Dan Flavin, born April 1, 1933 in Jamaica, New York, and died November 29, 1996 in Riverhead, was an American minimalist artist famous for creating spectacular installations of commercially available fluorescent tubes.
“Light is an industrial object, and a familiar one,” wrote Donald Judd in 1964 when he looked at Flavin”s work, “it is a new medium for art; henceforth art could be made up of all sorts of new objects, materials, techniques.
Daniel Nicholas Flavin Jr. was born in New York City of Irish descent and studied for the priesthood at Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn between 1947 and 1952. He joined the United States Air Force with his twin brother David John Flavin. During his military service 1954-1955 he was trained in meteorology and began studying art with the University of Maryland Extension Program in Korea.
Upon his return to New York in 1956, Flavin briefly attended the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts and then studied art history for a short period at the New School for Social Research. He considered becoming an art historian to finance his work as an artist. He then studied painting and drawing at Columbia University in New York (1957-1959).
In 1959 Flavin was employed briefly at the Guggenhein Museum and later as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art where he met Sol LeWitt, Michael Venezia, Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold, Soja Severdija and Lucy Lippard. Two years later he married his first wife Sonja Serverdija, an art history student at New York University and office manager at the Museum of Modern Art. His twin brother died in 1962.
On July 7, 1964, his son Stephen Conor was born.
Dan Flavin died in Riverhead, New York, of complications from diabetes. A memorial for him was held at the Dia Center for the Arts on January 23, 1997. Speakers included Brydon Smith, curator of 20th century art at the National Gallery of Canada, Fariha Friedrich, a Dia trustee, and Michael Venezia, an artist. The artist”s estate is represented by David Zwirner, New York.
“Light may not be considered an objective phenomenon, but that is how I see it. And, as I have said before, art has never been so simple, open and direct” Dan Flavin 1987.
Flavin”s constructions mark the advent of an era of site-specific installation, now commonplace.
A work of Flavin is defined initially, by the arrangement of fluorescent light tubes then it is the luminous extension which determines its structure its thickness, its volume. In this sense the dimension of the work is regulated by the architecture (wall, ceiling, floor) which delimits it.
By invading the space, Flavin”s light often transforms and dematerializes it. The luminous bath has indeed the property to abolish the borders between the environment and the lighting apparatus which become one. The work thus becomes a “situation”, a place of perceptive experiences linked to the movements of the spectator. As Donald Judd says about his work, Flavin creates “particular visual states”.
With his works, Flavin perfectly fulfills the mission of Minimal Art as defined by Judd in Specific objects, to make the object merge with the three dimensions of real space. Thanks to the use of light, Dan Flavin irradiates space. The context becomes its content.
The light tube used by Flavin has a function that is completely opposed to the tangible object of traditional artworks, since it is from it that the luminous energy that will dissolve its own limits is spread. His works do not inspire physical contact, it is not possible to caress their surface to feel the material; Dan Flavin”s work is truly impalpable, one cannot even look at it; this is a way for the artist to suppress a mode of emotional relationship often attached to objects.
“However, if the linearity of the tubes and the effects of inclusion of the viewer in the space of the work are proper to minimal art, one may nevertheless wonder whether the subtly colored atmosphere of Flavin”s works – quite close to Rothko”s painting – is not the sign of a latent mysticism that, from this point of view, would put this artist on the fringe of purely “minimal” production.”
Flavin”s early work, paintings and drawings, reflect his interest in abstract expressionism. In 1959, he began making assemblages and collages with objects found on the street, crushed cans in particular.
In 1961, he presented his first solo exhibition of collages and watercolors at the Judson Gallery in New York. In the summer of 1961, while working as a janitor at the Museum of Natural History in New York, Flavin began sketching sculptures made of electric light. Later that year, he translated his sketches into assemblages he called “Icons”: eight monochrome paintings with electric light bulbs around the edges.
The reference to the icon is emblematic of his work. It is an essential research, that of an image created almost solely by the element of light.
From 1963 onwards, Dan Flavin produced pieces based solely on industrially manufactured fluorescent tubes, which he assembled differently depending on the installation. Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963) a yellow fluorescent tube placed at 45° on a wall is his first work using only fluorescent tubes. It is dedicated to Constantin Brancusi.
A little later, The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) (1963) is composed of six vertical fluorescent tubes on a wall, one on the left, two in the center, three on the right, all of white light.
Flavin uses only standard colors (red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultra-violet and four different whites) and commercial sizes.
He began to reject studio productions in favor of site-specific “situations” or “proposals” (as the artist preferred to describe his work). Most of Flavin”s works are “untitled” followed by a dedication in parentheses to friends, artists, critics and others: the most famous are his Monuments to V. Tatlin.
Between 1964 and 1982, Dan Flavin carried out a vast project in homage to the Russian painter, sculptor and architect Valdimir Tatlin. He created a series of pieces in fluorescent tubes, most of them white, which schematically evoke the shape of Tatlin”s Monument to the Third International (1920), which had remained in the planning stage. It was a utopian construction of more than 400 meters in height, made up of two metal spirals that wrap around each other, whose movement seemed to be able to develop endlessly. With his neon lights suggesting evanescent silhouettes, Dan Flavin celebrates this progressive architecture, while emphasizing its conceptual, unrealizable, even ghostly character.
Flavin made his first installation piece “greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green)” for an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands in 1966.
In 1968, Flavin filled an entire gallery with ultraviolet light at documenta 4 in Kassel, Germany.
In 1992, one of his pieces conceived in 1971 was finally realized, filling the entire rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on the occasion of the reopening of the museum.
In 1971, at the invitation of the architects concerned, he also presented several lighting projects for the Munich Olympics, but his proposals were ultimately rejected.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Flavin began creating more complex configurations of fluorescent tubes, including his “barred corridors” and corner installations. His work is increasingly focused on the relationship between his sculptures and the spaces they occupy.
Flavin”s “corridors” control and prevent the viewer”s movement through the gallery space. They take various forms.
The first corridor, Untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg), was constructed for a 1973 solo exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, and is dedicated to a local gallery owner and his wife.
In the 1990s, as institutions began to offer Flavin larger galleries, the scale of his light installations became increasingly grandiose. In 1992, he filled the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with multicolored light, taking full advantage of the Frank Lloyd Wright design.
Beginning in 1975, Flavin installed permanent works in Europe and the United States such as the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands (United States Courthouse, Anchorage, Alaska (the lobby of the MetroTech Center (seven streetlights outside the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich (Institut Arbeit und TechnikWissenschaftspark, Gelsenkirchen, Germany (and the Union Bank of Switzerland, Berne (1996)
His large-scale work in colored fluorescent light for six buildings of the Chinati Foundation was initiated in the early 1980s, although the final plans were not completed until 1996.
His latest work is a site-specific work at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, Milan, Italy. The 1930s church was designed by Giovanni Muzio. The design of the piece was completed two days before Flavin”s death on November 29, 1996. Its installation was completed a year later with the help of the Dia Center for the Arts and the Prada Foundation.
Flavin”s first solo exhibition with fluorescent light opened in 1964 at the Green Gallery. Two years later, his first European show opened at Rudolf Zwirner”s gallery in Cologne, Germany. His first retrospective exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 1969. In 1973, the Saint Louis Art Museum presented simultaneous exhibitions of his works on paper and realized works. Flavin”s most important European exhibitions were at the Kunstmuseum and Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (1975), the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden (1989), and the Städel, Frankfurt (1993).
In the late 1970s, he began a partnership with the Dia Foundation that led to the realization of several permanent site-specific installations and more recently to the organization of the traveling exhibition, Dan Flavin: A Retrospective (2004-2007).
Flavin”s retrospective has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas; Hayward Gallery, London; Musée d”Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.
This exhibition is the first retrospective devoted to his minimalist work. The exhibition included nearly 45 luminous works, including his series “icons”. His first solo exhibition in Latin America was held at the Fundación Proa, Buenos Aires, in 1998, organized with the Dia Art Foundation (Dan Flavin . 1933-1996).
In 1964, Flavin received an award from the William and Norma Copley Foundation, Chicago, with a recommendation from Marcel Duchamp.
In 1976, he received the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
In 1983, the Dia Center for the Arts opened the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, New York, a permanent exhibition of his work designed by the artist in a converted firehouse. The Dan Flavin Art Institute is tucked away in a discreet house, whose address is not listed on the Dia Center website. Here, Flavin”s works are exhibited in “rooms without windows or bearing an indirect relationship to its external environment.”