All of Las Vegas Turned On by the ‘Flashlight’

Times Staff Writer

When Claes Oldenburg’s 38-foot-tall, 74,000-pound, black, steel fluted “Flashlight” was erected on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, campus s even years ago it was an object of instant controversy.

Many thought the Pop Art sculpture of a giant flashlight was a put-on.

But faculty, students, staff and Las Vegas residents have rallied behind the “Flashlight,” which since has become a landmark, symbol and logo of UNLV, the university in the shadows of the resort city’s famous Strip.

UNLV, one of two campuses of the University of Nevada (the other is at Reno), has an enrollment of 15,000 students.


“I have a strong feeling for the “Flashlight,” as do most of us on campus,” said Thomas C. Wright, 46, the university’s dean of arts and letters. His office is in John S. Wright Hall, named after his father, a retired history professor at the school.

“The ‘Flashlight’ symbolizes a torch of learning, a shining light, a symbol of what this school is all about,” Wright said.

Tom Holder, 48, director of the Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art on the UNLV campus, was chairman of the university’s art department when the “Flashlight” was placed on the Performing Arts Plaza at the northern end of the Academic Mall between the Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall and the Judy Bayley Theatre.

“Yes, it was very controversial at first,” Holder recalled. “Some claimed it looked like a toy. Others described it as a utilitarian object, not a work of art. Students and visitors who come here the first time still are shocked and amazed by it. Controversy is what you want in a piece of art. Great art is always controversial. That doesn’t mean, of course, controversial art is always great.

“We’re very proud of the ‘Flashlight.’ It is Nevada’s first work of monumental art.”

Oldenburg, the Chicago sculptor, has giant New Realism and Neo-Dada three-dimensional objects scattered across two continents: a colossal ashtray in Paris; a 40-foot trowel stuck in the ground in the Netherlands; a 24-foot lipstick on the Yale campus; the 100-foot-tall Batcolumn, an open-mesh giant baseball bat in Chicago; a 53-foot clothespin across from the City Hall in Philadelphia; three giant pool balls in a park in Munster, West Germany, to name a few.

Beacon of Light

The sculptor remembers flying over Las Vegas when he planned his work for the UNLV campus. “Las Vegas was a small patch of light in a vast desert darkness,” Oldenburg said. “A flashlight seemed to be the proper symbol for that beacon of light in the desert.”

It was also apropos, explained Oldenburg, because the artwork was to be located between two performing arts auditoriums where flashlights are used by ushers to guide audiences to their seats.

The radiating cross-sections of the “Flashlight” remind the sculptor and all who see it of a cactus in the desert. The switch uncannily reflects the silhouettes of Frenchman and Sunrise mountains overlooking Las Vegas. The “Flashlight,” which is 11 feet in diameter, is close to the new $15-million Howard Hughes College of Engineering building.

The “Flashlight,” created by Oldenburg in New Haven, Conn., was transported under a tarp on a flatbed truck from the East Coast.

“A highway patrolman curious about what was under the tarp pulled the truck over. When the driver told the officer it was a huge flashlight, the officer replied: ‘Oh, I thought it was an MX missile,’ ” Holder recalled.

Cultural Events

Much of Las Vegas’ cultural activities take place at the two auditoriums that embrace the “Flashlight.” It is here that the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra performs and where the Nevada Dance Company is based. It is home also to the university’s internationally acclaimed Jazz Ensemble.

A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts Foundation and from the late Reno banker Robert Z. Hawkins provided the funding for the “Flashlight,” a favorite of photographers and a regular stop for Las Vegas tour buses.

“I look out my window at the ‘Flashlight’ every day at work,” said Larry Henley, 30, facilities manager for the Performing Arts Center. “Everybody reacts to the ‘Flashlight.’ I love it. St. Louis has the Arch; San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge; and Las Vegas, the ‘Flashlight.’ ”