After seven years of working at MoMA as a school programs educator, I still treated Gallery 20 as a glorified hallway. As we scurried through on the way to the more crowd-pleasing Pop art in Gallery 19, I virtually shielded my eyes and those of my students. What was this dreaded room, you ask? Nothing more harrowing than the Minimalism gallery, a room filled with the kinds of materials I pass every time I walk through Midtown: fiberglass, galvanized iron, florescent light tubes.
What was I so scared of? I knew other educators who taught in these galleries with much success. I’d read Donald Judd’s Specific Objects. I’d even been to Marfa, Texas, where the Dan Flavin galleries will make you wonder how anyone can say Minimalism isn’t art. Perhaps I was worried that students would be intimidated or that it could turn them off of modern art entirely. Perhaps I felt like I could only teach Minimalism if it was interactive, like Richard Serra’s Delineator or Olafur Eliasson’s 2008 MoMA exhibition.
Then, this spring, a group of commercial photography students at the High School of Art and Design asked for a three-part visit (pre-visit, tour, and post-visit) that addressed “Shadow and Light.” MoMA’s new Bill Brandt photography exhibition was perfect, but we couldn’t spend the whole tour there. We needed more.
I thought immediately of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. Kids large and small appreciate their size, their gestural marks, their immersive depictions of the undulating light from dawn to dusk, and the Museum’s commitment to replacing the first two canvasses that were destroyed in a fire. So now I had two stops. I needed a third, and I needed something different. One day, as I was hurrying a group through Gallery 20 for the umpteenth time, it finally hit me: Dan Flavin was the best choice. The only choice.
The photography students arrived on a chilly day early in April. I had already visited their classroom and introduced them to the works of Bill Brandt and Cindy Sherman. They discovered how these photographers used the elements of shadow and light to imply mood or character. They were interested in photography, but I worried about what they would think of something as unfamiliar as Flavin’s work.
Flavin’s Untitled (1969) consists of one vertical 25-inch-long pink florescent bulb facing a corner of the gallery at about eye level and, on top of it, an identically sized horizontal yellow florescent bulb facing toward the viewer. Together, they form a very bright cross. We arrived there after a lively discussion at Monet’s paintings, and I immediately asked the students what they noticed. They didn’t say anything at first. Their eyes blinked; they made their hands into visors as if staring into the sun. Then, a couple students held up their cameras and began to shoot it from different angles. I feared they were just hiding behind their devices.
“Well?” I asked.
“It’s just light bulbs,” said one student.
“True,” I said, “That’s probably surprising—that an artwork could be made of regular, everyday, standard-issue florescent light bulbs. But what if I said that this artist is interested in how these bulbs affect the whole space?”
“I can see that!” said one, his eyes rising from behind the great obscuring mass of his camera lens. “The pink light bulb is facing toward the corner and lighting it all up!”
“And there are shadows everywhere,” said another. “All the way up the corner toward the ceiling.”
“Wait!” said one student, pointing to the ground. “Is that a shadow or is the floor a different color there?”
We all stared. Flavin’s piece had created a dark triangular shadow on the ground in front of us and something about it looked too perfect, too much a part of the space, to be an illusion. I asked them to compare Flavin to Monet. How were they approaching shadow and light differently?
“Monet was representing it. Flavin was making it.”
By the time we were finished with our tour, many of the kids, and their teacher, said Flavin was their favorite.
I had one more lesson with these students, and I wanted to make up for my own past failings with Minimalism. On a tip from a fellow educator, I searched all over the city for LED “throwies,” little 5mm lights. A few days later, I was back in the photography students’ classroom with a big bag of battery holders and LED lights in green, red, white, and yellow, coaching them on how to create installations between foam-core “walls.” I reread to them a Flavin quote I’d introduced during the tour: “I knew that the actual space of a room could be broken down and played with by planting illusions of real light (electric light) at crucial junctures in the room’s composition…. A piece of wall can be visually disintegrated from the whole.”
I then challenged them to experiment with how their foam-core space “could be broken down and played with.” Finally, I asked them to photograph their results. In groups of four or five scattered throughout the room, they discovered the beauty and disintegrating power of light and shadow. One group created an installation that looked like it had been visited by a psychedelic butterfly, another like a circular spotlight out of the Spanish Inquisition.
As I looked out on the class, I wondered what they would take away from the experience. Hopefully, it had opened their eyes to the connections between different mediums and how the fine arts could inspire their commercial art projects. Surely, they could see now the power of light to transform a space. One thing I knew for sure was that they had discovered an artist they now appreciated: Dan Flavin. And so had I.
I’d also learned something else: never fear an artwork. Even the ghosts of Gallery 20.