PRINT March 1997


Dan Flavin

THE DEATH OF Daniel Nicholas Flavin, Jr., on November 29, 1996, sent my memory rushing back to the early ’60s, now a mythic moment in the history of art. Born on April 1, 1933, Flavin was part of my own generation, for which the complementary austerities of an iconic soup can and a perfect rectangle appeared to launch a visual order in which industrial uniformity and pure cerebration would be the reigning muses. Worshiping early at New York’s shrines of Modern art (he once worked as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, and attended Meyer Schapiro’s lectures at Columbia), by 1963 Flavin had become a pillar of the fiercely intelligent young art establishment whose spirit was nurtured monthly by the then year-old Artforum. I can’t remember exactly how or when we first met, but it must have been somewhere in those rigorous precincts where the likes of Carl Andre, Frank Stella, and Barbara Rose were drafting new aesthetic constitutions. Yet even within this group of the sharpest cutting edges, Flavin stood out, his toweringly intractable presence always cushioned from reality by his devoted wife, Sonia Severdija.

Teaching then at Princeton, I was only a weekender in this freshly minted world; but in the spring of 1963, my weekend extended through Mondays, when I gave a guest course at Columbia on Neoclassical painting. Always keen on art history, and assuming, I think, that I was a student of Schapiro’s (which I was not), Flavin asked to audit my lectures, especially those on Ingres, and then thanked me for the favor in the most generous ways. First there was a drawing dated April 25, 1963, which he offered to me with an inscribed dedication. Titled icon IV (the pure land), it copied an earlier construction (now lost), a Formica square topped horizontally by a single fluorescent tube. In 1962, when Flavin was first working on this piece, his twin brother, David John, died, and in my drawing the shrine-like object was turned into a memorial by a tombstone-type inscription that recorded his brother’s birth and death date. (There is a telling parallel here to Barnett Newman’s Shining Forth (to George) of 1961, the painter’s abstract altarpiece commemorating his own brother’s death in February of that year.)

One month after he executed this drawing, Flavin, echoing Newman’s Onement I, 1948, took a quantum leap, creating his first work made from nothing but a single standard eight-foot yellow fluorescent tube. He originally called it the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi), but in 1964, in a second version shown at the Kaymar Gallery, New York, he replaced Brancusi’s name with mine, an apotheosis that still has me reeling. Perhaps he was impressed by my youthfully rash remark that his work had destroyed painting for me, a comment he quoted in Bruce Glaser’s radio interview of February 15, 1964, with him, Stella, and Donald Judd (though he subsequently withdrew his own remarks from the publication of this early document of Minimalism).

The next year, our professional paths crossed in a different way that I’ll also never forget. Applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965, Flavin respectfully asked me to write a recommendation. Believing ardently in his genius potential, I of course agreed to do so. But I was dumbfounded when he almost demanded to read my letter before I sent it off, lest I in some way misrepresent his mission. I wrote back that although I could assure him that the letter would be utterly positive, I could not send him a copy, since this violated protocol, and then added, much too breezily for his always furrowed brow, “Who do you think you are? Barnett Newman?” I got back a passionately argued, lengthy, handwritten letter explaining how totally different he was from Newman. This might have been my first awareness that the AbEx fervor for a heroic individuality of cosmic dimensions, a species presumably extinguished by early-’60s cool, had been inherited by at least one member of the next generation. (P.S. He didn’t get the fellowship.)

All this was more than three decades ago, and at the time, if memory is to be trusted, Flavin’s astonishingly familiar-yet-unfamiliar objects—mass-produced cylinders of artificial light—at first seemed to have everything to do with the tabula rasa of Minimalism and little to do with anything else. At home with the rock-bottom geometries portentously unveiled by other artists of his generation—Andre, Stella, Robert Morris, Judd—and, when lit, ethereally defiant of gravity and corporeal presence, his early work appeared to inhabit a pristine world of disembodied intellect, reexamining elementary principles of mensuration or, as in a primary picture, 1964, rediscovering, via a hardware store’s fluorescent spectrum, the three primary colors once sanctified by Piet Mondrian (and reinvented in the 1960s by Newman and Roy Lichtenstein). Moreover, the tonic cerebration that allied Flavin to Minimalism was further underlined by a growing awareness of his connection to Marcel Duchamp, for what was a store-bought fluorescent tube if not a readymade that could be declared, by intellectual fiat, a work of art?

By the time of Flavin’s death, however, the narrow boundaries that constrained the original perception of his work had vanished. For one thing his evolution, like Stella’s, moved relentlessly from minimal to maximal, creating what in the early ’60s would have been unimaginable complexities of exquisitely reflected colors, of intricately circular and latticelike patterns that could expand into sumptuously engulfing environments. And the associative power of Flavin’s art, at first repressed by the chill of Minimalist polemics, has kept growing too, recalling, for one, the intensity of his Irish Catholic background. Hoping to have a priest for a son, his father had consigned him to a Brooklyn seminary, where he was drawn to the drama of the liturgy and its often luminous artifacts. Perhaps that is why the sometimes funereal or mystical quality of his work, with its fluorescent gloom or triumph, redolent of Machine Age populist spirituality, has become ever more potent.

As early as 1964, in his monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me of death), first seen in Kynaston McShine’s “Primary Structures” show at New York’s Jewish Museum in 1966, Flavin invented one of the relatively few visually and viscerally successful metaphors for twentieth-century mass murder, taking the ironic spatial stalemates of corner art explored by his Minimalist contemporaries and re-creating them as a new kind of Crucifixion, with shop-window red fluorescence becoming a new kind of blood. At other times his lambent altarpieces sanctified art-historical miracles, as in “monuments for V. Tatlin,” 1964-70 (inspired by the Russian visionary’s Monument to the Third International), a long series of variations that not only offers precociously postmodern quotations from the most spiritual pantheon of early-twentieth-century aspiration, but also invents a new vocabulary of symmetrical, often cruciform religious heraldry. And if Flavin can at times be interpreted as a modern theologian working with neomedieval light, he can also be seen as a practitioner of an oppressively phallic technological power, a reading, proposed by Anna Chave (Arts, January 1990), that used for support the artist’s own reference to his first “sculpture” of a fluorescent tube at a firm upward tilt as “the diagonal of personal ecstasy.”

Then there is a Flavin who can root us in American soil, master as he is of urban melancholy. I often think of this when, rushing to or from a train, I suddenly notice on some other platform at Grand Central Terminal his public commission untitled, 1976–77, lighting the platform of tracks 18–19, 39–40, and 41–42. These funneling, modular streaks of pink, daylight, and yellow ceiling tubes may relate, of course, to the issues of calibrated linear extension that haunted many Minimalists, but any would-be purism is almost camouflaged in the station by its utilitarian neighbors on parallel tracks. Seen not in a museum but in a workaday city space, Flavin’s fascination with America’s ugliest and most commonplace form of public lighting seems to revert to grass-root sources. The world of George Segal’s Cinema and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is not far away. And there is a flip side as well to Flavin’s American scene, for he was equally capable of plugging into the optimistic electronic rhythms of commerce, witness his spectacularly high-tech installations of 1992 (dedicated to his then bride-to-be, Tracy Harris) in the cavernous lobby of Chase Manhattan’s MetroTech Center in Brooklyn, where his work feels at home with that of Bruce Nauman, R. M. Fisher, and Nam June Paik, and where, like Stella in his later decades, he adjusted comfortably to corporate territory. And then there is his even more surprising alliance with neo Minimalist fashion, witness his contribution to Calvin Klein’s new Madison Avenue emporium (1996).

Now that the light of Flavin’s own life has gone out, we may begin to grasp the astonishing range of his art. From a single cylinder of light, the bone-dry attribute of a Minimalist monk of the ’60s, he went on to create a teeming infinity of shapes, colors, and phantom spaces, and an equally rich domain of associations, both public and private, sacred and secular. Who could forget his recent triumph in New York, when, in 1992, vastly amplifying a Guggenheim installation of 1971, he transformed Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda into a neo-Gothic chapel in which a sky-bound column of immaterial pink light was surrounded by a spiraling refulgence splendid enough to provide a setting for his wedding, on June 25? Magician that he was, he could make a fluorescent tube encompass everything from dirge to jubilation.

Robert Rosenblum is professor of fine arts at New York University and a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.