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Light in Winter: Dan Flavin at Dia

Posted on 25 December 2008

By Marianna Levine

It is rare to find something interesting to do and beautiful to see for free in the Hamptons, but that is exactly what you get at the Dia Art Foundation’s Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton.  Simply stated it is a permanent florescent light exhibit in a former church that was once a firehouse. However, the experience of visiting the DFAI is much more complex.  One enters a rustic looking building under a blue neon light awning that intensifies as the sky darkens. Walking into the bright white interior you’re greeted by the young and friendly Institute administrator, Grant Haffner.  Haffner, a local artist, calls the institute “a hidden gem”, that has discreetly resided in Bridgehampton since 1983.  The building was personally scouted as a location for his work by Flavin back in the 1970s while he lived in Wainscott.  The building itself inspired the installation, a series of small, divided spaces inhabited by many hued sculptural light tubes.  That description does not do justice to the melding of colors, light, and space that confronts the viewer upon entering what sincerely feels like the sacred space it once was. It took Flavin five years to perfect the project, luckily with the unwavering support of Dia which believes in allowing artists take their time in order accomplish their project’s potential.

The Dia Art Foundation supports art and artists from the 1960s onward, with a specific interest in maintaining permanent or long-term exhibits around the United States. Heffner explains, “Dia’s goal is to give work as much time as possible to inhabit a space, more than two weeks or a month, because the idea is that work needs time to be experienced.  One needs to develop a relationship with a painting or work – to see it in different lights and moods.”  Haffner himself says that working at the Institute has been a pleasure; because he’s been able to experience his relationship with the artwork evolve over time.  Pieces he once loved have now been dropped in favor of others, and he’s really noticed how the colors change and blend with each other in the florescent light installation.  Even DFAI’s visiting exhibits, currently German artist Imi Knobel’s painted color collages remain for a year or two.

Dia’s co-creator Heiner Fredrich explains that the DFAI in Bridgehampton is world renown and therefore throughout the summer art enthusiasts and their friends come out to the East End specifically to visit the museum. However, as a resident of Bridgehampton himself, Fredrich wanted to make sure DFAI was open and available to the local population, and therefore the Institute is now open every weekend from noon to 6pm through-out the year.  He also added that the Institute is now open on Fridays by appointment, which he hopes will enable local schools to visit. Haffner reports there have been a lot of families and repeat visitors coming during the winter months.  “Recently we’ve been remarkably busy.” And he’s noticed an increase in local visitors who return with friends to show them around as if giving a tour in their own home, which is really the point of having a permanent art installation such as this around.  Eventually the work becomes as familiar as family.

Also, Haffner has noticed that the early nights of winter have added a new aspect to viewing the work.  “ In the summer it stays out light later so you don’t experience the intensity of the light in the darkness that you do in winter.”  Haffner also muses that the winter is more of an art season since it invites contemplation. “Out here in the summer there’s so much to do. There are always so many events, and of course there’s the beach to go to.”

The dark and chill of a winter night makes the space cozy and inviting, as one wanders past the initial brightness of the white circle florescent sculptures and up into a v-shaped entrance split by a single red light. Children seem to be especially taken by the light and spacing of the installation. Each corner is welcomed with wonder and discovery by DFAI’s young visitors, and Heffner hangs drawing left behind by young patrons on his office walls.   As a young girl ran up the stairs and turned the corner into the installation’s red entrance she gasped, “Oh!”  And then ran into the larger space, eagerly disappearing around another glowing wall. Haffner had warned earlier that the experience of serenity could easily change to an assult depending on the amount of people viewing the pieces and the brightness of the light. Yet all ways of experiencing Flavin’s work at DFAI, regardless of age, seems ultimately satisfying.

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