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Dan Flavin's Fantastic Lights

Dan Flavin took an everyday object, found in most stores, homes and offices, and made it extraordinary. He used fluorescent lights of varying lengths and colors and arranged them to create sculptures of light.

NPR's Susan Stamberg tours Dan Flavin: A Retrospective, an exhibit of more than 40 objects by the late artist at the National Gallery of Art.

"Dan Flavin's light sculptures illuminate everything around them," Stamberg reports. "His fluorescent lights don't just hang there. They inhabit space. They wash the walls with color, they mix colors so the white walls seem painted. They bathe space -- and visitors -- in a warm and completely artificial glow."

Steve Morse helped build some of the pieces. He says Flavin, who died in 1996, didn't have an interest in the hard physics of lights, but he did have an interest in their blended effects.

Though Flavin's lights often evoke a cheerful response from visitors, he does have darker pieces.

One (monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush), created in response to the Vietnam War, is made from blood-colored tubes that jut off the wall aggressively -- invading the viewer's space.

"Even though the work is entirely abstract, it has an incredible range of emotion, from elation to tragic to ironic to playful, with a single medium," says Michael Govan, head of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which organized the retrospective with the National Gallery. "With a single medium of store-bought fluorescent fixtures."

The National Gallery exhibit runs through Jan. 9, 2005. The show is then scheduled to travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.