(to Frank Lloyd Wright who advised Boston’s “city fathers” to have a dozen good funerals as urban renewal)
“. . . we might, if, like the things outside us we let the great storm over-ride us, grow spacious and anonymous.”—Maria Rainer Rilke
“It looks like painting is finished.”—Don Judd
“Dan Flavin has destroyed electric lights for me. I’m going back to candles.”—Tom Doyle
My name is Dan Flavin. I am thirty-two years old, overweight and underprivileged, a Caucasian in a Negro year.
I was born (screaming) a fraternal twin twenty-four minutes before my brother, David, in Mary Immaculate Hospital, Jamaica, New York, at about seven in the morning on a wet Saturday, April Fool’s Day, 1933, of an ascetic, remotely male, Irish Catholic truant officer whose junior I am, and a stupid, fleshly tyrant of a woman who had descended from Bavarian royalty without a trace of nobility.
Early, I was the victim of a substitute mother, an English “nanny,” fraught with punctilious schedules, who tried to toilet-train me at two weeks of age. When she failed or I failed, she slapped me.
Before I was seven, I attempted to run away from home but was apprehended by a fear of the unknown just two blocks from our house.
I started drawing by myself as a small boy. (My mother told me that I had made a vivid, if na´ve, record of hurricane damage on Long Island in 1938).
“Uncle Artie” Schnabel, the vice-president of my father’s East River boat club, became my first instructor in art. He was a portly, ebullient, red-faced old World War veteran, whose battered left leg bore a brace and pained him gravely when it was about to rain. Also, he had been gassed. I saw his Purple Heart.
On a certain sunny Sunday afternoon, dockside on the river, he set aside a stein of beer, adjusted his glasses, and showed me how to put down pencil water around a ship by lightly dappling just some of the surrounding space with the tiniest of half moons. His cosmic touch on space is in my drawings even now.
Soon religion was pressed upon me to nullify whatever childish optimism I may have had left. Rank suppression at seven in the name of God the Father or any other of the heavenly host did not deter me from devising fantasies in secret. I heard the altar boys’ whispered responses in strange Latin as the beautiful soprano of angels concealed behind the high altar.
In time, I grew curiously fond of the solemn high funeral mass which was so consummately rich in incense, music, chant, vestments, processionals and candlelight. Besides that, I got fifteen cents a corpse serving as an acolyte.
I also dwelled in serious fantasies of war—digging in with lead soldiers under the Japanese yews in my father’s rock garden, and changing pencil sketches of World War devastation as it progressed, these depictions mutually drawn with an older friend, who, as an aerial gunner, was killed over Guam in the next real war.
Before I was ten, I had filled a corrugated paper carton with hundreds of pencil and pen-and-ink drawings after the “Horrors of War” pictured cards of Gum, Incorporated, and sundry other war-time illustrations.
In parochial school, I was compelled to become a good student, a model child. The sisters diverted me from some of my war-torn tendencies and trained my hand in the peaceful uses of watercolor, but they did not permit much freedom for thought about what was to be drawn and washed.
My class work—dutifully done drawings and watercolors on prescribed themes—was preserved in folders by the nuns as good example for the students of following years until, when in 8A, I defied one of the good sisters by putting two handles on a vase of flowers instead of one as she demanded. I remember that that black lady called me a heretic or at least a sinner, but one look at my plump innocence checked her incipient anger and restored her to modest nunliness.
At fourteen, my father committed my brother and me to a junior seminary in Brooklyn so that we might doubly fulfill his own lost vocation. No one had asked me if I wanted to go there, but that hardly mattered, since I had not been permitted to contemplate much else since birth.
I continued drawing privately in class, in the margins of my textbooks. Now there were battered profiles of boxers with broken noses and Dido’s pyre on a wall in Carthage, its passionate smoke piercing “pious” Aeneas’ faithless heart outbound in the harbor below.
Young Father Fogarty, my Second Year Latin professor, was unimpressed with my talent, especially as it continually evolved in his class against his daily lesson plan. He often censured, even ridiculed, me. I acquired a certain personal power with him though. When he chastened me, he blushed redder than I did.
My grades worsened so badly by my senior year that I had to flee the seminary for the terrible profanity of life outside its Gothic walls which, in large measure, I had never experienced. At eighteen, I turned toward art.
I read art, looked at it, and listened about it. In an anti-aircraft battalion library hut in Osan-ni, Korea, I found only Jacques Maritain’s “Art and Poetry.” It was rough going. After buying a pair of Georges Rouault’s prints from his “Miserere et Guerre,” I wrote an American fan letter to the aging master. He answered touchingly with a poem. On a Saturday afternoon in the office at the Hansa Gallery, where a generation of new New York art was being born, Dick Bellamy, Ivan Karp, George Segal, and Allan Kaprow carried on a “bull session” before me.
Since leaving high school, I had done little drawing and no painting until, in 1955, while loitering in Korea with an army of occupation, I became so restless in mind that I sought out another reluctant soldier, an Army private from Special Services, who had studied painting in Oberlin College and would not bathe for four days in a row as some sort of more personal esthetic assertion. I assisted him in setting up a regular class session in figure drawing. Within a few weeks, our program was suspended by an Army major whose obscene eyes saw the probability of a possibility of an unmanly, immoral disclosure in the posing of fellow G.I.’s stripped to the waist while leaning on brooms.
Fortunately, I stopped formal instruction in art after four inconclusive sessions at the Hans Hoffman School in 1956. Following that discouraging experience, my drawing had the considered criticism of a new “American” painter, Albert Urban, a gentle unreconstructed pariah, who, as a young man, had had his work acclaimed in Hitler’s museum for “degenerate” art. I never worked in his studio, which he kept as his barred sanctuary daily from nine to five, but on several evenings, weeks apart, we sat for hours with his wife, Reva, in their spacious West Tenth Street apartment, pouring over my misdirected papers.
After scanning my first batch of divers expression, Albert sighed, settled back in his easy chair, lighted his pipe and, for a while, distractedly puffed smoke through his wiry black mustache. When he finally spoke, he hesitantly suggested that I might better become a scholar—a religious art historian at that.
I was secretly shocked and grieved by Albert’s lack of recognition. In the months that followed, I fervently poured out more hundreds of bad drawings and a few horrid aspirations in oil on canvas paper and canvas board which I supposed must be what paintings were like. Albert, with immense tolerance, kept looking and talking but he could not be encouraging.
On a sudden, dear Albert suffered a heart attack and died on his living room floor. I was entirely on my own again. This was 1958.
During this time, I took survey courses in art history and Ralph Mayer’s “Tools and Materials” program for two semesters at Columbia University.
These classes with Mr. Mayer put me in touch with a variety of antique artistic modes of “permanent painting” which no one will ever use again. In the second semester, I glazed a still-life too intensely and got a thin “B” for the effort.
In February 1959, with my personal affairs in a tangle, I burst out of Columbia University into a belated full-time affair with art. At first, I was on my own with everybody else’s work—Guston’s, Motherwell’s, Kline’s, Gorky’s, Pollock’s, Rothko’s, Jasper Johns’ and “What have you seen in the new Art News?”
My friend, Ward Jackson, used to send me inspirational postcards bearing reproductions of ten year old Motherwell paintings which looked strikingly like my last week’s work, but nevertheless, I persisted because, by then, I knew no other way to live. My work was always on my mind.
For a year or more, I celebrated just about anything: crude Cezanne’s self-portrait mask ennobled in a whirl of charcoal; drab tenements on the waterfront profiled in oil—sienna, umber, ochre, black and white; freight trains through the rain, rendered by smears of fingered ink; misspent ejaculations of watercolor and ink on their own; the “Song of Songs” in my own script, embraced by tender washes that spoke of giving breasts in the field in morning light; a Luis Lozano Olive Oil tin found flattened in the gutter disclosed as itself fastened to a golden box marked, “mira, mira.”
By now, I had established my first studio, a sunny railroad flat on Washington Street in the midst of the old wholesale meat market on Manhattan’s West Side below Fourteenth Street, and near the Hudson River waterfront. (I have always lived by large bodies of water. I love their breadth in constant flux.)
This place quickly grew chock full of curiosities—a dance of strung out objects—arranged like a strange, dirty, cumulative composition but with a random look. All the materials displayed there were found in my wanderings along the waterfront.
When Dick Bellamy first visited me there, he paced from room to room delightedly for some time, and then announced that he wished he could transport the entire apartment to his new Green Gallery. It never occurred to me that the way I wanted to live could become a saleable work of art.
By 1961, I was tired of my three year old romance with art as tragic practice. I found that all my small constructions, with the exception of “mira, mira” were memorial plaques and that the numerous pages and folding books of watercolor and poetry which I had made were drowned in funereal black ink.
My four room flat had shrunk to a closet around my mind. There were too may things of old emotion there. I had to abandon it. My new wife, Sonja, and I pooled our earnings so that we could rent a large loft away in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I could start again to change those small celebrations into something grander—a more intelligent and personal work.
While walking the floor as a guard in the American Museum of Natural History, I crammed my uniform pockets with notes for an electric light art. “Flavin, we don’t pay you to be an artist,” warned the custodian in charge. I agreed, and quit him.
These notes began to find structural form in the fall. My wife and I were elated at seeing light and paint together on the wall before us. Then, for the next three years, I was off at work on a series of electric light “icons.”
Some previously sympathetic friends were alienated by such a simple deployment of electric light against painted square-faced construction. “You have lost your little magic,” I was warned. Yes, for something grander—a difficult work, blunt in bright repose.
Somewhere in my mind, at this time, were quietly rebellious thoughts about proposing a plain physical painting of firm plasticity in opposition to the loose, vacant, and overwrought tactile fantasies spread over yards of cotton duck (my friend, Victor Caglioti, has labelled these paintings, “dreaming on a brush”) that overwhelmed and stifled the invention of their practitioner-victim—a declining generation of artists whom I saw out there before me in prosperous commercial galleries. (I do not mean to be misleading. Plastic polemics did not persuade me to initiate work. Most of the time, I simply thought about what I was going to build next.)
Work that was new to my attention such as the homely objective paint play about objects of Jasper Johns, the easy separative brushed on vertical bar play in grand scale by Barnett Newman or the dry multi-striped consecutive bare primed canvas-pencil-paint frontal expanse play from Frank Stella did not hold an appropriate clue for me about this beginning. I had to start from that blank, almost featureless, square face which could become my standard yet variable emblem—the “icon.”
In the spring of 1963, I felt sufficiently founded in my new work to discontinue it. I took up a recent diagram and declared “the diagonal of personal ecstasy” (“the diagonal of May 25, 1963”), a common eight foot strip of fluorescent light in any commercially available color. At first, I chose gold.
The radiant tube and the shadow cast by its pan seemed ironic enough to hold on alone. There was no need to compose this lamp in place; it implanted itself directly, dynamically, dramatically in my workroom wall—a buoyant and relentless gaseous image which, through brilliance, betrayed its physical presence into approximate invisibility.
(I put the lamp band in position forty-five degrees above the horizontal because that seemed to be a suitable situation of dynamic equilibrium but any other placement could have been just as engaging).
It occurred to me then to compare the new “diagonal” with Constantin Brancusi’s past masterpiece, “the endless column.” That “column” was a regular formal consequence of seemingly numerous similar wood wedge-cut segments surmounting one another—a hand hewn sculpture (at its inception). “The diagonal” in its overt formal simplicity was only a dimensional or distended luminous line in a standard industrial device.
Both structures had a uniform elementary visual nature. But they were intended to excel their obvious visible limitations of length and their apparent lack of expressiveness—visually—spiritually. “The endless column” had evident overtones returning to distant symbols. It was like some archaic mythologic totem which had continued to grow, surging skyward. “The diagonal,” on the other hand, in the possible extent of its dissemination as a common strip of light or a shimmering slice across anybody’s wall, had the potential for becoming a modern technological fetish; but, who could be sure how it would be understood?
Immanuel Kant explained in his “Critique of Judgment” that “. . . the Sublime is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it, or by occasion of it, boundlessness is represented.” He seemed to speak to both these structures. (2)
In time, I came to these conclusions about what I had found in fluorescent light, and about what might be done with it plastically:
Now the entire interior spatial container and its parts—wall, floor and ceiling, could support this strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it. Regard the light and you are fascinated—inhibited from grasping its limits at each end. While the tube itself has an actual length of eight feet, its shadow, cast by the supporting pan, has none but an illusion dissolving at its ends. This waning shadow cannot really be measured without resisting its visual effect and breaking the poetry.
Realizing this, I knew that the actual space of a room could be broken down and played with by planting illusions of real light (electric light) at crucial junctures in the room’s composition. For example, if you press an eight foot fluorescent lamp into the vertical climb of a corner, you can destroy that corner by glare and doubled shadow. A piece of wall can be visually disintegrated from the whole into a separate triangle by plunging a diagonal of light from edge to edge on the wall; that is, side to floor, for instance.
These conclusions from completed propositions (in the Kaymar Gallery during March 1964 and in the Green Gallery during November 1964 and December 1964) left me grounded at play on the structure that bounded a room but not yet in the volume of air space which is so much more extensive than the room’s box.
Since December 1964, I have made tentative attempts at this (in the Institute of Contemporary Art from March 1965 through May 1965, and again at The Ohio State University during April 1965 and May 1965) through bringing the lamp as image back into balance with the other side of its duality as object by dropping it diagonally from the wall out onto the floor in Philadelphia; by extending it horizontally out of an entry arch into the room in Philadelphia and, in Columbus, by placing a pattern of lamps as a complement to the ascent and descent of a flight of stairs and then letting a sole, two-foot, cool, white fluorescent strip act as a horizontal visual bar across the staircase.
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 and, recently, as more progressive structural proposals about these vibrant instruments which have severalized past recognitions and swelled them effluently into almost effortless yet insistent mental patterns which I may not neglect. I want to reckon with more lamps on occasion—at least for the time being.
(1) 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-faced structure full of paint light.
(2) In November 1964, the Green Gallery, held by strategic lines of light, became a quiet cavern of muted glow.
This text is the first half of a lecture presented at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School on December 18, 1964, and again, in revised form, in the Ohio State University Law School Auditorium on April 26, 1965. It was augmented for publication during the last week of August, 1965 and the first weeks of September, 1965.