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Dan Flavin Photo

Dan Flavin

American Sculptor

Born: April 1, 1933 - Jamaica, New York
Died: November 29, 1996 - Riverhead, New York
Movements and Styles:
Op Art
"It's electric current with a switch - dubious."
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Dan Flavin Signature
"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."
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Dan Flavin Signature
"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."
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Dan Flavin Signature
"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."
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Dan Flavin Signature
"I knew that the actual space of a room could be broken down and played with by planting illusions of real light (electric light) at crucial junctures in the room's composition."
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Dan Flavin Signature
"A piece of wall can be visually disintegrated from the whole into a separate triangle by plunging a diagonal of light from edge to edge on the wall; that is, side to floor, for instance."
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Dan Flavin Signature

Summary of Dan Flavin

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 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 the readymades by Marcel Duchamp that 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.

Biography of Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin Photo

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.

Progression of Art


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

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)

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)

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

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)

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)

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

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Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Dan Flavin Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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