Light is integral to every visitor’s experience at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The museum’s architect, Tadao Ando, essentially treats light as a material that is as necessary as the concrete of the walls, the steel supports, the granite floors, and the sheets of glass that connect the museum interior to the nature and city that surrounds it. There is reflected light, filtered light, light eking around corners from the glass pavilions, walls washed with light, light that greets visitors in the glass-sandwiched lobby, and darkened passages and spaces that enhance one’s experience of light. With his design of the Modern, Ando intended for light and water to contribute to the contemplative and reflective nature of this museum, setting the stage for and working in concert with the art.
It is also interesting to note that the element of light is increasingly found in works of art housed in Ando’s light-infused spaces. There are several new acquisitions that incorporate light, such as Vernon Fisher’s The Coriolis Effect, 1987 for which the green glow of a spiraling florescent tube sitting above the panel surface suggests the painting’s title and offers an ominous presence that enhances the narrative text. There is also a blue glow of light creating excitement as it emanates from the center glass pavilion where the soon-to-be-unveiled acquisition from text-based artist Jenny Holzer is in hiding until the Museum’s anniversary gala this week. In addition, there is untitled (for you Leo, in long respect and affection) 4, 1978, a corner piece by the twentieth-century artist Dan Flavin, known for his use of fluorescent lights. This simple but clever grid of colored light is tucked away in a somewhat remote space, making its finding a prize—as if the viewer shares a secret with the museum. Then there is the function of light in Studio Mix, 2010, a video installation by Bruce Nauman. A case could even be made that the reflective quality of materials in Mark Bradford’s Kingdom Day, 2010 is an incorporation of light for formal and conceptual purposes.
This realization of the significant role light plays in many of the new acquisitions has me looking for evidence of light in other works in the Modern’s collection. Moving through the galleries, there is Mark Rothko’s Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957; Philip Guston’s The Light, 1964; the essential light/dark dichotomy in Callum Innes’s Exposed Painting Mars Black, 2002; the red flashing light in Robert Rauschenberg’s Whistle Stop (Spread), 1977; Dan Flavin’s Diagonal of May 25, 1963, 1963; Robert Irwin’s use of light to create the shadows that define Untitled, 1968; the projected light that makes visible Bill Viola’s The Greeting, 1995; the reflective quality of the Plexiglas in Donald Judd’s stacked piece Untitled, 1967; and the stars in Vija Celmins’s Night Sky #17, 2000–01. What am I missing?
The repeated use of light throughout the collection is, of course, an irrelevant observation when considered broadly. It is only light’s value in the individual works that is of any consequence. It is, in fact, specifically Dan Flavin’s Diagonal of May 25, 1963 that has me taking note of light’s role in art as demonstrated in the Modern’s collection. I think the case can be made that this straightforward and, as such, seemingly unassuming piece is the groundbreaking work that made many of the pieces listed above possible. With Diagonal of May 25, 1963, Flavin challenged traditional notions of sculpture as a freestanding object with which the viewer shared space and painting as an image on the wall that was to be viewed from outside. In this early piece by Flavin, light accommodates and expands the definition of both sculpture and painting. To begin with, it is readily identified, thanks to Flavin’s Duchampian use of an everyday object, as a three-dimensional florescent tube and fixture known to dispense light. There is also the more ethereal wash of light that paints the wall, the floor, and the viewer who moves within range with subtle shifts in color according to the surface on which the warm white light lands. And, indeed, there is the symbolic and conceptual potential of light at play here as well.
With Diagonal of May 25, 1963, Flavin is proposing that the viewer reconsider assumptions about parameters and possibilities in art. While such notions were not completely new and were certainly in the air at the time of this seminal piece, Flavin’s proposal was not lost on his contemporaries, and it has arguably influenced every artist using light and/or challenging boundaries since. Therefore, I am proposing that following the light in the Modern’s anniversary installation of its collection leads one to Diagonal of May 25, 1963 by Dan Flavin, and that the Museum’s recent acquisition by him, the later untitled (for You Leo, in long respect and affection) 4, 1978, makes a case for the potential of that original proposal.