by Emily J Weitz
To understand what goes on at the Dan Flavin Institute in Bridgehampton, you really need to understand the Dia Art Foundation, which has supported Dan Flavin and other artists since its founding in 1974.
“Dia has a commitment to this group of artists,” explains Yasmil Raymond, curator of the current John Chamberlain exhibition at the Dan Flavin Institute. “It isn’t a museum. Other museums might be trying to collect bits and pieces of what goes on in a culture, but Dia is not like that. We pick artists and decide these are the artists we want to support.”
One of the original artists, along with Dan Flavin, was, in fact, John Chamberlain, who is best known for his massive sculptures made of automobile parts.
“We have about 65 works of Chamberlain’s,” says Raymond. “So the decision to make this show now was really about the desire to see these pieces. We discussed these works, and how we hadn’t shown them and we really wanted to see them, and that’s how it came about.”
The result is a small, carefully curated Chamberlain show downstairs at the Dan Flavin Institute on Corwith Avenue in Bridgehampton with the permanent Dan Flavin show upstairs.
“This is a modest exhibition,” says Raymond. “It’s specific to the site, because Dan Flavin created a site specific work that’s been there for 30 years. It’s not a museum, but a work of art.”
Raymond explains that when Flavin, who died in 1996, was alive, he would organize the shows in the downstairs space himself and then he started to bring curators in.
“For the past six or seven years,” says Raymond, “we’ve been doing small projects or presentations either from the collection or with the artists we are showing on a larger scale somewhere else.”
Dia Beacon is the organization’s massive space in Beacon, N.Y. It’s a converted Nabisco factory that was specifically designed to house the works of Dia artists, many of which are on a very large scale.
“At Dia Beacon,” says Raymond, “there are 25 exhibitions on display. The rooms are vast. In the case of these particular works by Chamberlain, we’ve never been able to show them because they’re so modest. They’re an oddity — an exception from what he was known for.”
The pieces on view in Bridgehampton include six paintings (auto lacquer on Formica) as well as one sculpture (paint on steel). They were created early on in his career, all done in 1965.
“They’re unique experimentations he did on a two-dimensional surface,” says Raymond. “I took one sculpture from the same year to contextualize what he was known for. What is intriguing and special about this little body of work is that you can see he was painting. He was using pencils and car paint on Formica. Bizarre materials, creating luminescent and translucent surfaces.”
Seeing the familiar car paint from Chamberlain’s other work applied to flat surfaces brings a whole new aesthetic to it. As you walk past the paintings, the color and light almost appear to be changing.
“It’s an optical effect,” says Raymond. “Everyone has a different experience of it, and nobody sees the same thing. Your experience of the work is determined by the set of eyes you’ve got, and I think Chamberlain was interested in playing with those effects. Chamberlain was a true colorist in the same sense that de Kooning was.”
Perhaps it’s that play of light and color that bonds Chamberlain to neon revolutionary Dan Flavin, along with their mutual membership in Dia’s elite.
“He’s a hard artist to pinpoint historically,” says Raymond of Chamberlain. “He wears many hats. He had one leg in Abstract Expressionism and the other in Minimalism, and he was a great player in that generation. But one of the most wonderful things about his work is his understanding of light and his use of color. When you see his pieces on display, it’s a feast to the eye.”
The current exhibit, “John Chamberlain: It Ain’t Cheap” will be on view now through October 20, 2013. The Dan Flavin Institute, on Corwith Lane in Bridgehampton, is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m., and admission is always free.
These works are from a series of 12-inch-square paintings that were presented at Leo Castelli Gallery in January 1965 in a solo exhibition titled “Paintings” done in auto lacquer and metal flake on formica. Dia presented an exhibition of work by John Chamberlain at The Dan Flavin Art Institute in 2007.