Outside painting and sculpture, few artists are more identified with a particular medium than Dan Flavin. After 1963, and except for his drawings and prints, Flavin's work was composed almost entirely of light, in the form of commercially available fluorescent tubes in ten colors (blue, green, pink, red, yellow, ultraviolet, and four whites) and five shapes (one circular and four straight fixtures of different lengths).
It was in 1962 that Flavin introduced his first experiments with electric light art: square monochrome paintings with attached fixtures and bulbs, which he deemed "icons." He used the term ironically in relation to its traditional religious context, explaining,
My icons differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty; they are dumb—anonymous and inglorious. They are as mute and indistinguished [sic] as the run of our architecture. My icons do not raise up the blessed savior in elaborate cathedrals. They are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.1
By 1963 Flavin had come to eschew any medium of painting or collage in favor of simple, unadorned, commercially produced fluorescent light fixtures and tubes. And by 1965 he had effectively summed up the major components of his art:
In time, I came to these conclusions about what I had found in fluorescent light, and about what might be done with it plastically: Now the entire interior spatial container and its parts—wall, floor, and ceiling—could support this strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it. . . . Realizing this, 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. For example, if you press an eight-foot fluorescent lamp into the vertical climb of a corner, you can destroy that corner by glare and doubled shadow. 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. . . . What has art been for me? In the past, I have known it (basically) as a sequence of implicit decisions to combine traditions of painting and sculpture in architecture with acts of electric light defining space.2
Despite his dedication of each untitled work to a person or a personal reflection, and his own deep awareness of the historical symbolism of light in art,3 Flavin always refused to attach any symbolic or referential significance to his works:
It is what it is, and it ain't nothin' else. . . . Everything is clearly, openly, plainly delivered. There is no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. I like my use of light to be openly situational in the sense that there is no invitation to meditate, to contemplate. It's in a sense a "get-in-get-out" situation. And it is very easy to understand. 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.4
Flavin's simplified formal vocabulary can be related to the work of contemporaries such as Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, and Donald Judd, all of whom have been called Minimalist artists for their reduction of formal devices, their emphasis on serial and rational rather than gestural forms, and their promotion of phenomenological rather than symbolic or narrative strategies. These artists had gained much of their inspiration from the fundamental structures of certain modernist predecessors, such as Constantin Brancusi. Flavin's admiration for Brancusi's Endless Column (1918) was made manifest when he dedicated his first work in fluorescent light, the diagonal of personal ecstasy (the diagonal of May 25, 1963), to the Romanian artist. "Both structures had a uniform elementary visual nature, but they were intended to excel their obvious visible limitations of length and their apparent lack of complication," he wrote.5 The systematic repetition of form seen in Endless Column persisted in Flavin's work, albeit usually oriented horizontally, as in untitled (1970), a large-scale barrier in red and blue light (the first version of which was made for Judd's loft on Spring Street, New York). Flavin had invented the "barrier" in 1966 as a freestanding series of fixtures that physically block a passageway or a segment of a space with light.
Flavin also proclaimed respect for the work of other modernist abstract artists, most notably perhaps the innovators of the Russian avant-garde, particularly Vladimir Tatlin, to whom he dedicated his most sustained series of works, "monuments" for V. Tatlin (1964–90). The far-from-incidental relationship of these works to Tatlin's illuminates both formal inventions in Flavin's work and its context within the history of art.
Tatlin's first major public work was the sculptural installation of collaged industrial materials that he displayed in a 1915 exhibition with Kasimir Malevich's painting Black Square. Both works were installed in corners of the gallery, thereby claiming the unused margins of their exhibition space, while also overtly referring to the religious icons that traditionally hung in the corner of a room in many Russian homes. Tatlin's and Malevich's occupations of the corners with their new abstract "icons" were an attempt to create a radical, unique, and dynamic artistic vocabulary that expressed the human aspirations of the impending industrial and social revolution of the twentieth century. Flavin's career-long preoccupation with the corner of the gallery implicitly echoes the Russians' gesture of engaging spaces traditionally not utilized for painting and sculpture; nevertheless, his corner works refute the simultaneous religious symbolism and utopian social ambition that are epitomized by Tatlin's sculpture.
Tatlin's greatest work was Monument to the Third International (1920), the planned but unrealized spiral tower for which Flavin's "monuments" are named. Yet Flavin noted, "I always use 'monuments' in quotes to emphasize the ironic humor of temporary monuments. These 'monuments' only survive as long as the light system is useful (2,100 hours)."6 Flavin presented his appropriation of commercial light fixtures—quintessential products of our industrialized society—not as a timeless celebration of a revolutionary culture, as Tatlin's work was intended to be, but as ontological fact, tangible and temporal. He used his humorous historical reference to Tatlin precisely to separate his work from the kind of symbolic significance to which Tatlin aspired. At the same time, though, he clearly revered Tatlin as a tragic human individual, and his "frustrated, insistent attitude to attempt to combine artistry and engineering."7
Having employed generic mass-produced light fixtures in order to deny his light art any transcendental significance, and having also denied those same light fixtures their simple utilitarian function by calling them art, the irony of Flavin's gestures and use of terms like "icon" is obvious. Less obvious is the almost limitless plastic potential the artist devised and demonstrated in his systematic application of the limited vocabulary of commercially available light fixtures and light bulbs.
1. Dan Flavin, in Dan Flavin: three installations in fluorescent light (Cologne: Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Kunsthalle Köln, 1973), p. 83. This comment is taken from a "record" book entry dated August 9, 1962.
2. Flavin, "' . . . in daylight or cool white': an autobiographical sketch," Artforum 4, no. 4 (December 1965), p. 24. Flavin later revised and republished this text in several exhibition catalogues.
3. Flavin attended a Roman Catholic seminary; although he rejected that path, he began his art education with religious art. He was also a knowledgeable collector of art past and present.
4. Flavin, quoted in Michael Gibson, "The Strange Case of the Fluorescent Tube," Art International 1 (Autumn 1987), p. 105.
5. Flavin, "' . . . in daylight or cool white': an autobiographical sketch," p. 24.
6. Flavin, quoted in Suzanne Muchnic, "Flavin Exhibit: His Artistry Comes to Light," Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1984. sec. 6, p. 2.
7. Ibid. Muchnic is quoting from a wall text Flavin wrote for "'monuments' to V. Tatlin from Dan Flavin," an exhibition at the Temporary Contemporary space of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1984.