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