Bridging the mediums of painting and sculpture, Dan Flavin completed a series of eight works known as “icons” between 1961 and 1964. These icons connect the work that Flavin made early in his career to the sculptures in light for which he is remembered. Dia previously presented works from this series at Dia Center for the Arts at 548 West 22nd Street from 1997 to 1998 and at the Dan Flavin Art Institute from 1999 to 2003. Dan Flavin: icons returns this critical early series to the Dan Flavin Art Institute to embrace his trajectory as an artist and illustrate the leap that he made from painting to working in pure light.
Prior to his breakthrough into the medium of fluorescent light, Dan Flavin completed a series of eight works known as “icons” between 1961 and 1964. Each icon occupies a box-like construction with a painted surface and attached light fixtures, possessing a “hierarchical relationship of electric light over, under, against and with a square-fronted structure of paint ‘light.’”1 While grappling with this relationship, Flavin experienced a genesis moment and constructed his first sculpture made entirely of fluorescent light: the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi). This work opened the door to a completely new medium that would engage the artist for the rest of his career. As such, the icons series bridges the mediums of painting and sculpture, linking the work that Flavin made early in his career to the sculptures in light for which he is remembered.
Given the artist’s Catholic upbringing and education, the use of the word “icon” seems to be a specific, and pointed, choice. Unlike traditional religious icons, Flavin created nonrepresenta- tional artworks and dedicated them to friends, family, and cultural figures that he admired. These dedications, a process that he continued with his works in fluorescent light, lend an element of humor to the otherwise austerely untitled sculptures. The dedica- tions also carry a sense of irony and, at times, even tragedy within their titles. Flavin dedicated three of the works on display in this exhibition—icon I (the heart) (to the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone), icon II (the mystery) (to John Reeves), and icon V (Coran’s Broadway Flesh)—to his friends and acquaintances in New York City. His icon VIII (the dead nigger’s icon) (to Blind Lemon Jefferson) was dedicated to Jefferson, an influential blues singer from the 1920s, while his icon VII (via crucis) dramatically references the route that Christ took while carrying the cross.
The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa presented Flavin’s first retrospective in 1969. Organized relatively early in his career despite its retrospective status, the exhibition included the full series of icons, which were not exhibited as a series again for nearly thirty years. From 1999 to 2003, five of the icons were exhibited at the Dan Flavin Art Institute (DFAI) in Bridgehampton, New York. This former firehouse and one-time church was renovated for the display of art under the direction of Flavin himself, illustrating the close relationship between his works and their architectural settings. In his own words, “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 Embracing his full trajectory as an artist and the leap that he made from painting to working with pure light, Dan Flavin: icons returns this critical early series to the DFAI.
1. Dan Flavin, “ . . . in daylight and cool white,” Dan Flavin: fluorescent light, etc. (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada for the Queen’s Printer, 1969), p. 20.
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