There’s a special quality to the light on Long Island that has long attracted artists; they’ve painted it and drawn it, attempting to capture or react to it. But one Long Island artist, Dan Flavin, sculpted it instead. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when some artists used readymade objects and others altered entire environments, Flavin did both. His minimalist approach dropped everything except light, color and space. To this day, at the Dan Flavin Art Institute (Dia Bridgehampton), visitors can physically enter his signature fields of color and light.
At first, Flavin used painted boxes and light bulbs to create a series called “Icons,” now on view at the institute. Decades later, Flavin’s work employed colored fluorescent bulbs to create intense fields of pink, yellow, blue and green light that flood spaces and surround the viewer. “They engage you in an embodied experience of time and space,” said Dia associate curator Alexis Lowry. “There’s something completely transcending about being in this light experience.”
As the daughter of MoMA director Glenn Lowry, Alexis was born into the art world. “I grew up in museums,” she laughed, and she and her dad still share curatorial ideas. But despite being raised among Matisses and Picassos, after college “the first thing I thought about was going out to the Badlands to see as much as I could of the American West and projects that have been done out there.” Works like Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and De Maria’s “The Lightning Field” are iconic earthworks that are sustained by the Dia Art Foundation. Since its inception, the foundation has operated at the intersection of what’s impossible and what’s groundbreaking and necessary. Art that couldn’t otherwise exist finds a home at Dia’s worldwide sites. Art like Dan Flavin’s. And, while the differences between an empty field in New Mexico and a humble clapboard building on Long Island may seem vast, it’s really a matter of dimension. Flavin was just as much a pioneer in environmental art; he just focused on indoor environments. Rather than bulldozers, he used color and light.
The permanent installation of nine pieces he designed for the Flavin Art Institute is singularly immersive. The audience literally steps into the works, is drenched in its colors and bathed in its light. “There’s an emotional aspect to it…it’s fun and playful with bright candy colors…there’s a lot of humor and it’s an incredibly joyful experience to go and move through the spaces.”
Flavin, who once studied for the priesthood and titled his works “Icons,” chose a former church to house the works and then created illumination. Whether there’s a spiritual component to the experience though, is up to the viewer. “This is a unique opportunity to see an artist’s ideas totally on their own terms,” Lowry said. “It takes your mind to all kinds of places. It’s expansive because it breaks out of its own physical boundaries, yet it holds you in at the same time…it’s totally transportive.”