As students sit in classrooms or at their desks, whether they are enjoying their work or counting the seconds until they are done, it is unlikely that they will notice the fluorescent lights softly humming above them, let alone give any thought to their artistic value.

Artist Dan Flavin (1933 – 1996) was different. He started his sculpting career by incorporating light bulbs into his more traditional works made of wood and stone, but as he grew older he began to use exclusively store-bought fluorescent lights.

His work “Untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with respect and affection),” currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum, is an incredible example of his unusual but emotional style.

Soft blue light, detectable immediately upon reaching the second floor of the gallery, beckons the viewer towards one side of the museum. As you reach the entrance to the exhibit, the viewer is presented with seven fluorescent lights of varied length in the shape of a skyscraper against the wall. Although the piece is unmarked, it is another by Flavin, “monument 1 for V. Tatlin,” and serves as an introduction to what lies ahead. Though the main piece is still out of sight, its glow is visibly strong and inviting. Rounding the corner, you are met by what looks like a series of frames, around which are mass-produced fluorescent lights. About 4-feet high, the 35 separate fixtures overlap and span the length of the space, cutting the large, wide room down the middle.  Flavin refers to his pieces as “barriers,” and this is exactly how they feel. The lights emit a radiance that is both calming and eerie, giving the room an almost sterile sense.

The viewer is only allowed on one side of the room, leaving a large empty expanse on the other side. The frames are open, giving them the feel of a window through which one is encouraged to look. Is this Flavin’s commentary on the old “grass is greener” adage? If so, which side is the “other side”?

As with many of Flavin’s other works, “Untitled” is not site-specific. The artist hoped to create an entirely new feel depending on the environment in which his pieces were housed.  This is the first time “Untitled” has been shown in a curved room; The new display accentuates and achieves Flavin’s goal of creating the sense of infinite repetition.

The piece will prove off-putting to many who prefer more classical art styles. However, those with an open mind and time to spare should certainly take the time to see “Untitled” to experience an art form that is simultaneously familiar and innovative.

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