Dan Flavin: Rediscovery of Light

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 43 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Other


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. General View on the Problem Area of Colour and Light

3. Flavin’s Rediscovery of Light
3. 1 From Colour to Light: The first icons
3. 2. Icon I (the heart) (to the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone)
3. 3 Icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin [1933-1962])

4. From Picture to Space: The diagonal of May 25, 1963
4.1 The Dedications to Brancusi and Rosenblum: “gold” and “white” Versions
4.2 The Diagonal as a Symbol of Light
4. 3 Reduction as a Challenge (“Ockham’s razor”)

5. The Importance of Flavin’s Art today


List of Illustrations


1. Introduction

The character of twentieth-century art is distinguished by innovation. Modern artists were not content to express ideas within agreed-upon conventions inherited from the nineteenth-century academies but felt compelled to invent their own, new visual language(see Govan 2004 (II): 9ff.). The Abstract Expressionists were the first, who were testing in the twentieth century the limits of traditional representation by radical increasing the scale and potential of pure line, colour, and form, turning more and more to the abstract manner of depiction (see Govan 2004 (II): 9). The search for new materials and new mediums of artistic expression as well as the growing necessity of a new visual language especially increased in the art in the second half of the twentieth century. As a result of this development, a new visual language evolved. For example, the light art was something radically new at that time.

Today our experiences and practices are different from those of the generation, which began thinking about and experimenting with light in art. Inspired by the increasing public use of gas and electricity, the artists at that time – Moholy-Nagy, Mack, and others – imagined and foresaw many of the manifestations of light art that we now actually encounter (see Kunst Licht Kunst 1966: 141). The light art of American artist Dan Flavin (1933–1996) also might be seen as thinking in terms of new innovations as well as an attempt to create his own, new visual language.

In 1957 Flavin began to experiment with drawing and fashioning hybrid collages and assemblages, mostly made with found materials (see Govan 2004 (II): 10). Four years later, he created the first of eight icons (fig. 3): boxy, monochrome-painted constructions outfitted with incandescent bulbs and short fluorescent tubes, wall-hung objects, which are neither painting nor sculpture and which represent his first use of light (see Vetrocq 2005: 82). He worked on icons consistently for three years, constructing the objects by using hand tools and then painting them. According to Michael Govan, the director of Los Angeles County Museum and a friend of the artist, “the electrical work was done by Sonja Flavin, the artist’s wife” (2004 (II): 211).

Dispensing altogether with the traditional materials of painting and sculpture, Dan Flavin adopted common commercially available fluorescent light as the primary medium for his art (see Govan 2004 (II): 9). He preferred “standardised, utilitarian fluorescent light to custom-designed, showy neon” (Govan 2004 (I): 3). As Govan notes, Flavin confined himself to a limited palette (red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultraviolet, and four different whites) and form (straight two-, four-, six-, and eight-foot tubes) (see 2004 (II): 19). In most cases, Flavin named his works as “untitled” but often added a dedication. Furthermore, he used lower case for inscription except for proper names and places. Many of his woks have the same or similar titles.

Further, with the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (fig. 3-5) Dan Flavin established a “system”, as he himself called it,whichis“a structuredwhole, and whose parts are replaceable” (Flavin 1965: 24). To understand his “system” and oeuvre as a whole, a special attention should be paid to the following questions:

- Why did Flavin choose light as a medium for his works?
- How did he understand and define the phenomenon of light?
- Which influences were significant for Dan Flavin’s art and why?
- Why did he choose exactly an icon and later the diagonal as a form of representation for his first light works?
- Which ideas, meanings and principles are veiled in his works?
- What was new in Flavin’s rediscovery of light?

To answer these questions and to consider the significance of his artistic work in the art historical context, Dan Flavin’s oeuvre and the development of his artistic style will be analysed through his key works with fluorescent light from different periods of time.

Another aspect that should be considered as well is the simplicity of his new medium, which, however, led to a methodologicalproblem - with the help of whichdevices could his artistic invention be describedandcategorised in the art history? Theown structure ofFlavin'soeuvre(as a system) made ​​it necessaryto developspecial descriptive categories.These categories are colour, light and space (see Löbke 1999: 3). Thus, theconceptof Dan Flavin’s artistic system should be considered in terms of these categories. In this term paper colour, light and space are the key aspects of analysis as well.

2. General View on the Problem Area of Colour and Light

The exploration of light is the most important part of Dan Flavin’s art. However, his interest in it concerns not only art, but also such areas as physics, literature and theology. The interest in the phenomenon of light and the attempt to define and to understand its nature were also common for other artists, writers and scientists.

The exploration of the problem area of colour and light, held on the artistic, scientific and literary level has already begun in the nineteenth century (see Löbke 1999: 13ff.). In 1810 Goethe’s colour theory appeared, in which he analysed the specific influences of colours and the corresponding contrasts. Around the same time the painter Philipp Otto Runge presented his structure of the colour sphere. In 1839 the chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul made an attempt at systemising the colour aesthetics (see Löbke 1999: 13). In the twentieth century the exploration of colour continued with a special intensity, because at that time the colour in the painting became an autonomous medium. The expressive power of colour and its own unique laws were isolated; the colour itself became the subject of painting. The increasing autonomy of colour in art was marked by the interest in both processes of perception and seeing. Thus, under the influence of Neo-Impressionism and Chevreul’s theory of simultaneous contrasts, Robert Delaunay investigated the interaction of colour and light as well as the interaction of colours between each other. He also explored the phenomenon of making visible the “invisible energy” (see Löbke 1999: 14).

Nowadays the “invisible energy” is a well-explored phenomenon. In the painting the colour is bound to the pigment, and thus to the surface; and it becomes visible only through the interaction with light. The explanation of it comes from physics. According to the laws of physics, discovered in the twentieth century, the emergenceofcolour in the process of perception isclosely connectedwith light (see Löbke 1999: 12 ff.). In physics light is defined as a form of electromagnetic radiation. The radiation, visible to the eye, is in the range of wavelengths between 400 and 760 nm (see Löbke 1999: 12). If the light rays interact with matter, light and colour become visible. That is why light and colour at all stages of colour formation cannot be separated from each other. Without light, colour vision is not possible. Colour vision is one of the most natural and basic processes for human perception. However, the emergence of colour in the perception is extremely complex. Therefore, the scientific investigation of the problem area of colour is manifold (see Löbke 1999: 12-13).

Since ancient times many models of colour systems have been developed. Nowadays, the emergence of colour in the perception is defined as a combination of the following processes: the physical processes outside the human body, the physiological perception of colour in the eye and the formation of visual perception in the brain (see Löbke 1999: 12). A human’s brain and eye are equally involved in the formation of colour perception. From retina, the colour stimulus passes through the optic nerve to the centre of perception in brain. Then the brain interprets colour stimuli as different colours. Thereby two elementary stimuli will be combined in pairs (red / green, blue / yellow), which are known as complementary colours (see Löbke 1999: 13). This model explains as well such phenomena as afterimages, simultaneous or successive contrasts, which were applied by Flavin in his light installations (see Löbke 1999: 12-13).

As Frederic Leen mentions in his article, Flavin was not the first “to use light as a material in aesthetic objects” (1992: 71). The first artistic experiments with artificial light, based on music and colour organs dated to the first half of the eighteenth century (see Leen 1992: 71-73). However, up to the twentieth century, as Leen notes, “visual artists were interested in the imitation of light effects, rather than in light itself” (1992: 74). In 1949 Fontana first used artificial light as a possible material for sculpture, employing ultraviolet light (see Leen 1992: 71-82). According to Leen, Fontana’s “hanging neon linear structure was a spectacular presentation, and because of its enormous public significance this work marked a decisive shift in the definition of sculpture” (1992: 79).

Exploring the phenomenon of light, Flavin goes one step further. The use of fluorescent lamp as a common source for light and colour leads to a new presentation of coloured light, which had been unknown until then in the traditional painting (see Löbke 1999: 13ff.). It was a radical shift from his early works and from the traditional way of representation of light in the art.

3. Flavin’s Rediscovery of Light

According to Tiffany Bell, the artist’s curator and archivist during the 1980s, “Flavin himself was something of a cataloguer and historian by nature, researching the history of the places where he lived and the things that he bought” (Govan 2004 (II): 109). He has left his own writings, which provide a detailed record of the origins of Flavin’s artistic education and interests. For example, observing his artistic development in the writings, Flavin mentions firstly his early drawings, which led to the collages and later, through the icons (fig. 1-3), brought him to the invention of the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (fig. 3-5) (see Löbke 1999: 17).

Flavin commented the artistic methods and approaches or related artistic decisions in his essays in a precise, direct and easy way. A typical feature of his most writings is the combination of emotional and ironic distance, as well as the manner in which the biographical details are given in addition to a precise formulation of his exploration of art. In general, they are as eccentric in form as they are meaningful and insightful in content (see Feldman 2004 (II): 279).

Apart from the artist’s writings, the exhibition catalogues, which were created in close collaboration with the artist, reveal as well significant information, concerning the development of his artistic style. He himself helped to select the drawings and prepared many notes for the catalogue entries (see Govan 2004 (II): 19ff). As mentioned in Ottawa catalogue for Flavin’s 1969 retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Dan Flavin emphasised his interest in clarifying form by using contrasts in light and dark already at the beginning of his artistic career (see Dan Flavin 1969: 7). For example, on a copy of a Rembrandt painting it is noted, “By heightening the tonal contrasts and reducing facial details even more than the darkly-toned postcard [from which it was drawn], Flavin has shown an early predilection for emphasizing differentiations of light and shade” (quoted in Govan 2004 (II): 19). An early landscape drawing is commented by the remark: “Flavin has emphasized tonal contrasts and eliminated linear detailing” (quoted in Govan 2004 (II): 19).

The 1969 retrospective catalogue mentions also other aspects of Flavin’s early works, such as his interests in literature and poetry (especially James Joyce and Guillaume Apollinaire), theology (biblical texts and numerous references to martyrs and saints) and music. For example, the content of many of his watercolour and text drawings is taken from Joyce’s Chamber Music verses (see Govan 2004 (II): 21). According to the catalogue, Flavin was “attracted to this poem”, because of its “suggestive colour and atmospheric references” and again suggesting light, its “pale and dark dualities” (Govan 2004 (II): 21). As Michael Govan notes, “the ghost of the young, rebellious Irish Catholic Joyce struggling to find his artistic voice haunts Flavin’s own Irish Catholic descriptions of himself” (2004 (II): 21). Indeed, in his first autobiographical sketch essay, written in 1965 and titled “…in daylight or cool white”, Flavin described his childhood in a repressive Catholic family as well as his upbringing, which foresaw him for a priest career (see Löbke 1999: 6). The influence of Joyce upon Flavin was very significant; Flavin even named his only son Stephen after the protagonist of Joyce’ famous novel “A portrait of the Artist as the Young Man” (see Govan 2004 (II): 106).

Besides Joyce, Guillaume Apollinaire’s verses also had left significant impact on Flavin (see Govan 2004(II): 22). In 1961 Flavin wrote a poem in the manner of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, which reveals the first hint of Flavin’s interest in fluorescent light: “fluorescent / poles / shimmer / shiver / flick / out / dim / monuments / of / on / and / off art (quoted in Govan 2004(II): 22). His related word-picture, “Apollinaire wounded / killed at can cadence / his gleaming head crushed / tar blood / rusting dead” (quoted in Govan 2004(II): 22), refers to an earlier 1959-60 collage titled Apollinaire wounded (to Ward Jackson) (see Govan 2004(II): 23). This collage is among Flavin’s first constructions to take the form of the memorial to an artist he admired.

Thus, the numerous drawings, watercolours and small objects, created by the artist between 1957 and 1962 in advance of his installations are rooted in literary and cultural references as well as in traditional techniques. As Michael Govan notes, “Flavin’s early work reveals a nearly literary expression of love, loss, laughter, irony, and truth. Although he moved rapidly toward pure fluorescent light, developing a new and highly abstract language of illumination, this language always seems inflected by some of the complex pathos described more literally in his earliest works” (2004 (II): 19).

3. 1 From Colour to Light: The first icons

After the period of experimenting with different materials, icons (fig. 1-3) represent his increasing interest to the aspects of image, colour and space. Like many other artists in New York of the late fifties, Flavin also tried to overcome the limits of traditional material, looking for new opportunities of expression. The first collages that could be brought in association with Dada and Pop Art came by 1961; for example, when Dan Flavin declared in 1959 a box, found on the street, for “Washington Street Sculpture” (see Löbke 1999: 28). As Flavin notes, “Somewhat in my mind at this time, were quietly rebellious thoughts about proposing a plain physical factual painting…[…] I had to start from that blank, almost featureless, square-fronted construction with obvious electric light which could become my standard yet variable emblem – the ‘icon’” (quoted in Govan 2004 (II): 29). Thus, the icons as well as the preceding works, the collages, could be seen as a search for a new form of the artistic expression.

Whereas in his early works the first steps were made towards exploring of the phenomenon of light, in icons Flavin initially applies electric and later fluorescent light for the first time. Icon I (the heart) (fig.1) was the first in a series of eight square or almost square works, in which one or more electric lamps were used. Created between 1961 and 1963, they were all called icons, numbered with a Roman numeral and subtitled. In these works incandescent and fluorescent bulbs were attached to shallow, boxlike square constructions made from various materials such as wood, Formica, or Masonite (see Govan 2004 (II): 108). The applied colour is different; however, it has always monochrome and homogeneous character.

Why did Flavin choose exactly an icon as a form of representation for his first light works? According to the definition of an icon (through the Latinized form, from Greek εἰκών, portrait, image) given in Encyclopedia Britannica, it is “generally any image or portrait-figure, but specially the term applied to the representations in the Eastern Church of sacred personages, whether in painting or sculpture, and particularly to the small metal plaques in archaic Byzantine style, venerated by the adherents of the Greek Church” (1910: 271). Therefore, on the one hand, there is a general meaning of an icon as a sign. On the other hand, there is a religious meaning of an icon, for example, a representation of saints or sacred events.

As Michael Govan notes, “Flavin’s reading of contemporary aesthetic discourse was always filtered through his Catholic education” (2004 (II): 29). The idea of an icon in his art may have originated from his Catholic education as well. Therefore, the religious aspect of the meaning should be borne in mind. Nevertheless, as Flavin himself commented: “I used the word ‘icon’ as descriptive, not of a strictly religious object, but of one that is based on a hierarchical relationship of electric light over, under, against and with a square-fronted structure full of paint ‘light’” (quoted in Govan 2004 (II): 192). According to this statement, the general definition of an icon as a sign also appears to be interesting to him.

3. 2 Icon I (the heart) (to the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone)

The icon I (fig.1) is titled (the heart) (to the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone). It consists of a square, flat, box-like construction, measuring 63.8 x 63.8 x 11.8 cm, excluding fixture and lamp; approximately 73, 7 cm high, including fixture and lamp[1], made of pine and Masonite painted in cadmium red oil with a base layer of gesso. A red fluorescent tube of the same length (63.8 cm) is mounted on top (see Govan 2004 (II): 211). It was created between 1961 and 1962. There is an inscription in capital letters in black pen in Flavin’s writing on paper glued to the back: “THE HEART (ICON I) / (TO THE LIGHT OF SEAN Mc GOVERN / WHICH BLESSES EVERYONE) / 1961-62 / OIL OVER GOLD / GESSO ON MASONITE / AND PINE / DNF [signed] 1963 / *REPAINTED PANORAS CAD. RED LTD. / THE SQUARE IS ABOUT 25 1/8” / ON EACH SIDE / THE FIXTURE IS A STANDARD / TWO FEET / THE BULBS IS GE F20T12-R / (RED)-20 WATTS” (quoted in Govan 2004 (II): 211). The fluorescent tube emits pink-red fluorescent light, presenting in this way the slight contrast to the intense red colour of the box.

With the icon I Dan Flavin left completely the area of traditional picture. The transition to a three-dimensional object is completed here through the three-dimensionality of a box and a monochrome colour (see Löbke 1999: 7). This correlation is important for the development from picture to space in several ways. The fluorescent tube is mounted on the outside of the box; it means that the picture’s space is expanded through this addition. An additional extension is achieved through the light, turning the work from picture to object.

Besides the development from a picture to a three-dimensional object, the other important aspect to be considered is the development from colour to light. As mentioned above, the light is an immaterial part of colour perception, bound to the surface. The emergence of colour and its perception is a process, in which light interacts with matter. Colour and light could never be separated from each other; that is why the involvement of light in painting plays an important role. The light of an external light source, whether it is sunlight or artificial light, appears on the surface and is reflected or absorbed, depending on the surface’s colour. The emergence of colour in the fluorescent tube differs from the process described above in relationship between light and matter. As icon I demonstrates, colour and light of the fluorescent tube come from the same source, turning into the coloured light (see Löbke 1999:8). The colour is dematerialised in the coloured light and becomes visible only in the interaction with matter. While the colour of a surface maintains constancy in its nature, the coloured light in contrast has always fleeting and immaterial character. Therefore, the perception of colour in Flavin’s works is, on the one hand immediate and direct, and on the other hand it is unfamiliar and surprising (see Löbke 1999:8).

Sean McGovern, mentioned in the dedication was one of Flavin’s friends. He was an Irish immigrant who worked with Flavin as a guard and a lift man at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (see Govan 2004 (II): 211). The light is mentioned in the dedication as well, directly evoking the parallel between the idea of an icon in its traditional (religious) understanding with sacral impact and “the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone”, as the dedication reveals.

Embodying the idea of an icon in his works, Flavin managed to depict quite an abstract non-material phenomenon – the light. Moreover, through his work the artist comments on the sacral and divine nature of light, trying to understand and to define it. Without resorting to another, already known notion, it might be hardly possible. Trying to define the phenomenon of light, Flavin resorts to the notion of an icon with its on the one hand symbolic and sacral meaning, and on the other hand broadly used connotation. Thus, Flavin offers the interpretation of his icon as a symbol or sign for a particular kind of light. For example, in the case of icon I, it is “the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone”. He stresses this idea by adding the fluorescent light to the icon. His icon and its dedication evoke the impression that the artist seems to compare the “light” or better the “aura” of Sean McGovern and the idea or light, implied by an icon. The title words “the light […] which blesses everyone” strengthen this comparison.

Defining such an abstract idea as “the light of Sean McGovern which blesses everyone” through the idea of an icon, Flavin gives his own definition of light, and in this way creates his new visual language. Besides the word “light” in the dedication, Flavin also applies other symbols, such as the title word “heart” and the red colour of his icon, strengthening the general effect additionally.

3. 3 Icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin [1933-1962])

The icon IV was titled (the pure land) (to David John Flavin [1933-1962]) (fig.2). It was completed between 1962 and 1969 and dedicated to David John Flavin, the artist’s twin brother, who died of polio while the first version of this work was being created (see Govan 2004 (II): 211). It is a large box laminated in white Formica augmented by a 2-foot daylight fluorescent lamp. The size of the work is 113 x 113 x 28, 6 cm, excluding fixture and lamp; approximately 122, 9 cm high, including fixture and lamp. There is the inscription on the back, upper left: “CAT #61 / ICON IV (THE PURE LAND) 1963 (quoted in Govan 2004 (II): 211). According to Govan, the first construction of icon IV was destroyed after being damaged at the Green Gallery in New York (2004 (II): 211). The work was reconstructed for the exhibition “fluorescent light, etc. from Dan Flavin”, in 1969. The date derives from the Ottawa catalogue as the inscription on the back has not been identified as being written by the artist (see Govan 2004 (II): 211).

The 1969 catalogue notes that “…all-whiteness of this construction suggested to Flavin an intended reference to the use of white in Chinese funerals. The ‘pure land’ is a Buddhist notion of a beautiful, blissful way-station on the spiritual journey to complete enlightenment” (quoted in Govan 2004 (II): 26). Flavin made also a companion drawing of icon IV with white grease pencil on brown paper in the form of a Chinese scroll (see Govan 2004 (II): 26).


[1] In some texts the measures are given in inches, according to the American system.


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flavin rediscovery light



Title: Dan Flavin: Rediscovery of Light