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A giant lipstick on Caterpillar tracks. A huge trowel stuck in the ground. A split button the size of a swimming pool. Each is the making of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. They took the everyday and made it epic. They gave UNLV its Flashlight.
Oldenburg, with his wife and collaborator van Bruggen, pressed the boundaries of art with their art. Their monumental sculptures negated the function of commonplace objects with a change in scale and placement. Their work is collected by every major museum in the world, and their large-scale projects dot the globe in cities like New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, Miami, Rotterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Frankfurt.
Las Vegas and UNLV made an unlikely home for a piece by these world-class artists. The story goes back to 1973, when an advisory committee recommended Oldenburg to fill a commission for a public sculpture to be placed on the plaza between Artemus Ham Concert Hall and Judy Bayley Theatre.
Oldenburg first declined, so the university looked to another artist to fill the commission. When those negotiations fell through, the invitation to Oldenburg was renewed. He accepted this time with enthusiasm and returned with a proposal for a flashlight sculpture.
A flashlight? Las Vegas is long associated with gambling and casinos whose facades feature shiny, glimmering, pulsating light-filled bulbs and tubes that hold back the night. Oldenburg envisioned a “beacon shining in the night,” and that beacon could be a flashlight.
The original design called for the Flashlight to rest on end with its light shining upward into the sky. Campus lore sometimes attributes its downward light to objections from nearby McCarran Airport. But it was actually van Bruggen who turned the Flashlight upside down. She felt that an upward shooting beam was too mechanical looking, too clichéd.
So the Flashlight was turned lens down, offering a point of intrigue and controversy ever since. Turning it upside down subdues the light, in sharp contrast to the outlandishness of the lights on the Strip. And it reverses the object’s purpose — always an Oldenburg goal.
At the same time it references the sculpture’s particular location outside performing arts venues, where ushers routinely use a flashlight to guide individuals to their seats. And UNLV often has referred to the sculpture, and to itself, as a beacon of light and knowledge. There are a number of interpretations that can be posited, and each is valid.
In March 1981, the Flashlight traveled on the flatbed trailer of an 18-wheeler from the Connecticut studio where it was fabricated to its new home in Las Vegas. Its fluted design suggests desert cactus, the light switch echoes the profile of Sunrise and Frenchman mountains to the east of campus. The intense black paint serves to extend the night into the day. The installation was a major local event and made national news.
Thirty years later, the Flashlight has moved beyond some initial controversy to become a treasured part of the university landscape. It continues to challenge our assumptions of art, inviting study and critical conversation. In such a role, it has become an icon of pop culture. It acts as a talisman and meeting point on campus — Have you ever said, “Meet me at the Flashlight”? It truly is remarkable that an Oldenburg/van Bruggen sculpture sits on our campus. I am, and I hope subsequent generations of Rebels are, ever grateful for the foresight and perseverance of the administrators who brought it here.