Hedonist Theater

While Judd's use of color has always been fabulous, even Warholian (though he, like other red-blooded art males, for the most part ignored the fey Andy), this box's color is different for Judd, both in its diversity and in the fact that it's been cosmetically applied. Materials with intrinsic color, like Plexiglas, had always been important for Judd (object versus illusion again) because they were more "honest," which I have to set off with quotes even though I don't think Judd used that exact word. Applied color, painting, was just so much femme chicanery -- skin, not bones. Within Judd's logical system I buy this argument, and at the same time I'm pleased that he was tempted to violate it.

As for hedonism, this box takes smug pleasure in itself and its size, leaving the viewer to serve as a debased audience, with no permission to interpret, nothing to snag the emotions, and no place, really, to go with the work, which is entirely the point. I had the good fortune to view this exhibit with critic Peter Schjeldahl, who like any good New Yorker was preoccupied by the amount of real estate the box occupied, noting that you could probably use the same amount of space to build a lab to cure cancer. As a good Houstonian, I added that it looked like a great place to park.

Despite the flirtation with cosmetic color, this work shares with the rest of Judd's work the intensely aggressive beingness that led Michael Fried, in his famous attack on minimalism (or as he called it, literalism), "Art and Objecthood," to accuse such art of the cardinal sin of being theatrical. He was right -- the work is theatrical in the rhythmic way it manipulates space and spectacle, and this box is the fat exhibitionist singing at the end of the night. But theatricality is less a sin than the ennui prompted by the work's unreconstituted masculinity. I was disappointed when, in researching Judd, I was unable to locate an essay titled "The Issue of Boredom: Is It Interesting?" I would have loved to know. Judd's work is boring in the same way that visiting your father's office as a child was boring -- nothing there is intended for children; the pragmatic aesthetic is inaccessible to young eyes; the corporate sculpture that might make a good playground is off-limits. And yet, piles of paper clips and gum erasers can become an engrossing geometric game.

If Judd stays rigidly within the smooth boundaries of his materials, Flavin positively triumphs with his. I think of fluorescent lights as something department stores are foolish to put in dressing rooms -- but with Flavin, fluorescents have never been more mysterious, flattering or generous. They're like sun lamps for the psyche.

Flavin's system is just as rigorous as Judd's, perhaps even more so -- he has three lengths of bulb, six colors and four kinds of white to work with. But he seems to regard that as enough of a limitation on expressivity and allows himself more goofy leeway as to what he actually makes, from rocket ships to staggered, wall-mounted diagonals. Or maybe it's just that Judd's pieces are greedy for light, space and attention, while Flavin's are difficult to behold directly, displacing their luminous aura onto the viewer and sharing space, be it antiseptic or architecturally embellished. There's a photograph of a 1960s installation of a Flavin bulb -- a cool, postmechanical device with nerve endings in the electric age -- tucked alongside an ornate European fireplace, as casual and graceful as a vase. If Judd's earthbound, reticent objects forestall metaphor, Flavin's stand unobtrusively in corners, bearing mystical or metaphysical promise. With Flavin, the interpretive field is broad: Some of his light bulbs form doorways that invite the viewer into the dreamy gleam of Narnia, heaven or a matter transporter.

Really, there isn't anything to see. But then again, there is. I never before noticed Flavin's connection to the perceptual science of light artist James Turrell, but Flavin's spectral pieces such as untitled (to Janie C. Lee) and untitled (to Virginia Dawn), in which hidden bulbs cast three colors onto the wall, explore the way the eye takes in colors and light. The piece de resistance is a fake hallway that's accessible from two sides. In the middle, there's a floor-to-ceiling fence whose bulbs facing one direction are pink and those facing the other are yellow. About the only thing to scientifically investigate here is that viewed from the pink side, yellow looks green, and viewed from the yellow side, pink looks purple. And yet, the installation engrosses far beyond that discovery, or maybe it's that you can delight in the discovery again and again, or use the close examination of your own perception as an excuse for a good long soak in the light.

The last work that Dan Flavin completed, and the last work that Dominique de Menil commissioned, is permanently installed in the whole Richmond Hall, a former Weingarten's grocery store located a short stroll from the museum. Like a monochromatic Vegas, an exterior frieze of green bulbs loudly heralds the installation's presence. Inside, the two long walls on either side of the entry bear three horizontal rows of light. The top row is a series of vertical, confetti-colored bulbs, repeating blue, pink, yellow and green bulbs facing one direction. The bottom row repeats vertical bulbs in the same sequence, but offset and facing the other direction, so that if they were lined up, the blue bulbs would face each other across a bare rectangle, the pink bulbs would face each other, and so on. In a soothing optical effect, the two rows appear to track along the wall in opposite directions. The middle row is a subtle horizontal double frieze of ultraviolet bulbs.

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