Dan Flavin Life and Art Periods

"It's electric current with a switch - dubious."

DAN FLAVIN SYNOPSIS

Few artists can boast having explored a single medium, and an unusual one at that, as tenaciously and consistently as Dan Flavin with his signature fluorescent light tubes. Classified within the Minimalist framework, Flavin saw himself as vehemently "Maximalist." That is, in using readymade objects in the style of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, he exploited the possibilities of the most banal and in some ways ugly material: harsh fluorescent lights - surely the stuff of futuristic anti-aestheticism. Flavin began incorporating electric lights into his works in the early 1960s with his breakthrough Icons series. Having hit upon his chosen medium, he abandoned painting altogether, focusing on light works for the remainder of his career, where he produced installations and sculptural pieces made exclusively of fluorescent light fixtures and tubes that came in a limited range of colors and sizes. Working with prefabricated rather than hand-crafted materials allowed Flavin to focus on the light itself and the way in which it transformed ("sculpted") the exhibition space. A clear progression in scale and ambition marks Flavin's site-specific light installations, sculptural and architectural environments commissioned by a wide-range of artistic and religious institutions for the rest of his career.

DAN FLAVIN KEY IDEAS

Dan Flavin emphatically denied that his sculptural light installations had any kind of transcendent, symbolic, or sublime dimension, stating: "It is what it is and it ain't nothing else," and that his works are simply fluorescent light responding to a specific architectural setting. Despite Flavin's insistence on this, it is possible to view individual pieces in terms of implied narratives. Potential associations with the concept of light - from religious conversion to intellectual epiphanies - are rife in Flavin's work, whether or not such interpretations are encouraged by the artist himself.
Flavin's light "propositions," which he did not consider sculptures, are made up of standardized, commercially available materials, much like Marcel Duchamp's readymades Flavin admired. Further, the materials Flavin used are perishable, their limited lifecycles anything but timeless. In this way, the artist emphasized the ephemeral nature of his works, positioning his art outside the realm of connoisseurship, where art objects are valued as much for their material qualities as for their conceptual meaning.
The tendency to privilege pre-fabricated industrial materials and simple, geometric forms together with the emphasis placed on the physical space occupied by the artwork and the viewer's interaction with it aligns Flavin's work with that of other Minimalist artists. His emphasis on light and its effects, however, align him as strongly with Op art, whose practitioners explored variations in color and shape based on differences in light. But, in some regards, Flavin went much further than the Op art painters by taking the fundamental concepts of the style and translating them into sculpture that demonstrated in three dimensions what the paintings could only aspire to communicate. The optical effects painters achieved could only fool the eye by alluding to movement, whereas Flavin's light waves demonstrated how the two-dimensional illusionism was achieved - light was color, color was light, and the interaction of either created the illusion of dynamism as they played against, or in harmony with, one another and in their environment.
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DAN FLAVIN BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Daniel Flavin grew up in a modest Queens neighborhood, raised by Catholic parents. Both he and his twin brother, David, went to parochial school and attended church services regularly. Serving as an acolyte, Daniel was impressed by the ceremony, the dramatic costumes of the celebrants, the music, and the lighting of high funeral mass. The brothers entered the high school of the Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary together in 1947, although Daniel's feelings about religion remained ambivalent.

Flavin began drawing at a young age; his mother recalled his precocious depiction of the damage from a 1938 hurricane. A colleague of his father, Artie Schnabel, was the first to encourage his artistic leanings, showing him how to represent movement in water with little "half moons." Flavin preferred to make drawings of real or imagined wartime scenarios, some of them inspired by the "Horrors of War" picture cards that came with packages of bubble gum at the time

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Early Training

Dan Flavin and his brother joined the U.S. Air Force in 1953. Flavin was posted in Korea, where he served as an air weather meteorological technician. During this time, he was able to take art classes offered by the University of Maryland adult extension program. While visiting Japan, he purchased a Rodin drawing, the first acquisition of an eclectic art collection to which he added throughout his lifetime.

Flavin returned to New York in 1956, when he was reassigned to Roslyn Air Force Base. Exploring his interest in art, he frequented the New York galleries and took art classes at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts, as well as the New School for Social Research. The following year, he matriculated at Columbia University with the intention of becoming an art historian to support his work as an artist. Abandoning this route after three semesters, he took various odd jobs, including working in the mailroom of the Guggenheim and as a guard at The Museum of Modern Art.

Many of his early drawings and paintings explored tonal qualities and reflected an interest in Abstract Expressionism. Experimentation with found objects led to a series of mixed media assemblages, some using empty aluminum cans, such as Apollinaire Wounded from 1959-60. The beginnings of Flavin's light works can be seen in its reflective metal surfaces, possibly inspired by the coffee cans, light bulbs and flashlights that Jasper Johns incorporated into his own pieces. Apollinaire Wounded is also one of the first pieces dedicated to an admired artist or friend, typically one who died in unfortunate circumstances.

While working at MoMA, Flavin met Sonja Severdija. They married in 1961, and worked together on the construction of the Icon pieces. Consisting of blank canvases highlighted by electric or fluorescent bulbs, Flavin's works are reminiscent of the religious icons found in Catholic churches, often surrounded by electric vigil lights. The paintings show no trace of the artist's touch, focusing on the objecthood of each piece. Icon IV (The Pure Land) (to David John Flavin) (1962-69) conjures the spirituality and infinite space of a Malevich, but its nondescript construction could also be taken for a light fixture. The Icons were first exhibited in Flavin's 1964 solo exhibition at Kaymar Gallery. The show was generally well-received, particularly by Donald Judd, whose own Minimalist works also rejected painterly qualities in favor of objecthood.

Dan Flavin Biography

Mature Period

By 1963, Flavin had eliminated the canvas, using only fluorescent bulbs. The switch from incandescent to fluorescent lights signified his alignment with contemporary art movements, which often featured new industrial technologies. The use of fluorescents also highlighted a mass-produced, commonplace material, recalling the ideals of Russian Constructivism. In fact, Flavin dedicated a total of 39 "monuments" to Vladimir Tatlin between 1964 and 1990. Simply made from the light bulb, an everyday item with a short "lifespan," these pieces were the antithesis of their given title.

In 1969, Flavin's first retrospective opened at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The comprehensive exhibition showcased eight installations, each filling an entire gallery space. Flavin referred to these pieces as "situations," signifying his intention to create an all-encompassing experience. One of the more complex pieces created for the retrospective, Untitled (to S. M. with all the admiration and love which I can sense and summon) (1969), lined a 64-foot-long hallway with long bulbs of pink, blue, red and yellow. The use of different colors demonstrated Flavin's interest in optical effects and creating mood with lighting design.

Dan Flavin Photo

Late Years and Death

In the 1970s and 1980s, Flavin continued to develop more complex iterations of the "barriers" and "corridors." He concentrated on large-scale installations, growing more concerned with site-specificity as he was offered access to larger exhibition spaces. Many of these ambitious projects were ultimately abandoned, including a lighting plan for the Munich Olympics, a permanent installation space at Dick's Castle in Garrison, New York, a design for pedestrian tunnels in Amsterdam, and a lobby installation at the World Trade Center.

Flavin began to suffer from complications due to diabetes during the 1980s. Despite his health problems, Flavin designed an extensive light installation for the opening of the new Guggenheim building in 1992, which was carefully planned to complement the architecture (this was also the site of his marriage to his second wife, Tracy Harris, which took place in the same year). Other major projects include the installations at the Chiesa di Santa Maria Annunziata in Milan, and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, both ultimately completed by his studio after Flavin's death in 1996.

DAN FLAVIN LEGACY

Dan Flavin's light art, work that falls well within the Minimalist idiom, makes an important departure in Minimalist ethos due to its essential impermanence. Not only is the material subject to expiration - fluorescent tubes eventually burn out - but the ephemeral quality of the light itself is arguably completely contradictory to the otherwise industrial character of standard Minimalist materials like steel, aluminum, concrete, plastic, glass, and stone. Thus, Flavin's legacy is less about his work as a significant Minimalist artist than it is in his ability to look beyond the movement, even standing almost outside of the realm of artistic movements. More directly, Flavin's experiments paved the way for other light artists, including Robert Irwin, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, Spencer Finch, and Jennifer Steinkamp.

Original content written by Tracy DiTolla
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DAN FLAVIN QUOTES

"There are lots of aspects that come up and you're only partially conscious of them. That's the freedom of art. People are going to experience what you do as they have to, and perhaps not as you might best like to direct them according to your own sense of place. Just as well."

"One might not think of light as a matter of fact, but I do. And it is, as I said, as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find."

"I like art as thought better than art as work. I've always maintained this. It's important to me that I don't get my hands dirty. It's not because I'm instinctively lazy. It's a declaration: art is thought."

Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin Influences

Interactive chart with Dan Flavin's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin was a prominent Russian avant-garde artist and architect. He was one of the key figures of the Constructivist movement.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vladimir Tatlin
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian artist working in Paris, was one of the founders of modern sculpture. His abstracted animals, portrait busts, and totem-like figures revolutionized the traditional relationship between the sculpture and its base.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constantin Brancusi
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Marcel Duchamp
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jasper Johns
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frank Stella
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt was an American artist commonly associated with the Minimalist and Conceptual movements. He rose to prominence in the 1960s with the likes of Rauschenberg, Johns and Stella, and his work was included in the famous 1966 exhibit Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum. LeWitt's art often employed simple geometric forms and archetypal symbols, and he worked in a variety of media but was most interested in the idea behind the artwork.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Sol LeWitt
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard is an American art scholar and curator who has focused on postmodern movements such as conceptual art, feminist theory, and land art.

Modern Art Information Lucy Lippard
Robert Ryman
Robert Ryman
Robert Ryman is an American painter and multi-media artist; he was also a pioneer for the movements of Minimalism and Conceptual art. Initially influenced by the first-generation AbEx painters, Ryman became fascinated with the act of making art. This led him to experiment with virtually every material and form of media at his disposal.

Modern Art Information Robert Ryman
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Robert Irwin
Robert Irwin
Robert Irwin is an American painter, sculptor, landscape architect and installation artist. Coming of age during the Abstract Expressionist years in New York, Irwin remained in his native Los Angeles and devoted himself to creating largely experiential art, such as the Central Garden at Los Angeles' Getty Center.

Modern Art Information Robert Irwin
Jennifer Steinkamp
Jennifer Steinkamp
Jennifer Steinkamp is a contemporary American installation artist who works with video and new media. She uses digital projection to transform architectural space and often collaborates with musicians Andrew Bucksbarg and Jimmy Johnson to integrate sound into her work.

Modern Art Information Jennifer Steinkamp
James Turrell
James Turrell
James Turrell is an American artist whose works are primarily concerned with light and space. He is best known for 'Roden Crater', a project he began in 1979. For the work, Turrell is transforming this natural cinder volcanic crater into a massive naked-eye observatory.

Modern Art Information James Turrell
Heiner Friedrich
Heiner Friedrich
Heiner Friedrich is a German art dealer, and gallery and museum founder. In 1974, he helped start New York's Dia Art Foundation and in 2011 Friedrich opened a contemporary art museum in Traunreut, Germany entitled DASMAXIMUM.

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Dan Graham
Dan Graham
Dan Graham is an artist, critic and theorist. He works in a variety of media, including performance art, installation, video, sculpture, and photography. He is best known for his walk-in pavilions, which are steel and glass sculptures that create an interactive environment for the viewer.

Modern Art Information Dan Graham
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss is an American art critic and philosopher. Originally a disciple of formalist critic Clement Greenberg, Krauss later founded the radicalist journal October, and became an important proponent of postmodern art theory.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Rosalind Krauss
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Land Art
Land Art
Land art, or Earth art, a term coined by artist Robert Smithson, refers to artworks from the 1960s and '70s that employed land and other natural elements. It is typical of a time when artists rejected the traditional art object, expanded definitions of sculpture, and sought to move art outside the conventional art world structure of galleries and museums.

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Environmental Art
Environmental Art
Environmental art refers to art dealing with ecological issues and/or the natural, such as the formal, the political, the historical, or the social context. In its early phases it was most associated with sculpture. The expanding term of environmental art also encompasses the scope of the urban landscape.

Modern Art Information Environmental Art
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dada
Op Art
Op Art
Op art, short for Optical art, is a style of abstraction that relies on geometric shapes, lines, and color juxtapositions to create optical illusions. Emerging in the mid-1950s, along with Kinetic art, it generated an international following of artists seeking to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer, and new, disorientating visual experiences.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Op Art
Solomon R. Guggenheim
Solomon R. Guggenheim
Solomon R. Guggenheim was an American art collector and philanthropist. In 1937 he established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and soon after opened the experimental Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which celebrated the work of abstract artists. In 1959 this became the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Museum of Modern Art
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kazimir Malevich
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constructivism
Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist who is known for his sculptures and large-scale installations that employ such materials as light, water, and air temperature. In 2003, Eliasson represented Denmark at the 50th Venice Biennale and installed 'The Weather Project' in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, London.

Modern Art Information Olafur Eliasson
Spencer Finch
Spencer Finch
Spencer Finch is an American artist who works in photography, glass, video and light. He is best known for exploring ideas about memory and perception. Using a colorimeter-a device that measures the average color and temperature of light that exists naturally in a specific place and time-Finch often reconstructs the luminosity of a location through artificial means.

Modern Art Information Spencer Finch
Chamber Music I , no. 6 (to James Joyce)
Chamber Music I , no. 6 (to James Joyce)

Title: Chamber Music I , no. 6 (to James Joyce) (1959)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Some of Flavin's earliest dedicated works, such as Apollinaire Wounded, cite famous literary figures. Flavin felt a strong connection with James Joyce, whose rejection of family and Catholicism must have reminded Flavin of his own ambivalent feelings for his parents and the religion they strongly encouraged him to follow. This series of drawings was inspired by Joyce's Chamber Music, which the writer irreverently describes as being inspired by the sound of urination into a chamber pot. While still using the gestural strokes of Abstract Expressionism, Flavin calls attention to the "suggestive color and atmospheric references" of Joyce's poetry and its "pale and dark dualities," revealing an early interest in light effects.


Watercolor, ink and charcoal on paper - Collection Stephen Flavin

The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)
The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)

Title: The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) (1963)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Flavin's iconic diagonal grew out of a sketch of the "diagonal of personal ecstasy," apparently made earlier on the same day. Having studied and admired readymades by Marcel Duchamp, Flavin was searching for a simple object to claim for his art. With the "ecstatic" revelation of the diagonal, Flavin realized the potential of the fluorescent bulb as a basic form that could be built upon and infinitely repeated, not unlike the grooved design of Brancusi's Endless Column. Flavin's choice of the diagonal refers to the artistic philosophy of early abstractionists like Wassily Kandinsky and Theo van Doesburg, who emphasized the diagonal for its dynamic presence. Thus, rather than creating works that focused on stasis in contrast to the impermanence of his medium of light, Flavin celebrated movement by exploiting the liveliness and speed implied by the diagonal.


Yellow fluorescent light - Dia Art Foundation, New York

icon V (Coran's Broadway Flesh)
icon V (Coran's Broadway Flesh)

Title: icon V (Coran's Broadway Flesh) (1962)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Most of Flavin's dedicated works served as memorials, often to talented individuals who died in an untimely or unfortunate manner. His piece icon V (Coran's Broadway Flesh) was intended as a tribute to "a young English homosexual who loved New York City." The 28 incandescent bulbs surrounding the painted-wood ground were specifically designated by the artist as "candle" lights. They give the surface of the work a rosy, flesh-like impression, generating a nearly spiritual glow that stands in marked contrast to the bold coloring of Flavin's other Icons. Also unlike his other works, this piece makes use of overt symbolism, which can be seen in its warm coloring and in the bulbs wryly representing the bright lights of Broadway. Flavin himself remarked on this work, "...beyond structure and phenomena, I have tried to infect my icon with a blank magic, which is my art. I know this is hard to cope with, but I have succeeded. Coran's Broadway Flesh will hold you simply, succinctly."


Oil on gesso on masonite, porcelain, chains, incandescent bulbs - Private collection, New York

"Monument" I for V. Tatlin

Title: "Monument" I for V. Tatlin (1964)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This "monument" dedicated to Tatlin is a distant rendition of Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. It is one of 39 so-called monuments to the Russian Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin, who Flavin held in extremely high regard. Meant to be an office building built according to the ideals of Constructivism, Tatlin's Third International was never constructed, although the plans for the monument remain a symbol of the movement. Flavin's Monuments, made up of light bulbs that either burn out or are turned off, have an element of impermanence that memorializes the ghost of Tatlin's unrealized project. As Flavin stated, "The pseudo-monuments, structural designs for clear but temporary cool white fluorescent lights, were to honor the artist ironically."


Cool white fluorescent light - Dia Art Foundation, New York

Greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green)
Greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green)

Title: Greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) (1966)

Artwork Description & Analysis: One of Flavin's so-called "barriers," Greens crossing greens blocks off the gallery space with two intersecting, fence-like constructions. Dictated by the dimensions of the gallery space in which it is installed, this piece displays traits associated with Conceptual art and can also be considered one of the first pieces of installation art. The criss-crossing framework of Greens crossing greens approximates Mondrian's paintings, which in turn evoke stained glass windows, one of the oldest forms of lighting design. The intense light and imposing physical presence of the installation almost aggressively push against the viewer. Flavin created a kind of vocabulary of space, giving the types of works he produced names like "corners," "corridors," and "barriers." It was his intent to re-conceptualize the way a work of sculpture relates not only to the space it inhabits but how it can transform the traditional viewing experience: the works quite literally invade the space that the viewer typically inhabits, asserting its significance. Or, possibly, the opposite scenario takes place and the viewer must question his or her own relevance to the process of validating the sculpture as a work of art.


Green fluorescent light - The Guggenheim Museum, New York

partial view of Untitled (Marfa project)
partial view of Untitled (Marfa project)

Title: partial view of Untitled (Marfa project) (1996)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Begun in 1980, the design for Untitled took nearly 16 years for Flavin to complete. This "situation" spans six U-shaped buildings, each one containing two parallel, slanting corridors constructed in the bottom part of the "U." A barrier work is situated in each corridor like the bars of a prison cell, enabling the viewer to see through to the other side while at the same time preventing access. Each barrier is comprised of bulbs of two different colors, but the colors shine in opposite directions. The two arms of the "U" in each building end in a window that opens to an outdoor vista.The juxtapositions of inside/outside, dark/light, natural/artificial and blue/yellow (as seen above) are some of the various concerns Flavin grapples with in this artwork as it transcends labels of "environmental" or "installation" art to become something larger: a zone for the viewer to inhabit, supplanting gallery or museum or other formal, traditional physical spaces where art is displayed and, in the process, rarified.


Pink, green, yellow and blue fluorescent light - Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.