Born: April 1, 1933 - Jamaica, New York
Died: November 29, 1996 - Riverhead, New York
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"It's electric current with a switch - dubious."
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.
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The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) (1963)
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
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.
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.
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.
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'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.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Dan Flavin
| Dan Flavin: Icons |
By Corinna Thierolf and Johannes Vogt
| It Is What It Is: Writings on Dan Flavin Since 1964 |
By Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Dore Ashton, Rosalind Krauss, Lawrence Alloway, Germano Celant and Holland Cotter
| Dan Flavin: New Light |
By Jeffrey Weiss
| Rooms of Light: Works of the Panza Collection from Villa Panza, Varese & The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum |
By Angela Vettese, Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Mattioli Laura Rossi and Dan Flavin
| Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights, 1961-1996 |
By Michael Govan, Tiffany Bell, Brydon E. Smith, David Gray
| Series and Progressions |
By Tiffany Bell, Anne Rorimer, and Richard Schiff
| Everything is Illuminated |
By Karen Rosenberg
| Art: The Dan Flavin Art Institute |
By Stacey Goergen
| Call that art? No, Dan Flavin's work is just simple light fittings, say EU expert |
By Maev Kennedy
| Shining Glories |
By David Pagel
| No Trespassing: The Art of Dan Flavin |
By Victor M. Cassidy
| The Dark Side of Success |
By Greg Allen
| Art Review: To Feel Enlightened, You Pull the Switch |
By Michael Kimmelman
| Dan Flavin - Brief Article |
By Libby Lumpkin