untitled ("monument" for V. Tatlin) is one of the first works from the celebrated and long-running series dedicated to the Russian avant-garde artist Vladimir Tatlin that Flavin began in 1964 and continued until 1990. Comprised of eight fluorescent light tubes positioned together to form a dynamic futuristic rocket-like shape illuminating the wall, this light-sculpture both mimics and ironises the grandiose and utopian ideals that Tatlin and his Productivist colleagues pioneered and pursued in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.
Flavin's art has been directly inspired and influenced by much of the work of the Russian avant-garde. In particular, he admired the way in which the Russians, adopting more the role of engineers than that of the traditional artist, had attempted to integrate art into everyday life and broken down the conventional boundaries between the viewer and the work. Tatlin's demand that the artists of the new industrial era of the Soviet should produce works of real materials (such as iron, glass, wood etc.) in real space is clearly echoed by Flavin's adoption of the industrial fluorescent light tube as the raw material of his own art. Flavin's untitled ("monument" for V. Tatlin) works are not homages to the artist however, but a wry and poignant comment on the ultimate failure of the kind of modernist ideal for which Tatlin's art stood. Taking the form of a tower of light or a fantastic futuristic glowing rocket ship in flight, Flavin's 'monuments' illuminate their environment with a sense of the feverish optimism and enthusiasm for the future that in Tatlin's time, for a brief but glorious moment, actually existed. Mimicking also the structure of Tatlin's greatest unrealised project, his vast tower, the Monument to the Third Communist International, these works can be seen as 'monuments' to an idealized view of the future that was, perhaps inevitably, never to be. In this way they both gently mock and display a slight envy for the time when artists, with state support, formed the vanguard of societal change and stood on the threshold of the birth of a new world. An unprecedented moment in art history when the utopian idealism common to all artists was allowed an almost free rein, the Revolution gave rise to a frantic period of stupendous naivety, manic enthusiasm and blind hope. It was a time of great material shortage and simplicity when artists were literally cutting and pasting bits of cardboard together into forms and structures that they believed would one day stand in glass and steel thousands of feet high. Tatlin's great monument was to stand twice as tall as the Empire State Building, there wasn't enough steel in all of Russia to actually build it, even if the Bolshevik government had wanted to.
The ethereal and temporal nature of Flavin's untitled ("monuments" for V. Tatlin)- the fact that their essential constituent is light (of a finite amount which will only shine for a limited period), both reflects and ironizes this fleeting moment of utopianism and artistic possibility. It is also a poignant reminder of the sad fate that overtook many Soviet artists, not least Tatlin himself, who died in poverty and neglect, spurned by the state to which he had dedicated both his art and his life. "I always refer to these 'monuments' in quotes, Flavin has explained, "in order to emphasize the ironic humor of temporary monuments. These "monuments" only survive as long as the light system is useful (2,100 hours)".
Flavin's adoption of the light tube as his medium is derived from Russian art. Before arriving at the simple, shop-bought, minimal, industrial, almost non-material fluorescent light tube as the fundamental element of his art, Flavin had worked with sculptural forms that he referred to as "icons". Like Malevich's Black Square, the literal corner-stone and building block of a new "Supreme" form of painting in a dimensionless world, Flavin's illuminated "icons" sought through light, to merge the world of the viewer and the art work. To demonstrate the dimensionless spatial innovation of his work Malevich had exhibited his Black Square across the corner of the gallery space. Tatlin's corner reliefs went even further actually breaking down the gallery space and integrating it into the logic of his sculptures. Flavin's light sculpture is in many ways the conclusion of this tradition. Flavin's intention was also to disrupt and alter the gallery space with his work. He often avoided situating his work like a "sacred" art object on the middle a wall preferring to articulate the space of the room from its recesses and corners. With his use of light tubes, the physical, material nature of the art object dissolves and merges into its environment and altering the world of the viewer.
"Regard the light," Flavin declared, "and you are fascinated - practically inhibited from grasping its limits at each end. While the tube itself has an actual length, its shadow cast from the supporting pan has but illusively dissolving ends. This waning cannot really be measured without resisting consummate visual effects. Realizing this, I knew that the actual space of a room could be disrupted and played with by careful, thorough composition of the illuminating equipment. For example if a 244cm (8ft) fluorescent lamp be pressed into a vertical corner, it can completely eliminate that definite juncture by physical structure, glare and doubled shadow. A section of wall can be visually disintegrated into a separated triangle by placing diagonal of light from edge to edge on the wall: that is, side to floor, for instance." (Dan Flavin "in daylight or cool white" lecture given at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art, New York (18 December 1964), published in Artforum, December 1965.)
As Donald Judd famously remarked when he first saw one of Flavin's fluorescent tube sculptures in 1964, these works, almost non-existent in themselves, make "an intelligible idea of the whole wall". untitled ("monument" for V. Tatlin) is a clever, poignant and self-referential work that Janus-headed looks both to the past and to the future.
Drawing of untitled ("monument" for V. Tatlin) c 2004 Estate of Dan Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Vladimir Tatlin, Model of the Monument to the Third International, 1920 c 2004 Vladimir Tatlin/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
a proposed installation for the hall of the untitled ("monuments" for V. Tatlin at The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1968 c 2004 Estate of Dan Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York