Dan Flavin (1933–1996)
“It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else. . . . There is no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. . . . 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.” 
About the artist
Dan Flavin was born in Queens, New York, in 1933. Although he studied for the priesthood for a time, upon completing military service in Korea, Flavin returned to New York to study art history at the New School. In 1959, he took drawing and painting classes at Columbia University.
In the summer of 1961, while working as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History, Flavin started to make sketches for sculptures that incorporated electric lights. Later that year, he made his first light sculptures, which he called “icons.” Although the title and the use of light bore religious connotations in the traditional association of light with the divine and sacred, Flavin used the term ironically, explaining, “My icons differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty; they are dumb—anonymous and inglorious.” Flavin named a new abstract art form that stressed perceptual, rather than transcendent, experience. He rapidly extended this technique into what became his mature style: installations, usually temporary, using white or colored fluorescent light tubes.
The composition of the nominal three (to William of Ockham), dedicated to the 14th-century English philosopher, exemplifies Flavin’s use of the fluorescent tube as a basic building block. greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) transforms and even inverts the conventional museum experience by literally invading the viewer’s space and prohibiting access to the gallery. The reference to Mondrian is in keeping with Flavin’s practice of dedicating individual works to family, friends, or historical figures of significance to him.
–Adapted from an essay by J. Fiona Ragheb, Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2001.
1. Flavin, quoted in Michael Gibson, “The Strange Case of the Fluorescent Tube,” Art International 1 (Autumn 1987), p. 105.
2. 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.
View + Discuss
1. While Flavin works with ethereal “light,” he also works with mundane, manufactured fluorescent fixtures with no attempt to hide or adorn their industrial forms. Where have you seen these fixtures used? Why might Flavin have chosen these over more decorative possibilities?
2. Few artists are more closely identified with a particular medium than Dan Flavin. After 1963, 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). Do you see the exclusive use of these lights in making his work as limiting or liberating? Explain your response.
3. By selecting light as his medium, Flavin connects the viewer to one of the most elemental components of existence. Try to generate a list of phrases that contain the word “light,” such as “Light at the end of the tunnel,” or “I’ve seen the light.” What are the symbolic associations of light? Do any of the phrases you thought of relate to your impressions of Flavin’s work? Explain your response.
Consider various industrial materials that could be used to make art. Looking through commercial catalogues maybe helpful in considering your options. Make diagrams (or as Flavin would call them “proposals”) that show how this object (or objects) might be used to create a work of art. Describe your installation plans to your classmates and explain why you have chosen this particular object.
Flavin would frequently title his works to pay tribute or acknowledge people who were, in some way, important to him. Some were historical figures including the Russian Constructivist designer Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953), artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), and the medieval scholar William of Ockham (1280–1349), who wrote, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.” Flavin also titled works after people in his life including, art historian Robert Rosenblum, friend and colleague Ward Jackson, and his fiancée Tracy. For whom might you title an important piece of your work? Why?
Dan Flavin, fluorescent light, etc (exh. cat.). Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1969.
Flavin, Dan. “‘in daylight or cool white.’ an autobiographical sketch.” Artforum (Los Angeles) 4, no. 4 (December 1965), pp. 21–24.
Poetter, Jochen, Madeleine Deschamps, et al. new uses for fluorescent light with diagrams, drawings and prints from Dan Flavin (exh. cat.). Staatliche Kunsthalle: Baden-Baden, 1989. In German and English.
Ragheb, J. Fiona, ed. Dan Flavin: Architecture of Light (exh. cat., Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin). New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1999.