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The Back Story: The Flashlight

Why is our famous sculpture pointed down? Hint: It's not because of air traffic.

UNLV History  |  Jan 29, 2013  |  By Brian Sodoma

The "Flashlight" by Claes Oldenburg and Cooje Van Bruggen. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

The Flashlight, located in the plaza between Artemus Ham Concert Hall and Judy Bayley Theatre, debuted in 1981. From there, national media had its way with the 38-foot tall form made up of 24 painted black steel fins.

Oldenburg is known for super-sizing everyday things. For UNLV he played off the sculpture's location next to arts venues by selecting a flashlight, a tool used by ushers to help patrons to their seats. He was responsible for a 41-foot trowel in the Netherlands, an ashtray in Paris, and a 24-foot lipstick tube on the Yale campus. In 1967, he drew up plans to replace Chicago's Navy Pier with a spoon. The idea eventually came to life as a mere 51-foot spoon in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Oldenburg told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1988 that while aboard a plane over Las Vegas the city seemed "a small patch of light in a vast desert darkness ... A flashlight seemed to be the proper symbol for that beacon of light in the desert."

The "Flashlight" was commissioned in February 1978 and approved in May 1979. However, production was put on hold when Van Bruggen claimed the flashlight shining into the sky was "clichéd and reminiscent of authoritarian spectacle." It was this criticism -- and not concerns over disrupting air traffic at nearby McCarran International Airport, as campus lore has had it -- that spurred the upside down installation. Revised plans were then approved in 1980.

The sculpture has a modest concealed fluorescent light ring at its bottom, mimicking a real flashlight turned upside down limiting its ability to spread its light rays. The height of the sculpture was also chosen in order to closely match the height of the buildings around it.

Adding more fodder to the sculpture's lore was its transport from the Connecticut studio where it was built to UNLV. The truck driver reported frequent calls on his CB radio asking what he was hauling, according to a 1995 Smithsonian magazine article.


Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen

Year Installed:



38 feet tall; 10 feet in diameter; with a light ring at its base

Made of:

Steel painted with polyurethane enamel

Reason for Installation:

A sculpture was commissioned to "amplify the vision" of the performing arts center, per James McDaniels, UNLV's campus architect. Costs exceeded $70,000 and required additional funding by Robert K. Hawkins, of Reno, and other private funds to match a National Endowment for the Arts grant.