Dan Flavin, Fluorescent Light Sculpture Artist

dan flavin untitled
"Untitled (In Honor of Leo at the 30th Anniversary of his Gallery)" 1987. Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Dan Flavin (1933-1996) was an American minimalist artist known for his sculptures created using solely commercially available fluorescent light bulbs and their fixtures. He created works that ranged from a single bulb placed at an angle from the floor, to massive site-specific installations.

Fast Facts: Dan Flavin

  • Occupation: Sculptor
  • Style: Minimalism
  • Born: April 1, 1933 in Jamaica, Queens, New York
  • Died: November 29, 1996 in Riverhead, New York
  • Spouses: Sonja Severdija (divorced 1979), Tracy Harris
  • Child: Stephen Flavin
  • Selected Works: "The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (The Diagonal of May 25, 1963)" (1963), "Santa Maria Annunciata" (1996)
  • Notable Quote: "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."

Early Life and Education

Born in the New York borough of Queens, Dan Flavin grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family. As a young child, he showed an interest in drawing, particularly wartime scenes.

In 1947, Flavin entered the Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn to study for the priesthood. Six years later, he left the seminary along with his fraternal twin brother, David, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. There, he trained as a meteorological technician and studied art through an extension program provided by the University of Maryland in Korea.

Dan Flavin Artist Portrait
Artist Dan Flavin at the Paula Cooper Galler in 1992 in New York City, New York. Rose Hartman / Getty Images

After returning to the U.S., Flavin left the military and ultimately enrolled at Columbia University to study art history as well as painting and drawing. Before graduating, he left college and began working jobs in the mailroom at the Guggenheim Museum and as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art to gain entry into the New York art scene.

Minimalist Light Sculpture

Dan Flavin's early drawings and paintings show a strong influence of abstract expressionism. He also created assembled mixed media sculptures that relate to the movement. Some speculate that Jasper Johns' use of light bulbs and flashlights in his assemblages might have impacted the creation of Flavin's early works with light.

In 1961, Flavin began to design his first "Icon" pieces with his wife, Sonja Severdija. He first exhibited the light sculptures in 1964. They consisted of box constructions illuminated by incandescent and fluorescent lights.

dan flavin untitled don judd
"Untitled (To Don Judd, Colorist)" (1987). Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.0

By 1963, Flavin stopped working with canvas. He used only fluorescent light bulbs and fixtures. One of the first works in his mature style was "The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (The Diagonal of May 25, 1963)." It consisted of a yellow fluorescent light placed on the wall at a 45 degree angle with the floor. Flavin dedicated the piece to sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

Dan Flavin later explained that his discovery of the potential of the fluorescent bulb was a significant revelation. He'd always admired the readymade sculptures of Marcel Duchamp, and he realized that the bulbs were objects in a basic form that he could use in an infinite number of ways.

Many of Flavin's most significant works are dedications to artist friends and gallery owners. One of those, "Untitled (To Dan Judd, Colorist)," is a tribute to another artist who, along with Dan Flavin, helped define minimalist art. The pair were close friends, and Judd even named his son Flavin.

dan flavin santa maria annunciata
Interior of Santa Maria Annunciata in Milan, Italy. Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 3.0

In a clever reference to another of the most prominent minimalists of the 20th century, Dan Flavin created "Greens Crossing Greens (to Piet Mondrian Who Lacked Green)." Mondrian worked almost entirely with primary colors, black and white, ignoring blended colors like green.

Later Life and Work

Later in his career, Dan Flavin focused on large-scale installations utilizing colored fluorescent lights. One of his corridor constructions, "Untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg)," was created for a solo show at the St. Louis Art Museum in 1973.

Flavin often designed sculptures but didn't construct them until someone purchased them or provided a location for construction. As a result, he left behind drawings and designs for more than 1,000 sculptures when he died in 1996.

The last work completed before Dan Flavin's death was the lighting of the Santa Maria Annunciata church in Milan, Italy. It is a 1932 Romanesque Revival building, and Flavin completed his plans two days before his death. The church completed the installation one year later.

dan flavin to saskia
"To Saskia, Sixtina, Thordis" (1973). Philippe Huguen / Getty Images

Legacy

Dan Flavin's decision to work solely with fluorescent light bulbs as the medium for the construction of his sculptures makes him unique among major 20th-century artists. He helped define minimalism using such limited materials, and he introduced the idea of impermanence to his work. Flavin's works only exist until the lights burn out, and the light itself is the analogous element to other sculptors' use of concrete, glass, or steel. He influenced a wave of later light artists including Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell.

Source

  • Fuchs, Rainier. Dan Flavin. Hatje Cantz, 2013.