PRINT December 1969

A Dan Flavin Retrospective in Ottawa

A FEW YEARS AGO a retrospective exhibition implied that an artist of stature had about summed up his career; perhaps he would do more, but it would be in the general stylistic vein of his most established work. Thus is it doubly significant that some of the most original talents of this decade have already had their retrospectives? Whatever the implications, Dan Flavin’s at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa served two purposes: it was a spectacular experience in a period of lethargic museum going, and for the first time Flavin’s innate complexities began to unravel themselves. My only regret is that this showing was so brief (September 13 to October 19), for it is doubtful that another museum will readily duplicate its care and completeness. The National Gallery of Canada is a renovated office building in the Miesian tradition of exposed steel frame and massive glass fenestration. Its low-ceilinged interior spaces are stark and unpretentious, a perfect complement to Flavin’s strengths. Much of the credit for the exhibition belongs to the museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Brydon Smith.

At first it may seem that this retrospective suffers from a certain preciousness and overattention to incidental early works. The viewer is tempted to go straight to the fluorescent arrangements, bypassing everything before as so much biography. However, for an artist as subject to misinterpretation as Flavin, this would be a mistake. As Brydon Smith insists, Flavin is as uncompromising about himself as he is about others. If he has unnecessarily exposed himself in these tentative beginnings, he has given us the opportunity to learn a great deal from them.

Typical are a series of watercolor, calligraphic paintings (1959), each a variation of a single poem from James Joyce’s early Chamber Music. These owe their decorative effects to the Abstract Expressionism of the day—as do a folding book of illustrated Irish poems dedicated to Joyce and one of his secretaries James Johnson Sweeney. Flavin’s obvious veneration of Joyce and identification with the novelist’s early years are crucial to understanding his relationship to art.

A broken family life and partial disengagement from the Catholic faith became the foundations for Joyce’s salvation through art in his early biographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Elements of these also appear in Flavin’s autobiographical sketch (revised for the catalog from the December, 1965, Artforum). Irony, arrogance, and uncommon literary skill mark both efforts. Yet it is a truism of Joycean scholarship that inseparable from Joyce the Catholic renegade, is Joyce the uncompromising Jesuit mind. As a human being Joyce transcended the closed-minded logic and intolerance that at one time identified the Jesuitical use of Scholasticism—unfortunately Flavin has not. After the trauma of rejecting the priesthood, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus began the process of evolving a new faith. Stephen, in a famous conversation with his friend Lynch, expressed the foundations of Joyce’s early ideas in esthetics:

I thought he (Thomas Aquinas) might mean that claritas was the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one . . . But that is literary talk. When you apprehend that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and have apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing.1

And then, further on, Stephen explains:

The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak . . . The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.2

Paring his fingernails or not, Flavin could write in 1966: "I have succeeded in developing no concern for art as labor. Work is finished for me. Now, it is left to electricians and engineers, etc.’’3 However, it would be the shallowest interpretation to see this as a rejection of artisanship or craft—Flavin labors like the rest of us. Rather, as for Joyce, it is the creation of a seemingly omniscient psychology, or in the Mallarmean sense: the most perfect poem is that conceived but permitting no necessity to be committed to paper.

Prior to the first fluorescent arrangement, Flavin made a series of “to be and would be” icons. These are mainly rather small masonite box-forms mounted with incandescent lamps or fluorescent fixtures. Nearly all have their lights mounted off the face of the icon. Each of the mute forms might be interpreted as a tabula rasa. His notes of 1962 compare them to a Russian icon: “But my icons differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty; they are dumb—anonymous and inglorious. They are as mute and undistinguished as the run of our architecture. My icons do not raise up the Blessed savior in elaborate cathedrals. They are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.”4 icon VI (Ireland dying) (to Louis Sullivan) and icon VIII (the dead niggers icon) (to Blind Lemon Jefferson) have flashers attached to their lights—a sin for which Flavin has not failed to chastise other “light” artists.

The diagonal of May 25, 1963 is a seminal work, the first placement by the artist of an 8-foot cool white fluorescent light on his Brooklyn loft wall. Subsequently, this first placement was reverified by a small yellow grease pencil drawing on cardboard, the gold diagonal. Ever since, the juxtaposition of fluorescent fixtures (standard sizes: 2, 4, 6, and 8-foot lengths) has been almost the exclusive consideration of the artist.

But what is more amazing, if not unique, is the journalistic cauterization which Flavin; unaided, has performed upon the body of his own art. His reputation is that of giving out considerably more punishment than received. In a press-dominated art world critics tend to think twice about bandying with Flavin. Better to ignore than to invoke such charitable suggestions as: “If I were you, I would not bother to vie for the infamous bit part of a tawdry, clownish, expedient-expendable middleman type dupe, having blabbed, blustered and bawled publicly for too long about . . .”5

But the strategy employed by Flavin is philosophically more interesting than this particular piece of heavy information would seem to indicate—the reason being that, by Minimalist-Systemic esthetics, criticism is not really critical or supplementary, rather it is reinforcement of the existence and phenomenal implications of the object itself. For instance, Flavin has been exposed to three levels of criticism: comic relief dominates; but Flavin easily dismisses dullards and provincials because they make exceptionally fat targets, forgetting as Baudelaire admonished, “To insult the mob is to degrade oneself.” Occasionally, competent critics have looked at Flavin’s work, but unless they belong to a favored circle who abide by Flavin’s rules, they may as well move on to more compliant quarry. When such critics write about the sculptural nature of Flavin’s proposals, or his connections with the Constructivists, or his “environments,” or make comparisons to various technologically-oriented colleagues, Flavin or his friends insist with some validity that these are irrelevancies. Who then qualifies to write about Flavin? For this third mode of criticism, Mel Bochner has spelled out the ground rules:

Criticism has traditionally consisted of one of three approaches: ‘impressionistic’ criticism which has concerned itself with the effects of the work of art on the observer—individual responses; ‘historical’ criticism which has dealt with an a posteriori evolution of forms and techniques—what is between works; ‘metaphorical’ criticism which has contrived numerous analogies—most recently to scientism. What has generally been neglected is a concern with, the object of art in terms of its own material individuality—the thing itself.

Two criteria are important if such an attempt is to be made. First, the considerations should be concrete (deal with the facts of the thing itself). Second, they should be simplificatory (provide an intellectually economic structure for the group of facts obtained). The latter is necessary because description alone can never adequately locate things. In fact, it very often confers upon them an enigmatic position. Nonetheless it offers more interesting possibilities than the impressionistic, historic or metaphoric approach.6

Don Judd appears to be the most obvious candidate for the production of such enigmata. To say that his strictly critical writings lack style and value judgments is to ignore the raison d’être of criticism, namely exposure. Protracted descriptions signify approving recognition, as demonstrated by Judd’s review of Flavin’s Kaymar Gallery show in 1964:

The second type of work that Flavin shows consists of parallel arrangements of fluorescent tubes. A red tube is flanked by two yellow ones in a four-foot vertical piece. Another work is an eight-foot cool-white tube placed on a diagonal. In another, four eight-foot tubes run side by side vertically. The two outside tubes are cool white and the inner ones are daylight white, which looks blue in this context. A line of light is thrown along each tube by the adjacent ones. The space between the two central tubes is blue, bluer than the bulbs. The two other spaces are less blue because of the white.7

This is not criticism in any responsive sense but rather a kind of flat-footed literality which is essentially Flavin’s work reduced to words. It should be no cause for surprise then that Judd wrote the introductory essay for the artist’s retrospective exhibition. The prose is succinct but parts are extremely odd, a cross between one of the French post-psychological novelists and specification writing for a missile support system:

Art is generally more specific than it used to be; its visible aspects are more important; but usually there is a comparative balance between the few main aspects. The dominance of one phenomena, what the presently balanced would call imbalance, is a particularity of one thing. It’s very different from a particularity which is the sum of several things. I want a particular, definite object. I think Flavin wants, at least first or primarily, a particular phenomenon.8

These quotes are chosen not to criticize the ideas or established methods contained therein, but to suggest that they sustain a certain philosophical consistency with the artist’s mature work. In fact, when Flavin insists that the art of his work is only marginally concerned with the physicality of his lighting systems, or with luminosity, or the making of “environments,” or the creation of objects, one is simply led up to a cul-de-sac. More precisely, Flavin’s vituperative letters and essays, his use of humor as an instructional device, his refusal to acknowledge interpretation except through minute description, his rejection of schools and movements and art history—even the physical blockage caused by some of his arrangements—are all deflectional devices, deflecting away from the methodological comprehension of his work. Though Flavin celebrates almost unending variations with which his serial arrangements can be installed, he is scornful of those attempts to duplicate his work without his permission and assistance. Moreover, if a certain critic becomes fascinated with the illusional qualities of his arrangements, Flavin is there to remind him that, after all, these are merely stock fixtures purchasable in any hardware store. As a dialectical device these strategies have their correspondences with Stéphane Mallarmé’s doctrine of beauty in nothingness, where all secrets are hidden from the mob by the syntactical complexities of mere words, barriers to the empty but eminently worthwhile space within:

For just as we have the right to elicit emptiness from ourselves (hampered as we may be by reality too solidly, too preponderantly enthroned in us), so do we act that a sublime attraction may lovingly deliver us from that reality—and yet be filled with it and shed glittering lights upon it through empty space and in willful, solitary celebrations.9

Poets and novelists by their art possess the advantage of creating deflections directly, for example by the progressive stratifications of meanings and syntax used by Joyce. But the Thomistic training of Joyce—evidenced in his early esthetics—is also an experience shared by Flavin. The question arises then, how does a Catholic youth exposed to Scholasticism see God, and that same God later transmuted to beauty and art? To answer, God is the unadulterated act of existing, the coming together of essence and existence. In Thomistic terms, no human intellect can penetrate the implications of such a fusion. And since God is absolute perfection, we can only share negative knowledge of his qualities and effects, one of these being creativity. Yet for man the act of creation remains partial since God’s wholeness and perfection cannot be divided. Joyce makes this clear through Stephen Dedalus:

But temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as a whole.10

It would be misleading to overestimate Flavin’s preoccupation with churchly doctrine, but there are two early works that support it. One is a watercolor collage mounted on masonite, upon which has been affixed a very crushed tin can, its shining surfaces substituting for the robes of the portly Dominican monk, Thomas Aquinas Doctor of Canon Law (1959). The other is East New York Shrine (1962/63), one of three upright icons in the exhibition. A tiny glowing statuette of Mary is enshrined in an Aerolux Lite bulb, and set upon an empty tomato can—“Pope Brand.” What appear to be black rosary beads and a black tassel extend from a pull chain. An inscription around the base of the can reads “HOLY MOTHER LOADED WITH GRACE PLEASE HELP PLUNK SONJA-DAN FLAVIN-1963,” referring to the excellent artist and humorist, Ed Plunkett.

One of the seminal arrangements produced by Flavin is his the nominal three (to William of Ockham) (1963/64), first shown in the 1964 Green Gallery exhibition. Here the basis for other serial works can be found. It begins with two 8-foot fluorescent lamps centered upon a wall; extended to the left and right at equal distances are a single lamp and three lamps butted together. In the original installation of 1964 the groups of lamps are spaced only a few feet apart; for the National Gallery of Canada installation they are positioned on a 24-foot wall so that the two outer groups line up with the extremities of the partition. On the left side the single lamp touches the open end of a partition, on the right side the group of three butts against a corner so that its illumination casts a brilliant reflection onto the adjoining wall. The more spatial setting at the National Gallery not only alludes to Barnett Newman and other field painters, it calls into question the running battle between the Minimalists and various formalist critics. Obviously Flavin is a formalist and one who has extended the viability of Formalism in not wholly accepted ways. His dematerialization of painterly space takes into consideration room dimensions, reflectivity of surfaces, ambient conditions, and juxtaposed art works in a way that no painter ever dreamed of doing. the nominal three alludes to William of Ockham and that scholastic’s famous device for testing the irreducibility of logical premises. The nominalism which Flavin asserts is a double-edged logic. On one hand he denies universals (the painter’s field and its inherent illusions) by simply setting up three groups of fixtures—no more, no less; concurrently Flavin creates not only a two-dimensional surface, but a series of hodological spaces within and beyond the work itself. This posits the indivisibility of esthetic experience, not by means of abstractions and universals, but through the immediate experience of concrete objects. Of course the two are contradictory and Flavin is faced with the same dilemma as Ockham, namely how does one intuit a nonexistent thing (unified esthetic experience and/or God) if it is assumed that all knowledge must be based upon intuition gained by direct experience with real objects?

The exhibition’s catalog, fluorescent light, etc. from Dan Flavin, is a useful guide. Among the artist’s idiosyncrasies is an obsession for precise documentation—certainly no small virtue for future scholars. Yet nearly two-thirds of the listed works are not directly connected with the fluorescent arrangements which are, in fact, the only reason for the artist’s reputation. This imbalance is augmented by the fact that seven works, six of them room-size, have been omitted from the catalog. For many visitors these represent the heart of the show, yet they have been described only in a Xerox supplement. In fairness it must be added that neither Flavin nor Brydon Smith was responsible for this oversight, but rather the National Gallery of Canada. One might only wish that another edition of the catalog would contain the missing works.

While Flavin eschews the term “sculptural” applied to his arrangements, I am hard-pressed to think of a better word for monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death). First seen in the Jewish Museum in 1966, monument 4 consists of four 8-foot fluorescent fixtures wedged into a corner some inches above eye level, transforming that quadrant of the room into a penetrating reddish glow. If one is at a loss to explain why Flavin has so outdistanced his rivals using light, workmanship is one clue. There are a number of tailor-made neon boxes that fit into any expensive New York condominium, but that is not workmanship, it’s good business. “Truth to material” has something to do with workmanship, but more than that it is turning liabilities into esthetic advantages. I was told by Brydon Smith that Flavin feels the electrician at the National Gallery is the best with whom he has ever worked, and I can believe it. There is virtually not one electric cord or connection in sight. The fixtures have been joined together by hollow threaded connectors, on each side of which a wing nut is fastened. Electrical wires run through the connectors, and all outlets are flush connections inside the wall, leaving no visible plugs or receptacles. The effect is incredibly clean. Once taken off the wall, Flavin uses the deflecting properties of his sheet-metal box supports with equal authority. In contrast to the direct intensity of adjacent fluorescent tubes, fixtures turned away from the spectator produce, not blackness, but patches of nonlight. The light from the fluorescent sources has three consistencies: there is the light of the tube itself, reflectivity from the fixtures and walls directly around the sources, and the ambient “environmental” glow which in subtlety and effect depends upon the strengths of the colors used. Strong colors produce more presence than admixtures approaching white light, although some of Flavin’s more successful effects are with variations of pale colors and white. Again, it is the ambiguous quality of this “trinity” of devices and the seen-not-seen presence of the fixtures themselves that, at least in the artist’s mind, makes the adjective “sculptural,” with all of its connotations, of doubtful value.

One of the most interesting smaller works was made specifically for the exhibition, untitled (to Jean Boggs). It consists of four vertical 8-foot fluorescent lamps, a green, blue, yellow, and red. The lamps are clustered into a 45-degree corner so that the blue, yellow and red tubes directly confront the viewer. However they are angled so that slight changes in position produce different changes among the primaries—these being the result of the green lamp which is located behind the front three. A hint of green is seen below and above the front cluster of blue, yellow and red, but the primary action of the green is a strange washing effect which it has on the three dominant colors. To my mind this piece, which superficially resembles one of the vertical striped canvases of Morris Louis, is superior to the illusional effects of untitled (to the “innovator” of Wheeling Peachblow) (1966/68), shown last year at the artist’s Dwan Gallery exhibition. One of Flavin’s major strengths is in preserving the integrity, the “thingness,” of his light sources. Wheeling Peachblow is a framed picture, producing the kind of diorama stage effect popular in the last century. Its washed colors and illusionism are enchanting, but they lean toward devices of painters far less gifted than Flavin.

In an exhibition which uses light with unequaled mastery it may be carping to touch upon weaknesses, either Flavin’s or mine, in confronting him. Some of Flavin’s environments far transcend anything comparable, while some do not. I might as well dispense with the latter.

Untitled (to Jane and Brydon Smith) (1969) is a grouped series of eight arrangements using cool white, daylight and blue fluorescent light. There are two vertical and two horizontal arrangements positioned near the center of each side of an open well-shaped area running through the two floors of the exhibition. These are derived from the artist’s sketches for monument for V. Tatlin. It is doubtful that Flavin seeks any direct link with the Constructivists (although it is certainly there), but rather he obviously admires Tatlin’s handling of ordinary materials and turn toward functional art projects. Each of the corners of the room contains an identical work, a cruciform shape in blue and white repeated with modules of 2, 4, 6, and 8-foot fixtures. Standing in the room, one looks at the top white fluorescent tubes, while the blue lights face the wall. As stated in the catalog, “The total effect of this area, which could be viewed from above and below, was one of maximum discretion based on careful positioning of the eight installations and subtle differences between the blue and daylight fluorescent light in the spatially open corner pieces above and the cool white of the closely packed confronting Tatlin monuments below.”11

I feel that the cold white light of these eight pieces provides little of the atmospheric unity which often contributes to Flavin’s other room-sized efforts. The light is hard and the pieces remain by themselves, rather like good Antonakoses.

Somewhat different comments are in order for a room entitled three sets of tangential arcs in daylight and cool white (to Jenny and Ira Licht) (1969). Here arcs of 2-foot fluorescent units cover the floor, thus blocking entry into the room. Complementary arcs with reversed daylight and cool white tubes cover the two side walls. Some years ago Flavin wrote: “I believe that art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realized decoration.”12 Flavin, however, is rarely guilty of decoration in the trivial sense—but this piece may qualify. In the catalog supplement the reversed order of the daylight and cool white arcs on the left and right sides of the room, particularly when seen from opposite ends of the gallery space, are described as “optical complication(s).” I feel Flavin has created such effects with considerably more economy, without employing well over 100 lighting units. To repeat a maxim dear to Flavin, “Ockham’s Razor”: “principles (entities) should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” What has made Flavin’s installations stand out from similar art is the fact that his arrangements rarely ignore the space in which they are contained. But while these arcs are flaccidly imposed upon the room’s dimensions, they do suggest an interesting phenomenon. The floor configurations and the lower arcs stop just short of intersection. Optically they nearly succeed in destroying the corners of a rectilinear space.

Untitled (to S. M. with all the admiration and love which I can sense and summon) (1969), is another blocked space. Here 8-foot lengths of red, yellow, pink, and blue fluorescent light are composed into a series of four double triangular sections, similar to simple bridge trusses. Each adjoining section (top horizontal members) provides a mixture of two different colors. From one end of the passageway, these effects are considerably cooler than when viewed from the other end. While these admixtures are interesting, it is doubtful in my eyes that the basic colors and their ensemble hold together. Originally one of the attractions of emitted light was the range and quality of colors available for use. There are approximately three times as many neon colors as there are standard fluorescent hues; using gels or other masking devices, the color range runs much higher. One of Flavin’s consistent strengths has been that he has drawn upon a necessarily limited palette, and used it with great insight. One thinks back to the days when Flavin was not above exhibiting with all kinds of artists using light; the singularity of his contributions was their muted, untheatrical simplicity—a disturbing feature in a gallery of carnival effects. However, this passageway piece is questionable.

As far as I am concerned, Flavin’s four other rooms are unmitigated successes. The artist’s untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room) (1968), appeared last year in the Dwan show. The dedication alludes to an early painting by Lichtenstein of a peephole with the caption: “I can see the whole room . . . and there’s nobody in it.” While the joke is semantic in the Lichtenstein painting, in Flavin’s piece the viewer is virtually denied entrance to a small room by the vertical positioning of the fluorescent fixtures. Surely if one wanted to make a case for the artist’s deflection of the spectator from intimate contact with the art, it is in this overt example. Flavin’s decision not to acknowledge any interpretation of his work except through literal description is the counterpart of his reluctance not to “place” the work of art, such as is the self-defined nature of nearly all light sculpture. We see this in Sartre’s little known essay on the sculptor David Hare: “Each figure will have secreted its own shell, a living and personal space which will protect it from our space.”13 For Mallarmé this space was suicide, rejection, and creative failure—those acts that destroy a being and therefore cause the world to be haunted by its absence. In several instances Sartre has made the observation that he cannot tell you who he is, but only who he is not. Since the artist is acutely dependent upon his future becoming, descriptions of self can only be made in terms of negations. Sartre also takes up the epistomological implication of hodological space in his chapter on the human body in Being and Nothingness:

The point of view of pure knowledge is contradictory; there is only the point of view of engaged knowledge. This amounts to saying that knowledge and action are only two abstract aspects of an original, concrete relation. The real space of the world is what Lewin calls ‘hodological.’ A pure knowledge in fact would be a knowledge without a point of view; therefore a knowledge of the world but on principle located outside the world. But this makes no sense; the knowing being would be only knowledge since he would be defined by his object and since his object would disappear in the total indistinction of reciprocal relations.14

Such ambiguity might account for Flavin’s reluctance to use the word “environment,” or at least as its reputation has been established in the art world. One has come to believe that environments are engaging, that somehow they produce opportunities for sensual involvement that are otherwise absent from art. Flavin’s best rooms place us in a situation where all normal activity is inappropriate or irrelevant. For instance, I watched the reaction of a guard when children sat down on the floor in Alternating Pink and Yellow (to Josef Halmy) (1967/69). He told them to get up, because “that isn’t allowed in here.” Well, the problem is that the room is not suited to gallery behavior, such as focused contemplation or adjusting to a point of view. The children had the only reasonable approach, namely that they were going to become a part of the work by forgetting about it.

The room itself consisted of seven walls; at the base of each lay alternating units of pink and yellow fluorescent fixtures. The fixtures were butted together so that about a foot space was left at each corner. This gap defined the room as a series of rectilinear jogs, very much like the open walls that Louis Kahn employed beginning in the early 1950s. This punctuation had the effect of “measuring” the wall lengths, while the orange ambient light above dissolved the topology of the walls and ceiling. I consider this installation somewhat superior to Flavin’s final plan for his alternating pink and “gold” layout for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. While the Ottawa room had originally been. planned for Chicago in 1967, it was felt that the citizens of Chicago might have trouble digesting such a “minimal” offering; probably so, since they had no little problem with the alternate exhibition which did appear there. Moreover, the layout of the main floor of the Chicago museum with its central partitions would have obscured the relational function of the border lights.

Adjacent to the pink and yellow setting is a final room entitled an artificial barrier of green fluorescent light (to Trudie and Enno Develing) (1968/69). This consists of overlapped square units of 4-foot fluorescent lights formed literally into a barrier for nearly the entire length of the space. One is permitted to get to the other side by going behind a narrow partition that acts as a kind of false wall. Antecedents for this room include Flavin’s 1966 green crossing green at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Einhoven, Holland; and his 1968 red and blue barrier for the Minimal art exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. The catalog explanation of this room is basically optical: the room is saturated with a pale green light, so that the fluorescent tubes appear uncolored or white. This pervasive green acts symbiotically with the previous pink and yellow room so that on returning to that room, the atmosphere has changed from orange-yellow to a “rich rose red.”

An artificial barrier of green fluorescent light relates in concept to the artist’s installed but never exhibited work at the Whitney Museum last year. Flavin ostensibly withdrew from that exhibition because he felt that noise from another display interfered with his own installation. It is also implied that he had substantial doubts about showing with the other invited artists. Both versions are reasonable. But what is most interesting is the way Flavin has in practice defined the word “environment.” For the systems engineer, systems are always embedded in an environment, the environment being that area which is not under the control of the system––but which may affect the system. For the engineer, systems boundaries involve a tradeoff: namely, how small can one make a system (small meaning size, cost, and complexity) so that one has sufficient control over its essential parameters––without excluding important aspects of the environment from the system? This in a nutshell is what the best formalists have been doing for a decade: making more and more of the environment their system. So, in effect, environments are not what the artist is concerned with. What we now call “environmental” used to be the environment for the artist. Evidently, Flavin and the Whitney do not share the same definition of environment––in the long run, I suspect, that will be the Whitney’s problem.

With the barrier of green we begin to see why Flavin objects to the term “sculpture” applied to his arrangements. On entering the room the viewer looks down on the overlapping squares so that they appear as a heavy skewed line. This compares to many common environmental experiences. The “walk-in, walk-out” tag which Flavin has given some environments is not a device of depreciation; but rather it applies to what Sartre has insisted about himself: descriptions of self can only be made in terms of negations. Negations do not have to be studied or analyzed in any rational way, but merely felt instantaneously to be effective. Doubtless Flavin could fill the same space with just as much green light––and do it with no visible means––but to do so would release the irony of employing those very ordinary and unhandsome fixtures. We have the example of what happened when an unsupervised exhibition was made of the artist’s work at the Galleria Sperone in Turin, 7968. Special plastic faces were put over all the fluorescent fixtures; immediately the installation began to smell of “light art” and artifice.

Special mention should be made of untitled (to Heiner Friedrich) (1969). The room is a partitioned corner on the upper floor of the exhibition. It is triangular, painted to reflect no light, and illuminated with 2-foot fixtures of ultraviolet fluorescent light. Lines of fixtures are arranged diagonally from lower right to upper left across each wall. The effect is more disconcerting than one might expect. Last year at the Kassel Documenta, Flavin devised a situation in a tall room where UV fixtures lined all the corners up to but excluding the ceiling. The shape of the space was thus defined by light sources which emit almost no ambient light. This is even truer of the Ottawa installation. One enters a nearly pitch black room expecting to “redefine” its boundaries and rectilinear corners. This proves impossible and gradually one acclimates to the triangular space––but not before the effort is made to “flatten it out.” This sounds very optical, but it is not so in any overt sense, mainly because there is no contrivance or effort to fool the eye. I was misled by my own casual acceptance of all rectilinear room spaces. These simple means are Flavin at his best.

All attempts to “analyze”––whether psychologically or methodologically––an artist such as Flavin are perforce doomed to rejection. And probably a good thing too. It has been said that Flavin has assumed Ad Reinhardt’s duties as “conscience of the art world.” If Reinhardt lampooned his colleagues it was with a level of esthetic insight and nonviciousness that Flavin has always lacked. What has impelled Flavin to gratuitously insult other artists and institutions is more than likely a profound insecurity unwisely assuaged by the media. The “hardware” quality of his proposals and the sentimentality of his titles are again ramifications of a double-edged logic, a view that sees the world in terms of friends and enemies, very good artists and very bad artists. Literary tantrums are a way of destroying much of the good faith generated by his brilliant art, and at the same time knowing that the art cannot be rejected by his peers. In psychology there are terms for such a syndrome. Can we take his rejection of art history, of other art movements, and particularly of artists seriously? Well, yes and no. The polemics point to symptoms and malfunctions in the system, but never reveal the underlying conditions provoking them. Only new ideas destroy the status quo, never diatribes. If the artist survives by realizing new negations, the critic sustains himself by negating old ones.

Jack Burnham



1. Joyce, James (1916) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Modern Library Inc., 1928) pp. 249–250.

2. Ibid., p. 252.

3. Flavin, Dan (December 1966) “Some Remarks” Artforum, p. 27.

4. Ibid., p. 28.

5. Flavin, Dan (December 1967) “Some Other Comments . . .” Artforum, pp. 24–25.

6. Bochner, Mel (Summer, 1967) “Serial Art Systems: Solipsism” Arts Magazine, p. 40.

7. Judd, Donald (April 1964) (Review) Arts Magazine, p. 31.

8. Judd, Donald (September 13–October 19, 1969) “Aspects of Flavin’s Work” in fluorescent light, etc. from Dan Flavin exhibition catalogue (Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada) p. 27.

9. Mallarmé, Stéphane (1956) “Music and Literature” in Mallarmé: Selected Prose Poems, Essays, & Letters (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press) p. 48.

10. Joyce, James op. cit., p. 249.

11. Flavin, Dan and Smith, Brydon (September 13–October 19, 1969) fluorescent light, etc., from Dan Flavin exhibition catalogue supplement (Ottawa:The National Gallery of Canada) no page numbers.

12. Flavin, Dan (December 1966) “Some Remarks” Artforum, p. 28.

13. Sartre, Jean-Paul (October 1947) “Sculptures a ‘n’ dimensions” in Derrière le Miroir, unnumbered insert.

14. Sartre, Jean-Paul (1943) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (Translated by Hazel E. Barnes) (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956) p. 308.