Flavin of Love

International art controversy hits home: Menil "appalled" by EU devaluing Flavin sculptures

International art controversy hits home: Menil "appalled" by EU devaluing Flavin sculptures

News_Dan Flavin_Site-specific installation by Dan Flavin_1996_Menil Collection_Richmond Hall
Dan Flavin, Site-specific installation, 1996 Courtesy photo
News_Toby Kamps_curator_Menil_CAMH
Toby Kamps is appalled by the European Union's stance. Photo by Anton Henning
News_Dan Flavin_Site-specific installation by Dan Flavin_1996_Menil Collection_Richmond Hall
News_Toby Kamps_curator_Menil_CAMH

The fluorescent light sculptures by minimalist artist Dan Flavin have come under fire by the European Commission, as detailed in The Art Newspaper. Stripped of their status as "art," the works, made from commercially available fluorescent light fixtures, are simply now classified as "lighting fittings," and therefore liable for a 20 percent value-added tax, as opposed to the typical five percent leveraged by EU customs for art.

The judgment contradicts a 2008 decision in which London-based Haunch of Venison gallery challenged a £36,000 tax on works by Flavin and video artist Bill Viola — and won. Last week, that decision was again reversed.

The "Is this art?" controversy is playing out across the pond, but it couldn't be more relevant to Houston audiences, who have unparalleled access to Flavin's work at the Menil Collection campus' Richmond Hall. Commissioned by Dominique de Menil in 1990, the permanent, site-specific installation's design was conceived a mere two days before the artist's death in November 1996, and was realized posthumously by his studio.

Split into three portions, the largest installation is in the main interior space of the building (originally built as a Weingarten grocery store in 1930): Above and below dark purple lines of filtered ultraviolet lamps, colored fluorescent tubes progress the length of the room, reflecting upon the polished concrete floor. The entrance lobby contains a second work consisting of two sets of white lamps mounted diagonally on the original foyer walls. Outside, a horizontal line of green fluorescent lights articulates the structure's top edges along the east and west sides.

"We actually treat those fixtures as irreplaceable objects, as does the estate," says Menil chief conservator, Brad Epley, explaining that Flavin's light bulb-based works are accompanied by an official certificate ensuring that the Dan Flavin estate will reconstitute a piece if needed. "Without the certificate, it's not considered a Flavin," says Epley, "so you can't just take a fluorescent bulb off a shelf."

Contrary to European authorities, Flavin's work (which also figures largely at Marfa's Chinati Foundation) is approached at the Menil as a precious art object requiring careful handling. The installation began its life from custom-made components by a Flavin-sanctioned light fabricator in Connecticut, which continues to supply the museum with bulbs as the originals have extinguished.

"In every way we treat those fixtures in the same way as we would other sculptures in our collection," Epley says. "From our standpoint, they're irreplaceable."  

"I'm kind of appalled," says Toby Kamps, the Menil's curator of modern and contemporary art, who dealt with a similar customs calamity for his final "Perspectives" series exhibition while senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. For that show, a crate of Kirsten Pieroth's work from Berlin was shipped to Houston, but part of the package — fragments of a couch — were intercepted by customs, which demanded that the pieces be declared as "domestic furniture."

"There's some kind of crazy literalness going on in both instances," says Kamps. "If it wasn't art, it was trash at best." He continues,

For a court to say this is or isn't art is really a dangerous precedent, and could even be connected to the controversy at the Smithsonian. In the current instance, it's not just any fluorescent light fixture. It's made by an artist. It's art. I'm scared to think that this kind of thinking could impede the flow of culture across borders."

Is the European Commission's reactionary decision part of a broader anti-intellectual movement?

"My experience is that governments are too disorganized to carry out conspiracies," suggests Kamps, who attributes the current spat as the result of a petty bureaucrat. He concludes, "The courts trying to determine that this is or isn't sculpture is maddening."