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Hedonist Theater

It looks really good. It looks really good. It looks really good.
Would that it were not my job to come up with something more than that to say about the current Dan Flavin/Donald Judd exhibit at the Menil Collection and the new permanent Flavin installation at the museum's Richmond Hall. Both Flavin and Judd were artists of such overwhelming certainty that any verbal response seems to flounder by comparison. Although the exhibit, "Aspects of Color," is highly rational -- dry, even -- loveliness and harmony are its salient characteristics, so much more so than historical importance, theory, strategy and debate that such things seem altogether inconsequential among Judd's boxes and Flavin's fluorescent lights.

It makes perfect sense to show Donald Judd and Dan Flavin together, although not too close together -- each of the two alpha males gets three rooms to himself. The two lived contemporaneously (1928-1994 and1933-1996, respectively), were friends (Judd named his son Flavin), and in the '60s, together with a handful of other artists, ushered in what was identified as a movement and was called minimalism, although Judd and Flavin resisted both tags. In his art criticism, Judd liked to refer instead to "the best new work," as in, "Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture," which he wrote in his definitive 1965 essay "Specific Objects." Or, as he declared two years later in his blunt, Hemingway prose, "most of the best artists" shared an affinity for "the large scale and its particular nature; bright color; use of new materials; three dimensions."

Judd needed a state the size of Texas as a site for his ideas. He spent the last two years of his life perfecting permanent installations of contemporary art in Marfa, Texas, where an extensive Dan Flavin piece will soon occupy several barracks of an old army fort that Judd transformed. As Judd saw it, his own work was not sculpture because it was not sculpted; it was not a container for expression, representation or even gesture. Rather, what you see is what you get. "A black hole does not allude to a black hole," Judd said. "It is one." Judd and Flavin broke new ground by using industrial, mass-produced materials: Plexiglas, stainless steel and anodized aluminum for Judd, whose work was made to spec in a factory; fluorescent lights in ready-made colors and sizes for Flavin, who simply made a diagram anyone could follow. Thus, you have the artist as captain of industry; minimalists took pride in ordering their art by phone.

Entering "Aspects of Color," the viewer is confronted by a murky dark-green Plexiglas Judd box (all of his works are untitled) that stands about four feet high. It appears to have a steel box floating weightlessly inside it, but a side view reveals that the steel is part of a hollow armature for the Plexiglas. Though manufactured, this geometric object seems dredged up from some geological deep, with a crystalline logic intact. It sits directly on the floor, a placement which Judd piquantly claimed to have invented as a way of asserting the objecthood, rather than the arthood, of his boxes.

Judd decried the pictorial and the illusionistic, and this exhibit makes the case that for him and Flavin, color defined volume rather than mood. But nothing is illusionistic if not the green box, and nothing is composed if not the surrounding wall-mounted boxes, open like little stages made of various colors of aluminum and divided by walls or panels of Plex.

The next two rooms, as well as the hall outside the exhibit, contain Judd's cantilevered wall boxes. In each, ten boxes, again of Plex and metal, are stacked evenly from floor to ceiling like skyscrapers outfitted with hovercraft technology (except the hallway piece, where the arrangement is horizontal). In one, the boxes have tops and bottoms of shiny copper and sides of deep purple Plexiglas. In another, steel sides flank yellow Plex tops and bottoms, creating an interior space that is visually available but physically off-limits. I am chagrined by how easy it is, in describing these pieces, to fall into the flatly descriptive writing style of Judd himself. Yet, as critic Rosalind Krauss pointed out early on, such descriptions (how tall, what color, etc.) do nothing to illuminate the beauty of Judd's works. The boxes are as much about reflection and refraction, shimmer and frisson, as they are about repetition; where the copper reflects itself, its color grows more intense, and the hall-of-mirrors effect produces the illusion of looking up through the column of boxes.

Despite his control, Donald Judd has been called a hedonist, and the piece in the next room illustrates that point. This box, which measures almost 25 feet in its largest dimension, is one of several gargantuan works that Judd made in the last decade of his life, and it articulates in a final-word kind of way many of his work's key qualities. First, this is the "Don Judd, Colorist" to whom Flavin dedicated several works. The box is made up of 85 rectangular metal panels in nine bright enamel colors, bolted together in no order, but so that no two like colors are adjacent. The distribution is unsystematic, yet thoroughly even, following the classic rule of the anticompositional grid: Nothing is permitted to dominate, and there is no chance of an expressive slip-up.

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.

And, except for two white diagonal Flavins in the vestibule, that's it. A broad expanse of polished concrete floor and a sense of impending theater. Unlike his narrow, zooming corridors with harsh diagonals, or the freestanding, space-dividing light fences of earlier installations, here Flavin has cleared the dance floor with a slow, phosphorescent song. And it looks really good.

"Dan Flavin/Donald Judd: Aspects of Color" will be on view at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400, through January 24.

The Dan Flavin installation is permanently on view at Richmond Hall, 1500 Richmond Avenue.

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