The Guggenheim Museum's Panza Collection includes 21 works by Dan Flavin, ranging from simple compositions to large barriers and corridors. Flavin's application of unaltered commercial fluorescent lights raises a host of questions regarding the future of his work. Since the 1960s, the fluorescent lamp has undergone various design changes; more recently, the production of certain colors has been discontinued while new regulations requiring greater efficiency of all types of artificial light have revealed an urgent need to address the lamps’ eventual obsolescence. Given these circumstances, serious questions are emerging about standards for replacing outmoded technology. Because new lamps significantly change the way the work looks, a number of museums and collectors have begun commissioning custom-made replicas of vintage lamps and fixtures. Custom fabrication, however, could be said to conflict with the lamp's original status as a medium commonly available in any hardware store. To further complicate this situation, Flavin himself was known to claim that his work will expire when the lamps burn out; in 1982, for example, he remarked, "One has no choice but to accept the fact of temporary art. Permanence just defies everything."¹ Yet before his death in November 1996, the artist worked closely with the Guggenheim Museum to re-create a number of works, and he approved the replacement of original fixtures with ones readily available at the time of his exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo in 1995.
Flavin’s work often takes the form of “installation,” meaning that such works occupy or fully engage an entire room. In Flavin’s case, emitted light throws color across the walls of the room, while the placement of lamps in various walls and corners—and sometimes within ambient space—allows the work physically to seize the room in multiple ways. Further, the observer moves around the space, encountering the installation and its effects from changing vantages. Given the significance of installation to Flavin’s practice, the posthumous exhibition of his work is approached with more than usual consideration, as care is taken to match or approximate the choices he once made. Some of these installations are adaptable rather than site-specific, although the degree of adaptability is open to question. How far, then, can the museum depart from historical precedent in its choices when installing the work?
One work that Flavin re-created for the 1995 show was also one of his most significant: greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green). Flavin originally conceived the work in 1966, when it was commissioned for a specific room at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Early sketches show that the dimensions and shape of the room–which was faceted on one end–motivated the structure of the work. But Flavin also wrote at the time that greens crossing greens was intended to be adaptable to other spaces; indeed, Panza acquired it with the understanding that it would be re-sited at his own house museum in Varese. Without Flavin’s participation, how much variability is permissible in the installation of this work? Should it be reinstalled only in rooms that conform to the dimensions and shape of the original space? Is a common rectangular floor plan acceptable, given that the work derives from the eccentric plan of the original space?
In addition to the longevity and variability of the lamps, then, the contingency of Flavin's work raises questions about acceptable change. Above all, when do posthumous choices impinge on Flavin's authorship or compromise the work’s authenticity? Indeed, Panza's own choices provoked these questions during the artist's lifetime as alterations he made to certain works could be said to compromise the physical and optical nature of the "original." Yet Flavin's decision to install given works variably over time destabilizes the very notion of authenticity or intention. As a result, parameters for posthumous installation can be elusive.
In August 2010, the members of the Panza Collection Initiative team began assembling materials for the construction of a rigorous, centralized archive of information relating to Flavin and his work. These materials include extensive historical documentation of the works; technical findings concerning fabrication; detailed interviews with many of the artist’s closest associates and members of the Dan Flavin Estate; a complete history of Panza’s activity with Flavin; and a careful history of the acquisition and installation of each work. An Advisory Committee was also formed, consisting of the members of the Panza Collection Initiative team and a group of conservators and art historians from multiple institutions, each of whom possesses specific expertise in Flavin’s work and the historical period he represents. The purpose of the committee is to create a broad conversation with specialists representing a variety of perspectives on Flavin’s practice.
In July 2011, the Panza Collection Initiative held a two-day advisory committee meeting dedicated to Flavin. On the first day of the meeting, members viewed a number of works from the museum’s Panza holdings, as well as a broad range of lamps and fixtures representing the technology of Flavin’s sole medium, fluorescent light. The committee also examined an installation of greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian, who lacked green) (1966, described and pictured above), which was shown in a museum gallery alongside documents, photographs, and other materials pertaining to the conception and early installation of the work. The second day of the meeting was devoted to conference and deliberation. This involved a series of detailed exchanges concerning the three primary topics at hand: medium, fabrication, and installation. The meeting was an occasion for intense discussion and debate, with various aesthetic, technical, and historical frames of reference brought to bear on the preservation and perpetuation of the work.
Since the meeting, the results of the study have been undergoing scrupulous evaluation. Full reports regarding materials and findings have been made to multiple departments within the museum. Determinations regarding the preservation and exhibition of each work in the collection are being made in consultation with the curatorial and conservation staff, and these are being entered into the museum‘s permanent collection database. The initiative’s progress within the museum continues to be shared with the members of the Advisory Committee, and its opinions are solicited throughout the evaluation process. The Panza Collection Initiative team is also conducting an ongoing consultation with the Flavin estate, assuring an open exchange of information.
The results of the Flavin case study can be applied—beyond works in the Panza holdings—to Flavin’s work overall. Ultimately, the efforts of the Panza Collection Initiative will benefit not only the Guggenheim Museum but also the collecting community at large.
See a selection of Flavin's work in the Collection Online.