Dan Flavin was born on April 1, 1933 in New York City. In the mid 1950s he served in the US Air Force as an air weather meteorological technician in Korea, after which he returned to New York and attended art history classes at the New School for Social Research and Columbia University. While he had an interest in art and drawing throughout his life, he never received formal art instruction.
In 1961 Flavin had his first solo exhibition at the Judson Gallery, New York City. Later that year he began experimenting with electric light in a series of works called 'icons,' which led him to his inaugural work in pure fluorescent light, the diagonal of May 25, 1963. Flavin married Sonja Severdija in 1961, and their son, Stephen Conor, was born in 1964. In 1965 Flavin moved from Manhattan to the shores of the Hudson River where he continued his drawings of water and landscape and developed his interest in nineteenth-century Hudson River landscape painters.
With a recommendation from Marcel Duchamp, Flavin received an award from the William & Norma Copley Foundation, Chicago, in 1964, the same year that he exhibited his 'icons' at the Kaymar Gallery and had his first exhibition in fluorescent light at the Green Gallery, both in New York City. He also began his nearly life-long series of monuments dedicated to the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. Flavin became known as an originator of 'Minimal' art through inclusion in key group exhibitions such as "Black, White, and Gray" at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut in 1964 and "Primary Structures" at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1966.
Flavin's recognition began to spread to Europe in 1966 following his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Cologne, and his first 'barrier' installation greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), created for the exhibition "Kunst Licht Kunst" at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. He was featured in the "Minimal Art" exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, in 1968.
Flavin's first single large-scale installation, alternating pink and 'gold', was made for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1967. In 1969 his retrospective exhibition "fluorescent light, etc. from Dan Flavin," opened at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, before traveling to the Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia, and to the Jewish Museum in New York City.
Circular fluorescent lights entered Flavin's artistic vocabulary in 1972 in an installation at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, and were a key element of an important exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri in 1973.
From its inception in 1974, the Dia Art Foundation acquired numerous works by Flavin, and supported larger projects including: an outdoor work for the four corners of the courtyard of the Kunstmuseum Basel, in 1975; lighting several train platforms at New York's Grand Central Station in 1977; and a permanent installation of nine works in a former firehouse and Baptist Church in Bridgehampton, New York (The Dan Flavin Art Institute) in 1983.
Among Flavin's most important late large-scale installation was his project to light the entire rotunda of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City to commemorate its restoration and reopening in 1992 (based on a smaller installation he had made there for the 1971 "Sixth Guggenheim International"). Flavin married Tracy Harris, at the Guggenheim, in 1992. He completed a major installation for the Kunstbau Lenbachaus, Munich, in 1974.
Flavin died in Riverhead, New York, on November 29, 1996, near his Long Island, New York home.
Three of Flavin's most ambitious permanent installations were completed after his death: the lighting of Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, a 1920s designed Catholic Church in Milan, in 1997; a project for Richmond Hall at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas in 1998; and the completion of an installation in six former army barracks at Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas in 2000.