Artist Dan Flavin designed three distinct but related pieces for Richmond Hall. On the exterior, a frieze of green fluorescent lights articulates the building’s top edges along its east and west sides. Flavin used green lamps because they create the strongest and farthest-reaching light. At night, this piece illuminates the neighborhood, tying the structure to the commercial buildings surrounding it by mimicking their neon signage.
The building’s lobby contains a second work consisting of two sets of daylight lamps. (There are several shades of white fluorescent lamps commercially available; among them are warm white, cool white, daylight, soft white, and deluxe white.) Mounted diagonally on the foyer walls, this work relates to the angles of the walls themselves and also recalls Flavin’s first fluorescent light sculpture the diagonal of May 25, 1963, 1963.
The largest and most complex of the three installations occupies the building’s main interior space, an unbroken rectangular room measuring approximately 128 feet long by 50 feet wide. A dark purple line of filtered ultraviolet lamps (commonly known as blacklights) horizontally bisects each of the hall’s long sides. Above and below that line, offset slightly from one another, a sequence of vertically oriented fixtures progresses the length of the building. In the two vertical rows, top and bottom, the colored tubes face opposite directions so that the light reflects off of the lamps’ metal bases, incorporating the fixtures into the design. The colors alternate in a repeating pattern of pink, yellow, green, and blue. Flavin included the blacklight as a means to blend the light from the colored lamps to create a brightness in the surrounding environment that approximates the natural light entering from the skylight above.
In the summer of 2003, the Menil converted a storage room in Richmond Hall into an exhibition space to house four earlier works by Flavin, the “monuments” for V. Tatlin, 1964–69, acquired by the Menil Foundation in 1970. Over the course of his career, Flavin made nearly fifty “monuments” dedicated to Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953), one of the leaders of the Russian avant-garde art movement Constructivism, which briefly flourished following the revolution of 1917. Constructivism advanced a radical Marxist philosophy that art, like science and engineering, would eventually evolve to express the needs of the working class, thereby improving the condition of society as a whole. The pyramidal shape and the title of Flavin’s series recall Tatlin’s most famous work, the unrealized Monument to the Third International, 1919, intended for the center of Moscow. Though never realized, the project came to symbolize revolutionary modernism as well as the ultimately unfulfilled ideologies that informed it.
Flavin appreciated the aesthetic of the Constructivists but did not share their utopian vision. By placing the titles of his monuments in quotation marks, the artist emphasized that he intended them to be understood ironically. Built of mass-produced fluorescent tubes that can be switched on and off, they are temporary memorials only as timeless as the light fixtures themselves. Though this tongue-in-cheek treatment refutes the Constructivist’s idealism, Flavin’s light reliefs remain a sincere tribute to Tatlin’s “frustrated, insistent attitude to attempt to combine artistry and engineering.” (Flavin, “monuments” for V. Tatlin from Dan Flavin, 1964–1982, 1989)