Thirty years ago Swedish-born artist Claes Oldenburg and his new wife Coosje van Bruggen embarked on their first large-scale public project together as a team in, of all places, Las Vegas. Titled “Flashlight,” the 38-foot tall, 74,000-ton sculpture was created specifically for the UNLV campus using $70,000 in private and public funds. The work would respond directly to its natural environment—cacti—and Las Vegas’ man-made landscape of lights and landmarks.
But rather than becoming its originally planned beacon of light luring visitors to the arts centers, it would work as an antithesis to the casino signs by facing downward with a muted light to create an experience more intimate and contemplative than the bombastic lights of the Strip.
The project was well-documented in a 1981 documentary by van Bruggen titled School Bus Yellow, Adirondack Green, which begins with the couple watching clips of national news coverage of the unveiling, then retraces the process from conception to completion.
The rarely seen film shows the couple walking in the 1970s Las Vegas landscape and discussing works in their studio, alternated with “Flashlight” being trucked cross-country. It includes an endearing scene of the truck driver’s explanation of color choices for his rig’s cab—Adirondack green and school bus yellow.
For the sculpture’s anniversary, UNLV hosted a screening of the film, a talk by pop art scholar Michael Lobel, a panel discussion and a walk to the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery for an exhibit featuring works responding to “Flashlight.” The evening played out like a celebration of a trusted old friend. As art professor Emily Kennerk explained during the panel, “Everything is so temporary here. That flashlight is permanent.”