PRINT January 1972

A Note on Dan Flavin

IN 1954 JASPER JOHNS MADE his famous Flag, a painting whose surface is entirely taken up with a flat even image of the American flag. One of the things that painting demonstrates is that the subjects in figurative paintings have a very peculiar literal nature: they are visible absences. Johns made this apparent by using an image that would be as closely congruent as possible with the physical presence of his painting. One no longer feels in looking at Johns’ Flag that there is any fictive distance between oneself and the depicted object; pictorial space has been squeezed out altogether. It is as if there is something else coming between spectator and the thing pictured, or as if the illusion of depth provided by pictorial space has been exposed as having been something other than just an illusion of depth. My experience of Johns’ painting was not that it revealed a queer feature of paintings so much as it questioned the nature of my position as a spectator. The painting asks from what kind of position it is that we naturally see the physical presence, which is a picture, and the literal absence, which is its subject, as perfectly reconciled. What sense of “position” is that? To ask that question is already to ask what kind of being the spectator himself is, because the sense of position needed as an answer is not satisfied by picturing the human figure in novel postures or surroundings. A better formulation of the question, one that gives the sense of why it can best be asked “by” art, so to speak, is simply: “who” sees?1 As I read it, the new three-dimensional art which began to appear in the early ’60s is laced with recognitions of this issue; in recent years certain artists, such as Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson, and Keith Sunnier, have been addressing the issue head-on. One artist whose engagement with the problem has been equivocal is Dan Flavin; a look at his work in relation to the problem of the spectator’s nature seems to me crucial to an evaluation of his art.

Johns’ Flag reflected on the experience of both figurative and abstract paintings. It seems that one thing that representational and abstract paintings had in common was their failure to raise for the spectator the question as to his own nature. They seemed already to understand his nature and to assure him that he understood it adequately too. The fact that figurative paintings could be seen as variants on abstract ones or vice versa further confirms that no fundamental resituation of the viewer occurs in the passage from figuration to abstraction. Perhaps the best reason for the opposition by artists following Johns of both representation and abstraction—ultimately of painting—with new three-dimensional modes is that Johns had shown painting ill-adapted to deal with the question “‘who’ sees?”

Dan Flavin’s work did not seem important to me until I happened to see one of his pieces unplugged. The feeling I got about this unlighted piece was not exactly that it was no longer “a Flavin” or just a piece of mounted hardware; I felt rather that something was missing from the piece, absent or away from it. To say that light was absent from it is not really to say anything. My temptation is to say that I felt absent from the piece. The next time I saw a Flavin lighted I understood something of what that feeling meant. In almost all of Flavin’s works, the spectator sees himself (and others) by the light the work provides. The force of this recognition is not that the work confers upon the spectator the sense of his presence to it and to himself. Rather, one is made to see oneself and to realize that one does not look out upon the visible but always sees it from within it.2 If figurative paintings no longer assure us of visual access to the real, this may be because they are only imitative, not just of the visible but of visibility itself. They do not implicate us compellingly enough in the visible, but appear to let us view it from without. That appearance is what Johns exposed by removing all pictorial space from his Flag. What keeps the depicted flag at a strange remove is the difficulty paintings have acknowledging our situation in the visible. That is the acknowledgment that Flavin’s work began to make.

Some of Flavin’s pieces seem deliberately to depict the situation in which paintings implicitly place us. At the Dwan Gallery in 1968 he exhibited a piece, Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on Not Seeing Anyone in the Room), which denied the viewer entry to the space it illuminated. The piece consisted of a row of vertical fixtures supporting fluorescent tubes each of which ran from floor to ceiling barring entrance to the gallery’s back room. All the light fixtures were turned into the room creating a region of illumination which the spectator could see but could not enter.

Flavin’s two current shows at Castelli uptown and the John Weber Gallery downtown continue his series of pieces made up of eight-foot square frames placed across the corner of a room. These seem to allude pretty clearly to painting: two lights always facing front indicating surface and the lights turned inward shaping the corner in various ways, the corner already being an allusion to perspective convention. Generally these pieces do not make much of the spectator’s situation in regard to them, but the installation at Weber is perhaps an accidental exception. The setup here is such that one is quite immersed in the colors spread by the three pieces, one of which is in a large room, the other two in an adjoining small room. As one passes from one space to the other, one’s perception of the color of each piece is modified by the presence of the other pieces. The result is a real sense of immersion in an element accessible to vision alone, but which reveals itself as an element (as water is a fish’s element) only as one moves through it.

Unfortunately, Flavin does not seem to see that he has staked out a certain territory in which to my knowledge no one else is working even yet: the immediate structuring of visibility itself so as to instruct our sense of what the human point of view on the world means.

––Kenneth Baker



1. I borrow this formulation from Stanley Burnshaw who raises analogous questions in his valuable study of poetry, The Seamless Web, New York, 1970.

2. For more on the consequences on seeing oneself see, cf. Chapters 4, The Visible and the Invisible by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Evanston, Illinois, 1968.