Let There Be Light


It’s interesting to see what powerful and moneyed art enthusiasts collect.

Michael Ovitz co-founded the world-renowned talent shop known as CAA, or Creative Artists Agency, and briefly was president of Disney. He and his wife, Judy, began collecting art in the 1970s and began to focus on contemporary art in the 1980s. Their Ovitz Family Collection is based in Los Angeles.

The H&R Block Artspace doesn’t tell you all this; the exhibition Past, Present, Future Perfect: Selections From the Ovitz Family Collection lacks a wall statement about how or why the collection was formed, who the Ovitzes are and why these pieces are here.

Because private collecting is so deeply personal, understanding why a collector collects enhances any public viewing of the collection. Here, though, disconnected from the Ovitzes’ intent and vision, we are left to wander through what we can only assume, given the exhibition’s title, are random selections of old and current additions to the Ovitzes’ stash.

A monumental Jules de Balincourt painting in the front gallery and some Julie Mehretu paintings gave me a hopeful feeling about the rest of the exhibition. But that soon gave way to dismay about the lack of contextual information (especially in a gallery associated with an educational institution).

Here’s an insider tip. On the first floor, note the fluorescent tube lights in George Henry Longly’s piece “Vulgar Geometry.” Longly’s installation is a black, laminated, blockish sculpture coupled with a fluorescent-light component tacked to the wall. Then go upstairs and compare Longly’s work with Dan Flavin’s seminal fluorescent-light sculptures. Flavin, who is always associated with his light pieces, began making work with standard fluorescent light tubes mounted directly to walls in 1963. Like other minimalist painters and sculptors, he emerged from and reacted to the abstract gesture of the 1950s. Though he didn’t always consider himself a minimalist, his pieces cut across sculptural and painterly lines — nobody else was doing this kind of work.

The color bleed from his lights often casts a dramatic and expressive glow on the walls. Here, in “Alternate Diagonal of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd),” red and yellow wash over the wall. Flavin’s love of ordinary lights (as opposed to specialized neon fluorescents) shows his devotion to the properties and aesthetic possibilities of light.

A second piece, “Untitled (to Cy Twombly),” illustrates how, by 1972, Flavin had developed a different relationship to space. Rather than being mounted flat on a wall, this piece crosses a corner of the gallery, creating a sculptural and active space between the wall and the work itself.

These two pieces are among Flavin’s tribute pieces devoted to individuals — in this case, his friend and fellow minimalist Donald Judd and the painter Cy Twombly.

Comparing his work with the Longly piece downstairs makes it obvious how masterful Flavin was. In Longly’s piece, the lights just look stuck on the wall; it doesn’t share the luminous, sculptural qualities of Flavin’s work.

Flavin devoted his career to exploring the possibilities of fluorescent light. And despite my admitted love of narrative, figural art, Flavin’s work never strikes me as repetitive, boring or tiresome. Though each piece is constructed from the same materials, each looks and feels different from the others. Like Marcel Duchamp before him, Flavin declared that an ordinary object — in this case a light tube — could stand on its own as a work of art.

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