Tag Archives: Dan Flavin

Sniffing Serra

Having visited Dia:Beacon several times, (and it isn’t nearby) I am continually surprised by what I find there. The space is overwhelming, with huge, cavernous rooms and hallways, all in giant scale; the light is ethereal, whether delivered indirectly through the clerestory windows, or directly through window walls where some of the glass is textured in a fractured opacity and just their clear central panes allow outdoors glimpses and sunlight to penetrate the monastic ambiance. And, too, the visual array of artworks (because that is the point, right?), from Robert Ryman’s all-white canvases to Richard Serra’s monoliths of hard and rusting steel, tempt you in every conceivable way with sui generis sensuousness and mystery.

But, as all these other senses are fully engaged, so fully that at times you want to cry or fall to your knees or just feel the vibration and disappear into the energy that each piece and each space is emitting, suddenly, this visit, there is the realization that one sense that had been formerly neglected I am now experiencing – smell. Olfaction. Yes, smelling art.

When I was in art school I smelled art everywhere. Every classroom and, later, every studio had a smell – a particular smell: oil paint, clay, acrylic paint, printmaking ink, sawdust, welding fumes. Largely, these were toxic smells of chemical reactions, but to anyone who spent time breathing them they were the smells of creativity. The smells are so universal and have become such a part of the fabric of art-making that I can walk into any artist’s studio and smell the familiar, immediately bouncing me back to a connected past with my school days. This is generally not the case in the more staid museums; everything is so controlled, often encased, air-quality adjusted and purified.

But, at Dia, I was noticing olfactory changes as I drifted from room to room, artist to artist, material to material. I became excited by this added layer of experiencing the works and the spaces they occupy. Often the inner, windowless rooms there have a stillness with an odor that accompanies the unmoving air. As I became more acclimated to the smells, I realized that each artwork had its own individual smell and that, when clustered in groups, or when massive enough to stand alone, there was a very noticeable odor associated with the galleries they inhabited and imparted to them. At first it was a vague awareness of changes in the air, then I started to home in on trying to “explain” or dissect what it was I was inhaling. I became acutely aware in Imi Knoebel’s Raum 19, a construction of wooden shapes and paint stretchers with that sweet, old lumber fragrance. Something you would smell in a bone-dry attic, with hints of Masonite and fir emanating from old pieces of furniture.

With Agnes Martin, one would expect the smell of both linseed oil and acrylics, of course, but here they were faint, light, clear and pale – just like her canvases; whereas Robert Ryman’s works, whether room-size or small scale, had the presence of all smells. And On Kawara’s Today Series, daily paintings from 1966 to 2000, had an indistinct smell, a blurring of the years. Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes had the whiff of heated dust combined with an electronic or solder pungency. While Joseph Beuys’ stacks of felt had, what else – wool, reminiscent of a formerly wet dog now dried, dust coatings and aged socks or mittens. Donald Judd’s Untitled (1976), was, as expected, plywood scented but almost minty in its intensity. And when the setting sun blasted through the clerestory above the minimal box constructions and the oils in the wood heated up, it was like a plywood sawmill without the dust, in the permeating aroma.

And so, I wondered, what about Richard Serra, could his pieces possibly have a fragrance? His monoliths of steel, a material that would seem almost inert except for oxidation: slabs of some natural mineral ores blended into a manufactured structural product? What smell could they possibly have? Hey, though, remember the plywood of Judd. (And right here I must confess to Serra being a favorite, so I really wanted the giant pieces to smell like something.) Union of the Torus and the Sphere sits in a kind of hallway and as close as I allowed my nose to scan it, there was, disappointingly, just a hint of something, at spots, a mild rust smell. I hurried downstairs to the Torqued Ellipses, his wonderful massive herd of shapes which you enter, are labyrinthine and so meditative that you get dizzy inside them. I took a deep breath; inhaled a dry cave, desiccated even. I smelled the rust, stronger now because I was inside the steel chamber and the enclosed air was more concentrated. There were distinct chalk-like odors, hints of dry mold as in cheese. Ah, yes, a fine blend, so fine I wanted to drink it in.

And once again I find placeness: in smell. It is said that smell is the most vivid sense memory. I hope to be sniffing Serra for many years to come.

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The Light Fantastic

My whole life I have been drawn to light. Not like a moth is, for celestial navigation (although I am a moon-watcher), but I am definitely positively phototactic. Some of my least-favorite fellow creatures are negatively phototactic; so, given the choice between light and dark, I will always go with light.

Drawn as I am to glowing things, I’ve become aware of the varied qualities of light. Natural light is best because of its color range. And there are those special lighting effects that the sun can produce: the translucent backlighting of leaves – both spring and fall foliage have their unique attributes; the glint of light on stone revealing its crystalline or mica structures; reflections and movement on a water’s surface, and sometimes down into its depths; rays breaking through cloud curtains and extending like searchlights onto the earth; glistening silica particles sparkling in sand or grass; a rainbow, a miraculous fracturing of light; the orange fanfare of the sun’s rising and setting; the moon’s shine at night; a stream of light with its thousands of floating particles, like a glimpse into the beginnings of life itself; the Northern Lights, which I must someday see; and even something as mundane as the warm glow cast on a telephone pole.

Not sun-related, but light-significant, too, are: lightning, a powerful emanation of the original electric light; fireflies and their glowing signals, like tiny lighthouses of the sky; candle flames, doing their own peculiar dance of life; the color and warmth of a full-blown fire, and too, the glowing red embers that fight for survival as it fades.

These very qualities of light can create placeness in nature, a symbiotic alteration of site or space that is sometimes momentary. But if you are there to witness it or experience it, a moment may be all that’s required. It must be this sensory phenomenon that induces artists to try to recreate it or capture it in some way. Certain artists work with artificial light, attempting to mimic the effects of natural light. Dan Flavin used industrial fluorescent tubes, which to me are the anti-light, but painted them and clustered them so that the colors bleed and interact much in the same way that the color spectrum does. (See The Dan Flavin Institute entry on our arslocii website.) Or there is Olafur Eliasson, whose theories are made manifest by hugely proportioned installations designed to alter or challenge the viewer’s perceptions. Science aside, I viewed his piece, “Your Color Memory,” at Arcadia University in 2006. Once you entered the large rotunda built inside a cavernous building, you were enveloped in light. Not static light, but rather light in constant flux, changing color, density and brightness. Whereas Flavin’s piece was like entering a rainbow, this one was akin to walking through the Northern Lights (I imagine). There was nothing in this space except light, and it had such presence, such placeness. It was like a full-body treatment for SAD; my cone photoreceptors were in overdrive, and it lifted my mood as if some sort of laughing gas was being pumped in through the heating ducts.

Other artists try to capture natural light. James Turrell comes to mind, having started his career using artificial light inside to create an altered sense of interior space. Then he started opening up holes to the sky to work with sunlight and star-viewing. In his largest project, Roden Crater, which is ongoing for more than thirty years, he is turning a meteor crater into a celestial observatory, pulling the light of both day and night through an elliptical occulus for its effects within the crater’s space and on the viewer, and causing it to have a physicality. And Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field”: a flat expanse of upright steel rods that attract lightning down to the high desert ground, its effect likened to, once again, the Northern Lights. The regularity and density of the metal receptors create the possibility of the electrical energy bouncing off the rods as in a pinball game as it tilts with each attraction.

Each of these artists is a place-maker, using light, just as our eyes do, to create shape, color, space, sensory experience, a physical presence, out of thin air. It is the ultimate in placeness, turning something immaterial into something “real.” There is a kind of alchemy in this process, and it is totally natural. It is said that water is the source of life itself, but for me, it is light – whether in its natural creations or the human-made ones. Without light, there would be nothingness.


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