Middle: Detail, Building Four Bottom: The Armory are eight feet long and arranged in groups of 10, in varying combinations of pink, green, blue, and yellow. Glowing in one color and backed by another color, the fluorescent lights form gates across the corridor. You can stand in front of one gate, looking through it at the gate on the other side. The passageway is both fully lit and completely inaccessible. In a 1965 autobiographical sketch, Flavin said about his own work: Now the entire interior spatial container and its partswall, floor and ceilingcould. support this strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it. Regard the light and you are fascinatedinhibited from grasping its limits at each end. While the tube itself has an actual length of eight feet, its shadow, cast by the supporting pan, has none but an illusion dissolving at its ends. If Judd wanted to get away from the traditional use of a gallery space, Flavin’s project calls attention to the space itselfthe interior container he was referring to. He not only manipulates the space of the barracks by closing off his own manipulation. Some of the fluorescent gates are recessed inside slanted niches, so that light escapes from them and hits the wall.There it forms a painting made of sheer color, recalling Barnett Newman, Flavin’s friend and mentor. It’s a painting freed from the canvas and the frame. If you walk up close to itentering, as you do, the world of the paintingthe light alters your perception of the air, the color of the room, even the way your own skin looks. Light in our culture is often associated with spirituality, and Flavin’s lights do cast an almost holy glow; but they are also playful in the brightness of their obviously commercial colors. Most of the windows in the army barracks have been covered. Natural light filters into the space only through two windows at one end of the space. There is no sound except for the faint buzz of the fluorescence and the wind outside, if there is any that day, rattling the building. Because you can’t walk through the corridors, you must constantly go back out into the natural light, as you make your way down through the six barracks. So there is a constant dialogue, a set of continuing readjustments, between the fluorescent lights and the natural light of the desert. The effect is beautiful, and elusive.The light carves space, and makes you think about the architecture of the long, empty room, and the wide, empty landscape outside. Instead of utilitarian decorationthe stuff of industrial buildings and office cubiclesthe fluorescent light looks meditative and ascetic. “No immediate feeling can be attributed to color,” Judd also wrote, and you bring your own emotions to Flavin’s work. “Untitled think. It doesn’t have a single, overbearing conceptual point to make, and this quality of withholding, perhaps more than anything else, accounts for its power. Inside the artillery sheds where Judd’s aluminum boxes line up in shiny rows, you can still see the graffiti written by German soldiers who were imprisoned at Fort D.A. Russell during World War II. Judd knocked out most of the walls and replaced them with windows, bringing in the horizon and creating a sense of expansive freedom in a place that once served as an enclosure. In much the same way, Flavin’s work combines barrier with escape, artificial color with natural desert, a dark room with the bright glow of light. Walter Benjamin famously ascribed the originality of a work of art to its “aura,” a force that could be diminished by distance and reproduction. At a time when every masterpiece has its own postcard, wh6n you can look at art on the web without leaving your home, Flavin’s lights insist on direct experience. You have to see them in person, and you have to travel all the way to Marfa to do it. It’s worth the trip. Alix Ohlin is an M.F.A. candidate at The University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers.
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