JAE 62-2

Assembling Light

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JAE 62-2

While the trajectories of minimalist light art and assemblage art have been historically distinct, these movements seek to produce similarly charged atmospheres that transcend common material associations. A marriage of these traditions employing programmable light nets and reused beverage containers seeks to capitalize on this similarity, shifting deeply-embedded cultural readings of a ubiquitous consumer product via integrated illumination that alters the material’s inherent banality.

Comprised of commercially-available fluorescent tubes set within gallery spaces, Dan Flavin’s light installations embody the direct and impersonal approach advocated by minimalist artists such as Ad Reinhardt, who declared that “Art begins with the getting rid of nature.”1 However, despite Flavin’s humble account that his work is “as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find,”2 his installations achieve sophisticated results from the complex interplay of light and color within spaces as well as the dynamic play of shadows cast by viewers of the works. Regarding his search for a plastic treatment of light, Flavin has described the experience this way: “Now the entire interior spatial container and its parts-wall, floor, and ceiling, could support this strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it.”3

Despite obvious formal differences with minimalist light art, assemblage works similarly achieve spatial and atmospheric qualities, in this case through the en masse deployment of modular units. Like Flavin’s installations, assemblages utilize commercially-available products and array them in such a way as to transcend their original reading. New York-based artist Tara Donovan creates large sculptures using common consumer products such as Styrofoam cups, fishing line, and paper plates. The power of these works arises from the painstaking accumulation of simple units into large surfaces, which are often compared to clouds, landscapes or various biological structures. Japanese artist Tokujin Yoshioka also accumulates large quantities of single materials to generate unpredictable atmospheric effects. His “cloud installation” of 550,000 transparent straws at Maison Hermes in Tokyo utilizes a vast quantity of lightweight tubes in order to impart a reading of “fluid air”4. These works define a new generation of assemblage—the movement that originated in the 1950’s when artists such as Jean Debuffet, Louise Nevelson, and Joseph Cornell created three-dimensional compositions from found objects.

Assemblage art traces its origins to Marcel Duchamp and Dada, and relates to similar movements including Fluxus and trash art, which sought to employ previously used objects to alter conventional readings of consumer products. Through successful experiments that destabilized conventional readings of common products, assemblage art pioneers sought to take advantage of the underappreciated elasticity of material meaning. Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), for example, undermines one’s expected perception of a urinal by rearranging it on its side so that it closely resembles a drinking fountain. Through the employment of this simple means of irony, Duchamp obliges the viewer to realize how such a minimal physical change can provoke a radical transformation. Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral (1982), on the other hand, transforms one’s understanding of a collection of found wood objects by the way the objects are carefully arranged and painted the same color. The paint masks material qualities inherent in the objects that would otherwise communicate information about their original uses, foregrounding pure geometry and shadow instead. In both of these examples, the cultural associations attached to common products and materials are intentionally reconfigured, albeit via different means. Unlike Flavin and other minimalist light artists, however, these works are ultimately bound to the material sphere. Despite their transcendence of common material readings, the works do not seek to achieve the incorporeal, intangible effects produced by Flavin’s light tube installations.


1. Ad Reinhardt, ‘Twelve Rules for a New Academy’, 1953, in Art News, vol. 56, no. 3, New York, May 1957, pp. 37 – 38, 56, reprinted in Ad Reinhardt, Art-as-Art, The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, The Viking Press, New York, 1975
2. Michael Gibson, “The Strange Case of the Fluorescent Tube,” Art International 1 (Autumn 1987), p. 105.
3. Dan Flavin. “‘…in daylight or cool white': an autobiographical sketch,” Artforum 4, no. 4 (December 1965), p. 24. Flavin later revised and republished this text in several exhibition catalogues.
4. Tokujin Yoshioka, “Super Fiber Revolution,” Designboom (2006): http://www.designboom.com/contemporary/super_fiber.html

Read more of Blaine Brownell’s article “Assembling Light” in the Journal of Architectural Education.

View the “PET Wall” installation discussed in the extended article.

5 thoughts on “Assembling Light

  1. I work at the National Science Foundation in Arlington Virginia in the Divisional of Material Research. How can I get a copy of the PET Wall, Transstudio picture? I would like to place it in our office lounge area.

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