Artful Circle in the Hamptons: The Dan Flavin Art Institute

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by Debbie Wells

There are so many famous artists that have Long Island roots and it is always a treat to see them showcased in their hometowns. Everyone knows that artists such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner called the Hamptons home, but did you know that contemporary artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996) was a resident of Wainscott, a village nearby the resort town of Bridgehampton? The Dan Flavin Art Institute is a gem of a museum, located in the heart of the main street area and perfect for a delightful break from the usual Hamptons activities.

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Dan Flavin: The Artist of Light

Born in New York City in 1933, he studied art history at the New School for Social Research and Columbia University. His first work with electric light was shown at the Judson Gallery in New York in 1961. He also exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the National Gallery of Canada in the 1960’s.

Above: Sculpture with a view of Bridgehampton

The Dan Flavin Institute

In 1979, Dia Art Foundation purchased the First Baptist Church of Bridgehamnpton to create a gallery to an exhibition space for the Flavin’s art, which officially opened in 1983. Originally built as a firehouse in 1908, the building was occupied by the church from 1924 until the mid-seventies. Flavin and architect Richard Gluckman worked with Dia to restore and renovate the structure as an art gallery. They were careful to acknowledge the former functions of the site by moving the church doors and other memorabilia to a small exhibition space on the second floor. Also featured is a large neon cross, which unites the building’s past with the present association of Flavin’s work with fluorescent light.IMG_2502
(Above) Perrell stands in space with church memorabilia
(Below) Flavin pieces in partitioned spaces in museum

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There are two main areas in the building. The first floor displayed 5 works of Flavin’s Icons series, which he completed between 1961 and 1964, before his commitment to his fluorescent light trademark style. He portrayed these icons as dedications to his friends and family, not as religious symbols as one might assume based on his Catholic background. In these mixed media pieces, Flavin constructed box constructions with light fixtures and painted surfaces. As he experimented, he became more enamored with the use of light, eventually leading to the sculptures he is famously known for creating, Because of this, the Icon collection is considered by art scholars to be the bridge between his early work and his use of light in his work.

The art on view on the second floor dedicated to solely to Dan Flavin is comprised of strategically placed angular partition walls that give each work of art the proper amount of space to glow and reflect light on the white walls. The windows are also shaded to allow the work to be illuminated as the artist intended. It was a wonderful experience strolling from area to area not knowing what was in the next cubicle section.

Whether straight lines of light, criss-cross patterns of colors or beams going in a variety of directions, each installation forms its own atmosphere. As the neon lights glow and reflect on each other and the walls, one can easily be hypnotized and let optics take over.

Seen in Chelsea

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(L-R) Perrell speaks to group at David Zwirner gallery;
Young visitor poses inside a lit portal sculpture

Artful Circle recently visited Flavin’s work at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea this fall. The exhibition, entitled Corners, Barriers and Corridors (September 10-Octover 24, 2015), showed the legendary fluorescent bulb installations by dividing the art into three separate types of venues. The corner pieces glowed in the entrance area allowing color to bounce two walls at a time, while another area featured long lines of bulbs creating a fence-like environment. There were small circular bulbs covering pieces of walls, as well as colorful doorway portals made of bulbs. The most intriguing installation was those of vertically striped partition walls lined with bulbs that separated the audience from an empty room.

The way that Flavin created spatial environments simply by configuring the bulbs in different layouts made one think beyond just the color and light of each piece. It was also mentioned that most of the bulbs he used were originally purchased at hardware stores and no longer available. Thus, collectors often keep the power off to conserve the bulb – does this make the art less enjoyable when there is no light?

A Long Island Art Landmark

Visit the Dan Flavin Art Institute next time you are en route to the Hamptons to get “enlightened” in this charming little museum filled with art made by one of the contemporary masters of our time. Franklin Hill Perrell and I enjoyed our visit and we plan to go again! If you want to join Artful Circle for a Long Island adventure which would include a stop here, watch for our upcoming 2016 schedule or arrange for a private tour.

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