Hayward Gallery

As usual, I am late. I bundle into the gallery at the last minute feeling irritable and pent up. Teased by a grotesque green glow from beyond the frosted glass, I hurriedly buy my ticket, the door is opened, and I am quietened. The space is bathed in light from one of Dan Flavin’s ‘barrier’ works, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), 1973. A piece-by-piece, picket-like construction, it bisects the oblong gallery space at a subtle angle. People have gathered along the remaining accessible wall, gazing into the barred space, their skin turning a tinge of green as the bulbs drain to white.

The Hayward has chosen an impressive start to this touring Dan Flavin retrospective, which presents over fifty of his light works, many never seen before in Britain. The gallery is stripped back, with its Modernist architecture and concrete lines providing a pertinent setting for the work. Indeed, it helps the inevitable chronology of a retrospective to feel strong and fresh. Careful juxtaposition of Flavin’s early ‘icon’ pieces – domestic light fittings attached to square, painting-like constructions – make his seminal work more potent. A fluorescent yellow light bulb hung at 45 degrees, the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi), remains an emblem for his entire practice, and leaves me bizarrely star-struck.

The recreation of Flavin’s first significant exhibition, held at the Green Gallery, New York, is a great success. Perhaps it’s the architecture, but I am left hovering between ’64 and ’06, questioning the works in a new light (no pun intended). I move on, and installed to the specifications of the next room is the nominal three (to William of Ockham), 1963. One, then two and finally three sets of stark white bulbs reach from floor to ceiling, suggesting limitless potential, and perhaps confirm Flavin as some kind of Conceptual Minimalist. Regarded as a pioneer of installation art, he defined it himself as “acts of electric light defining space”.

I continue around the show feeling slightly guilty for my affinity with Flavin’s work; untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1964, is a simply delicious array of pink, yellow, blue and green; as a devout yellow addict, I can’t help but be seduced by the piece used for the show’s publicity material – an engulfing ‘corridor’ piece. It’s difficult to know what Flavin wanted from us, but I don’t think it was lust. At its best, a retrospective allows a cool objectivity.

Last year’s Dan Flavin show at Haunch of Venison, London, revealed the “monuments” for V. Tatlin series almost as deities. Seen here, these white symmetrical pieces, pointing towards heaven, are suitably muted. The entire show demonstrates an often-overlooked humility in Flavin’s work. The plentiful examples of his rarely-seen drawings provide a welcome contrast to the light works, being resolutely human, tender and poignant. As a token ‘conceptual’ piece, Flavin’s work forces defence against its simplicity. As a retrospective, the buzz quiets its audience.

Zoe Langdell is an artist based in Liverpool.