece from the early 1970s, a fence of fluorescent green blocks stretching across the entire lower gallery. Flavin called these coloured whoppers his “barrier” pieces, because they deliberately set out to block you. This one saturates the vestibule in that irresistible soft green glow that fluorescent lights emit, while simultaneously obstructing your natural route. Since you can’t go forward, you have to turn right, where the show picks up the story proper with the earliest light works.

    This smart piece of gallery steering immediately underlines the curiously substantial insubstantiality of fluorescence. It’s only a glow. But your brain won’t cross it. I suppose that’s why traffic lights work. A further bout of staring allows you to notice that the theatrical green colouring of the opening gallery appears much greener than the bulbs that produce it: the bulbs themselves look white. How can that be? The show ahead of you spends as much time puzzling your mind as it does delighting your eyes. And because light is such slippery psychological stuff, Flavin was able to have an impressively varied and nuanced career: all he basically did between 1963, when he found fluorescence, and 1996, when he died, was to rearrange light strips of standard lengths bought in a hardware shop.

    His beginnings were shaky. The first room has a set of clunky wall pieces from the early 1960s that Flavin called Icons, ponderous coloured squares to which he attached various types of light fitting in matching colours. The tattiest of these feature the sort of bare red bulb you find packed around the mirror in a stripper’s dressing room. Transcendence is beyond a light of this lowly cut.

    What a happy day it must therefore have been when, early in 1963, Flavin discovered the pure, magical, mysterious glow of the fluorescent light. Transcendence is certainly not beyond fluorescence. Scientists explain it with diagrams about liberated photons bouncing off phosphor coatings, but my own amateur observations lead me to conclude that fluorescence has two main things going for it. One is a unique consistency of colour that ensures each stretch of light is as vivid as the next; the other is an impressive visual fierceness. Stick a fluorescent light in a corner, as Flavin was fond of doing, and the corner takes on the rest of the room, and you have an installation.

    The earliest of Flavin’s pure light works, an 8ft strip displayed at a diagonal and dedicated showily to Brancusi, from 1963, is also on display in the first room, and seems immediately to be about something else: something bigger, brighter, bolder. As they used to say of Douglas Fairbanks: with one bound, he was free.

    Flavin’s early fluorescent pieces are among his finest. I particularly enjoyed the famous set of white works dedicated to the crazy Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, who dreamt of achieving such amazing feats of artistic engineering in the first mad days of Leninism, and whom Flavin commemorates with a set of white wall pieces arranged in skyscraper shapes that seem to evoke the electronic excitement of the modern city. Certainly, they evoke New York.

    Early in the 1970s, Flavin began working with smaller lights hidden around the back of the big lights to create delicate background mixes. And the air of uncomplicated modernism gives way to something nearly mystical. Round about now, he moved out of New York as well, to live on the Hudson River, and don’t tell me that he wasn’t out there at night, watching the sunset, feeling all of those gaseous and inchoate reactions to sublimity that his works from this period encourage us also to feel. I see an artist at work here who is more of a Rothko than a Tatlin.

    The top floor achieves another tangible change of mood.

    A hugely successful artist now, enshrined in the international pantheon as one of the founders of minimalism, Flavin becomes what another, lower art form would call a stadium rocker. His effects grow huge and involve more lights than ever. People pay him to do ambitious things, so his colours tend toward the rococo as it all gets crowd-pleasy. There’s a fantastic piece up here, dedicated to the aptly named Jan and Ron Greenberg, that consists of two alcoves, arranged back to back, one fiercely yellow, the other fiercely green. Your task as a viewer is to explore them both, and as you switch from one to the other, you find the second set of light conditions refusing to behave like the first. From one side, the corridor is definitely white — but from the other, it’s definitely pink.

    So, it’s an entertaining exposition and, occasionally, a magical one. The Hayward manages to look its best for once. The temptation to be repetitive is easily avoided; indeed, Flavin’s work turns out to be full of surprises. There is even some decent art-historical revisionism going on, in the attempt to argue that minimalism wasn’t minimal.

    My reservations concern the true profundity of any of this. I went to the show at night and, on the walk to the gallery over Westminster Bridge, was struck, as always, by how beautiful London can be made to look with lights. The notoriously bleak National Theatre is a thrilling cube of cosmic green. The Hungerford Bridge wears a delightful tiara of sapphire twinkles. The London Eye is a catherine wheel of reds and whites. My point is that there are lots of Dan Flavins now, because being Dan Flavin is much easier than Dan Flavin made out.