For the duration of the Dan Flavin retrospective (until 2 April), the large foyer through which you enter the Hayward Gallery is bisected by a barrier of identical rectangular units, each mounted with four fluorescent tubes. They form a glowing, waist-high wall of green light which blocks the way to the ramp leading to the upper level. Objects shown in this foyer, despite its considerable size, tend not to seem part of the rest of an exhibition. The ramp draws you on and you pass quickly (often too quickly) to what comes next. The green wall’s disruption of normal circulation is an admirable piece of exhibition craft. It forces a pause in which the syntax of what will follow is established.

Apart from a few pieces from the early 1960s and a room of drawings (mostly very small, some neatly diagrammatic, others spidery wisps of tangled lines), all the works in the exhibition are, like the wall, assemblages of standard fluorescent tubes. All the spaces in which they are shown are, like the foyer gallery, lit by the works themselves. (This might seem obvious, but in some of Flavin’s site-specific installations – perhaps the most famous and impressive was the lighting of the entirety of the spiral-ramped rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum – daylight was not excluded as it is at the Hayward.)

On one level, Flavin’s installations are exercises in simple geometry. The possible configurations of standard tubes and colours – even those of plain white ones – are in theory infinite. Although the point, once made, has limited interest, art-historical resonance will, for a while at least, sustain variations. For example, it adds interest to one series of Flavin arrangements of cool white fittings set against white walls to find that it is a tribute to Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. So one aspect of his work relates it, if distantly, to other arrangements of identical elements on surfaces – to tiling, and thus to recreational mathematics, the Alhambra and the bathroom counter at a DIY store. But geometry is a side-issue. Flavin’s work did not become more complex over time and, despite the passing similarity of some drawings to, say, Bridget Riley’s preparatory drawings and Frank Stella’s early pinstripe canvases, his concern – unlike theirs – is not with flat pattern.

His constructions are altogether less like painting or sculpture in their effect than one might have guessed. More ethereal than either, they evoke a synaesthetic sweetness which is more musical than geometrical, more conceptual than plastic. Their effect is far even from that of work by artists Flavin admired and makes a bow to, like Tatlin and Barnett Newman. (He did one arrangement of yellow, red and blue fluorescent light to commemorate the ‘simple problem’ posed by the title of Newman’s series of paintings, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.)

Try to separate shape and colour, geometry and light, and you are led into troubled, or at any rate confusing, philosophical waters. Colour seems harder to grasp than shape, conceptually as well as literally. It changes unpredictably and it is less apparent that two people’s experience of it is the same. The shape of the box you see is confirmed by touch; projective geometry tells how it will look from any angle. Its colour, on the other hand, is an accident, describable in physical terms only indirectly through accounts of the generation and reflection of light and of the anatomy of the eye. Yet we also know that an art of pure shape is no easier to imagine than an art of pure colour or, for that matter, another spatial dimension.

All this comes to mind because the experiences Flavin offers challenge such conceptual impossibilities. He persuades you to ignore supports – the tubes themselves, the metal troughs and end sockets – as one might ignore a glimpse of the stage machinery that brings a heroine down from the flies. It helps that he makes no attempt to disguise them; you are asked, in this theatre too, to suspend disbelief. Surrounded by the light and colour manifested in both the glowing tubes and in reflections on the surrounding white walls, you no longer accept the notion that substrateless colour is an impossibility: you feel you are as close to knowing colour for itself alone as you are ever likely to be.

These are some of the arrangements of lights which achieve these effects: a long tube set vertically in a corner; a long blue tube set across a corner horizontally at eye level, with shorter tubes mounted invisibly behind it so that the walls of the corner are bathed in pink, yellow and green; a long room lined with circular fluorescent lamps; a corridor-like space, the middle of which is blocked by close-spaced tubes running from floor to ceiling. Description is beside the point, except to emphasise that there is more variation than the simplicity of the means used might suggest. Flavin’s affiliations, if one had any doubts, can be seen in dedications and titles. Most are personal, but practitioners of the simple, minimal and colourful all turn up: Brancusi, Jasper Johns and Matisse as well as Newman and Tatlin.

I had already begun to think of Flavin’s work in terms of crafts, particularly crafts like pottery, which require the same shape – a cup or bowl, say – to be made again and again, when I found that one of his series is dedicated to Lucie Rie, ‘master potter’. Yet Flavin’s abnegation of personality is of a different order from that of a craftsman. A Lucie Rie pot is unique in a way a Flavin light piece, which you could have made up by an electrician, is not. (He was anxious that his clients shouldn’t cheat in that way: every time he sold a work he issued a certificate, and made it plain that any idea that possession of the certificate authorised refabrication of the work was ‘definitely a misconception’.)

The result is engrossing, although the controlled intensity of Flavin’s exercises in colour-without-texture are also a reminder of how delightful texture is. Those pieces in which hidden tubes wash a corner with the colours of a sunset are, like some artificial flavourings, stronger but also less pleasing than the natural product. To stand in a room lit in monochromatic green is a lesson in why sunlight makes one cheerful. When painters discovered how to paint the colour given to flesh by candlelight and firelight, whole schools of painting closed the shutters on daylight. The rediscovery of the light of day, or later on of the texture and colour of real flesh after long exposure to the marmoreal chill of Neoclassical nymphs and graces, are instances of the ‘enough of this’ which is the common prelude to change, if not to progress, in art. The minimalism of Flavin, Donald Judd and others seems to say ‘enough of this’ in regard to rich paint and florid emotion.

Minimalism’s own abnegations and coolness have for some time felt more of the last century than the current one. Perhaps its greatest legacy will be its assertion of the connection between artworks and places. At a time when loan exhibitions reshuffle art at greater and greater speed it is in site-specific installations that the art pilgrimage stays alive. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977) won’t come to you. You must, with some difficulty, go to them. The scale of the Hayward exhibition and the hermetic isolation of the installation give a good approximation of the force of works like these, and it is easy to confirm that a Flavin light piece loses a great deal when seen by daylight through a Cork Street gallery window. Illustrations in the catalogue of a long-term installation in the Richmond Hall of the Menil Collection and another in Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation suggest that you have to go to Texas if you are really serious about Flavin’s work. But like any pilgrim you will suffer a little. The publicity for the Chinati Foundation warns against open-toed shoes and points out that from May to September, temperatures can reach 100°F. ‘Hats, sunglasses and sun block are always recommended.’

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