The Amazing Art of Nothing

Hosted by

Right now, there are two exhibitions in Los Angeles which have at first glance very little in common: one of the celebrated American sculptor Dan Flavin at LACMA and the other of the much lesser-known artist Richard Tuttle at MOCA. Flavin worked exclusively with light – ordinary fluorescent tubes, to be precise – placed strategically and sparsely in an empty gallery, which as a result would be dramatically transformed. Tuttle, on the other hand, resolutely avoids using any material or making any gesture which even remotely smacks of grandstanding.

In the early 1960's Dan Flavin established himself as a leading figure of the fledgling Minimalist movement. He and his artistic brethren embarked on a mission to cool off the painterly and emotional excesses of the preceding generation of Abstract Expressionist artists. The resulting works would be stripped bare of everything but the essentials. When possible, these young artists would go for an industrial, impersonal look to their work, hiding any signs of a handmade process. Flavin went even one step further: his art came off the shelves of the regular hardware store. He would buy fluorescent fixtures in tubes of various lengths and a few basic colors. And then he would think long and hard about their precise placement on the wall, usually where you would expect it the least. Unless you experience it firsthand, it’s impossible to fully explain the startling effect of the small pool of light emanating from a single tube, or sometimes a small cluster of tubes arranged in a geometric formation.

This light colors not only the wall, but also the very air of the room that you’re walking through. It might be invasive, even harsh, but seductive nevertheless. When I went through the exhibition last week and fell under the spell of Flavin’s ingenuity, a thought occurred to me: there is a similarity between the sound of an organ in the vast space of a cathedral, where a single majestic, trembling note resonates throughout the entire space, and the way Dan Flavin’s art affects and transforms the rooms and people bathed in his light.

But what about Richard Tuttle, whose career also started in the 60's? Talk about humble materials for making art: styrofoam, bubble wrap, a few inches of twisted name it. He would cut and sew a few irregularly shaped pieces of canvas and dip them into a liquid dye, with the resulting artwork becoming – depending on your preference – a sculpture or a painting hanging on the wall or resting on the floor. These and other pieces of his have no precise orientation. There is a perceptible improvisational sense about most of Tuttle’s art, very much in the spirit of the choreography of Merce Cunningham. When I saw this traveling exhibition last year at the Whitney Museum, I did my best to pay respect to the work of this important artist, but to be completely honest, it did very little for me. Not this time. MOCA’s version of this show is not only bigger, but much more imaginatively and elegantly installed. This time, even the most minimalistic of Tuttle’s wall sculptures, made of a scrap of wire and a single trace of pencil, compelled me to stop and stare, trying to understand the near impossible: what’s the secret of the transformation of such ‘near nothing’ into a poetic line, a sort of haiku?

In spite of all the differences between the magisterial art of Dan Flavin and the self-effacing, low-key works of Richard Tuttle, they do have something essential in common: they create magic out of virtually nothing. To quote Russian poet A nna Akhmatova, “You would be surprised to discover what beautiful poems can grow out of a gutter, experiencing no shame.”

Dan Flavin: A Retrospective
On view through August 12, 2007 at LACMA

The Art of Richard Tuttle
On view through July 30, 2007 at MOCA Grand Avenue

Banner image: Dan Flavin, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), 1973
Dan Flavin: A Retrospective
May 13 through August 12, 2007
Photo Copyright 2007 Museum Associates/LACMA