PRINT February 2005



A retrospective at the National Gallery of Art is the closest thing the American art world has to an imperial investiture, and Dan Flavin’s Washington, DC, survey was no exception. Emphatically attesting to Minimalism’s current aura, the East Wing’s squashed hexagons, triangles, and podlike vestibules were filled with his emanating objects, interiors taking on the lure of grottoes and sanctuaries (especially appealing when clusters of related works hummed and glowed together), while a modular green piece flashed from the lobby like Martian bling-bling onto Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall. What message beamed out from all this fluorescence? Clearly, it signaled the new determination of survey museums to include Minimalism in the canon.1 But it also left us to decode how Minimalism is being rendered canonical. Sandwiched as they were between Rothko in the basement and the space where Matisse’s late cutouts are usually installed upstairs, Flavin’s “situations,” as he called them, were certified by the gallery as genuine vehicles for the technological sublime.

Auras, sanctuaries, sublimity—these are words to reckon with, particularly when applied to the supposedly austere works of Minimal art. The target of Walter Benjamin’s productive revolutionary rage, “aura” was supposed to wither in the age of art’s mechanical reproducibility. Yet while nothing could be more manufactured and iterative than hardware-store-bought fluorescent fixtures, it is equally true that nothing about them is “reproductive” in the Benjaminian sense. Fueled by Flavin’s romantic titles, and by the complex eschatology that his drawings demand, “aura” seems to pulse directly from his fluorescent tubes. What this whole system of meaning reveals (if we still find it revelatory) is the compacted emotionalism undergirding “cool” ’60s abstraction—in particular, the layers of sex, rage, nostalgia, spirituality, and masculine yearning that Minimalism was always hiding in its frigid little heart.

Setting the tone for our journey, Tony Smith’s Die, 1962, stands opposite Flavin’s modular barrier piece at the entrance to the exhibition—an entirely appropriate juxtaposition given Smith’s special role in cooking up his own brand of Minimalism that’s one part drunken Blue Poles, one part New Jersey wanderlust, and two parts architectural formalism.2 On one side, Flavin’s fifty-six-unit fence bathes the rusty steel of Die in unappetizing green light; on the other, it sets up a dramatic contrast with the capital’s acres of pink Tennessee marble, visible out the window. Once we’ve peered down the corridor created by Flavin’s barrier (and savored the Brancusi-like illusion of infinity produced by its incrementally increasing width), we’re in the groove, our vision saturated with a phosphorescent green that intensifies into a strong pink afterimage when we look away from the piece. Our sight now recalibrated, the “real” world of official Washington outside I. M. Pei’s handsome plate-glass windows looks even rosier than usual, a cloying and false alternative to the more proximate industrial existence that Flavin evokes.


The experience of seeing a Sweet’N Low world “cured” by the tonic of industrial light is symptomatic of Flavin’s own development and a good predictor of his modus operandi. Sentiment, longing, grief, and ecstasy are packaged with an almost brutal reductiveness, an aggressive compaction of feeling that is nowhere more savage than when it is directed at the artist himself. The early “icons” in the retrospective’s first gallery are exemplary, and shocking for anyone who’s never seen them. You could see one on a tour of Donald Judd’s studio museum down on Spring Street in Manhattan, but they’ve long been overshadowed (or should I say outshone?) by the modular fluorescent works. Their intriguing ambiguities are intensified by the exceptional range of drawings presented at the conclusion of the exhibition, where the turbulent transition between Dan Flavin the expressionistic iconographer and Dan Flavin the compressed abstractionist becomes clearer. Together, the “icons” and drawings form bookends to the canonical Flavin—positioned as if to foreground how far he came but serving to call into question the nature of “abstraction” in his work as a whole.

Flavin once commented that a show on the New York art world in a single year—1961—would be fantastic.3 Now we know why. On either side of that year, the drawings and the icons divide—from late-’50s expression to ’60s cool—as Flavin accomplished the cultural work of transforming Beat sexuality and spiritual yearning into Minimalist abstraction. In this project, the artist had excellent company (if largely unbeknownst to him at the time). Young Dan was laboring along parallel lines to the “preconscious” Robert Smithson in 1959, drawing a phallic eyeball totem labeled FROM A FERTILITY GOD, but then two years later carefully annotating that sheet, DESTROYED MAY 1961. In 1959 he’s willing to evoke the early Rauschenberg (the maker of collages such as Mother of God, ca. 1950) in his crushed-can homage Apollinaire wounded (to Ward Jackson), but by 1961, his neo-Dadaism is turned into a terse poem on the same subject, obsessively annotated and revised (with the dates “10/3/61–10/4/61, 10/13/61” written on the sheet in a spidery hand). And while a still largely unknown Andy Warhol toils across town, in 1962 Flavin makes the newspaper collage Marilyn Dead but seems never to have realized the work for which it must have been a study, proposed on another sheet from that year as THE BLONDE PAINTING (I’M STILL I SUPPOSE ALONE) TO MARILYN MONROE.

The passion of Dan is a story of constriction and conscription, of the artist harnessing his emotion to a system of sublimation (not, I will argue, sublimity) and accepting that the work of art should soldier on in the great avant-garde tradition. Flavin’s passion play is quite literally scripted in these drawings (the writing gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it approximates medieval micrography), and its story further unspools through the retrospective as a whole. I, for one, feel no regret at the gradual suppression of Flavin’s feelings. Abstraction provided a censorious—and crucial—corrective to the romantic sensibilities that are so obvious and overblown in the early work. A florid Paul Jenkins–like homage, Vincent at Auvers, 1960, is embarrassingly sentimental: AS FOR MY WORK, we read Vincent writing (in Flavin’s exquisite penmanship), I DO IT AT MY LIFE’S RISK AND HALF MY REASON HAS FOUNDERED IN IT. How grateful we are that Flavin curbs his gush, so that icon V (Coran’s Broadway Flesh), 1962—a wall-mounted pink box ringed with “candle” incandescent bulbs—functions as a puzzle rather than a confession.

The dialogue between the drawings and the icons gives heft to Flavin’s emotions and does much to explain the “aura” emerging around his later work. The compression of flesh and spirit into abstraction also explains the basis for Flavin’s consistent tropism toward Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt—two other sentimental spiritualists trying to make it in an instrumental Protestant world. The “icons” are particularly fascinating in this respect, and seeing them being worked out in the early drawings is essential. In one study, Stanley Coran is given a first name (tactfully omitted in the exhibition brochure’s explanation of the dedications, where he is, in Flavin’s words, simply “a young English homosexual who loved New York City”). Moreover, in one 1963 drawing the composition of Coran’s Broadway Flesh is also allocated to a planned icon subtitled “the martyr’s crown.” Such linkages form a personal eschatology for the former altar boy and invite viewers to be exegetes of the transmutation of flesh into spirit, spirit into flesh.

Jasper Johns is everywhere in these early icons, as curator Michael Govan points out in the catalogue of the exhibition (cocurated with Tiffany Bell). Thus the metamorphosis of early Flavin takes on a special charge when an icon such as Coran’s Broadway Flesh moves through a figure of martyrdom (in the related drawing) and reemerges as the near-absolute abstraction of pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963. Apart from the obvious formal transformation from pink pigment to pink fluorescent tube, the reference to “icon” returns via the placement of the later work. From blank, flesh-colored center in the 1962 work to the “blankness” of a standard fluorescent fixture in 1963, the distilled and abstracted icon is now installed in a corner—a charged position for the Russian abstractionists Tatlin and Malevich, whom Flavin was studying and who both positioned works in the corner, where domestic religious icons had always hung. Unlike the expansive implications of the Russians’ hangings on high, Flavin’s homage to Johns is low and lean, in keeping with his generation’s deliberate invocation of humility (all those Andre plates hugging the floor and begging us to walk on them). This is the Beat route to beatitude, and it has its special force in the homages to both Coran and Johns—gay men’s passions were just about as inexpressible as the black man’s were invisible (recall that Flavin’s inspiration for the light works came from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, with its protagonist’s hidden installation of 1,369 lights). In this “emblem,” as Flavin wrote of the piece for Coran, “I have tried to infect my icon with a blank magic which is my art.”4

The “icons” might have been “blank” and “infected,” but they certainly did the job. They got Judd’s attention when they were exhibited at the Kaymar Gallery in March 1964: “The paint is flat and the lights come that way; the lights are strong and specific.”5 For Flavin, the icons did considerable personal and aesthetic work, memorializing his twin brother, David (who died from polio in 1962), and forging a technological vocabulary in which his childhood Catholicism could be acceptably expressed. Compare the endearingly kitschy East New York Shrine, 1962–66, dedicated to David and relegated to the drawings gallery, with the related icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin [1933–1962]), 1962–69. The former consists of a Pope brand tin can emblazoned with pendulous Roma tomatoes (hello Claes, hello Andy), which is topped by an Aerolux bulb of the glowing Virgin Mary. A section of rosary beads serves as its string pull, and its inscription reads: HOLY MOTHER LOADED WITH GRACE PLEASE HELP DAVID. . . .6 The “blank magic” of abstraction later transformed this open prayer for Flavin’s dying brother into icon IV—a Formica icebox given the ecumenical sheen of fluorescent “daylight” and a title that directs it away from Catholicism to the “pure land” of Amida Buddhism.

As important as the “icons” may have been in helping Flavin to participate in the abstracted, secularized spirituality of Newman’s 1958–66 Stations of the Cross or Reinhardt’s darkly Lutheran cruciform paintings of the ’60s, Flavin’s job was to get rid of religion. “Desolate and ignoble” (in the artist’s own words), the “icons” could only mourn their incapacity to work the machinery of a spiritual art. Like others in his generation ( Judd, Stella, Warhol, LeWitt, Smithson), Flavin was weaned on abstraction. He might rail about the “Harvardradclipped” Greenbergers,7 but he still had to eliminate references to the body, literature, and God in order to join formalism’s teleological wagon train. The loss of a personal religious vocabulary was willed in order to gain access to a more transcendental signifier. Light was light, after all, and it could be literalized and ironized while still covertly holding onto its philosophical and spiritual connotations. In the place of uplift, sublimity, and glory, in the spot where Bernini put his God rays, Flavin screwed his readymade bulbs.

The “icons” begin, but do not complete, this work of deflation. In icon VII (via crucis), 1962–64, the Masonite is turned backside out and painted black for a tacky, sackcloth texture, befitting both an updated imitatio Christi (the crude cloth on Christ’s beleaguered body) and an evocation of the cheap construction practices in a rapidly developing New York. But in our age of “values” voters and globally distributed Christian films (not to mention the traveling Smithson retrospective’s revival of a “Creeping Jesus” thematic), today’s viewers are primed to see the diagonal fixture immediately for “what it is”—a materialized, industrial metaphor for the burden of the cross.8 Simultaneously deflationary and transcendental, it becomes an enlightenment beacon that confirms the odd contradiction at the heart of Flavin’s work: Modernity killed God, yet modern things remain our only possible vehicle for spiritual redemption. In support of this exegesis, the diagonal of icon VII, now freed entirely from “the body” of its square wooden support, would become the epiphanic object fueling Flavin’s success.


The job of the icon had traditionally been to defer, endlessly, to an absent original—to send the viewer onward and upward through the portal of the inadequate image to the perfected ideal of a conceptual form (the face of Marian forgiveness, the abject yet resurrected body of the Christ). Flavin’s minimal genius (no wonder he preferred “maximalism”) was to eliminate the inadequate image, so that the systematics of deferral alone would make the art. For him, however, deferral was hardly the ultimate point. The diagonal of May 25 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi), 1963, became a figure for jouissance—THE DIAGONAL OF PERSONAL ECSTASY, as he inscribed a related drawing. It transformed Christ’s humanity (the body and cross of icon VII) into Flavin’s manhood—the simple diagonal fluorescent stick forming what feminist historians can only see as a phallic substitute, “literally, a hot rod.”9

Although this dynamic changed in the combinatorial late works, the first fluorescents displayed the lingering symbology of something indivisible—a potent singularity in the tube-and-pan unit. The famous 1964 Bruce Glaser interview with Stella and Judd (from which Flavin later edited himself out) had the artist musing on this “oneness,” to borrow a term beloved of Abstract Expressionists: “Using fluorescent tubes the way I do, they seem to maintain their own distinction [even] in the group, each tube exists as itself, as an equal entity in the whole, so it almost seems that it works against symmetry or asymmetry. I’ve been thinking about this more and more lately—that they are independent of each other, though they can appear to be related.”10 The independence emerges within the relation, I would argue, connecting Flavin’s ecstatic diagonals to the “zips” of Barnett Newman (from which they anxiously distinguished themselves through their tilt).

The concoction of aura around Flavin’s work (as part of the general fiduciary project of enshrining the Minimalists as yet another subset of “American masters”) does not diminish those principled aspects of the fluorescents that would always seem to dodge the sublime. I’ve asserted a productive ambiguity about the early works, but later ones also dally with a dialectic that is still crucial to understanding the Minimalist project. Tools of power, but also tools for critique. Light in Flavin offers emanating color and luminescence that “heals” the tired businessman and art worker. The extraordinarily beautiful piece honoring Harold Joachim gives us a split of aqua and cerulean trapped in a corner; in the propped piece dedicated “to the real Dan Hill,” pink, blue, green, and gold mix sumptuously on the walls of the dead white cube in precise relation to the tilt of the tubes; the homage to Matisse flows like a good Morris Louis, spilling and pushing its color over the floor.

But fluorescents also jar and prod, prime signifiers of our lives in the office warrens of postindustrial labor. They project that noxious hum of malfunctioning current that Mona Hatoum later took (from Flavin?) to suggest our prisons’ reliance on the electric grid. The cool Flavin, the unsentimental Flavin, the industrial Flavin is the one lionized in Minimal art. This is the Flavin of 1963’s the nominal three (to William of Ockham), the Flavin that dedicated a work to Robert Ryman and his executive summaries of pictorial labor. At the National Gallery, this is the Flavin of room two, where the reconstruction of his first solo exhibition, in 1964 at the Green Gallery, buzzes unbearably, forcing an early exit. This is the Flavin who can say to Glaser that same year, “My work becomes more and more an industrial object. . . . [The fluorescent light] is an industrial object, [and my work] is just a reiteration of it or a reorientation of it.”11 And finally, this is the Flavin celebrated by Judd and Smithson, the latter praising Flavin’s declaration of “inactive history” with “anti-monuments” built “against the future” in a nihilistic embrace of entropy. “Flavin turns gallery-space into gallery time,” Smithson concluded in his “Entropy and the New Monuments” from 1966.12 Consciously posed against both formalist transcendence of the body and formalist antipathy to duration, Smithson’s new monuments (Flavin preferred to keep his ironic “monuments” in quotes) would locate themselves in time, expressing the slow loss of energy characteristic of organized systems in our corner of the universe.

Time, the central unit of industrialized labor (man-hours), became commodified well before the introduction of electric light. But evenly distributed, inorganic, standardized technological light made it possible to extend the workday beyond the seasonal limits of daybreak and sunset. It is the wonder and horror of that achievement that fuels the nonsublimity of Flavin’s art, and contributes to its uneasy fit within the metaphysics of “aura.” It’s true that Flavin customarily hid the umbilicus connecting his light works to their essential electric grid. This seems like a bid for magical thinking (Hatoum, for one, would never suffer such false consciousness). But in Flavin’s perpetual dance with his own desire for “blank magic,” he never abandoned the off-the-shelf banality of the white pan, the ballast, and the flickering fluorescent tube.

More material than Newman’s zips, Flavin’s lightworks ultimately allude to what was left to “the individual” in the second half of the twentieth century. They bring into the gallery the morbidity of industrial human existence, since one can always find a few works where the fluorescence is approaching extinction, electricity wanly pulsing through the argon and mercury vapor trapped in the tube. Flavin used this inevitable demise to ironize his “monuments,” and in the several works he dedicates to Mondrian we get the cutting edge of his dark, metaphysical insight. Our modernity is really iterative rather than cartographic, Flavin suggests. Instead of the orientation offered by Mondrian’s boogie-woogie grids (what Benjamin might have understood as landscape in the age of its mechanical reproducibility), Flavin insists on the modular, serial, repeatable unit of the phallic light stick. In the end, even personal ecstasy can be popped out and replaced. Happiness comes down to accepting our kinship with those waves of ionized gas, ever burning and dying in a phosphorcoated night.

Caroline A. Jones is associate professor of the history of art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


1. As NGA director Earl A. Powell III remarks in the exhibition’s press release: “This is an important step in our new and continuing representation of work by the generation of minimal and post-minimal artists.”

2. The references are, respectively, to Smith’s account of his collaborative role in the drunken generation of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (recounted as the opening segment of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Jackson Pollock [New York: C.N. Potter, 1989]); to Smith’s narration of his car ride down the unfinished New Jersey turnpike (Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., “Talking with Tony Smith,” Artforum, December 1966, 19); and, finally, to Smith’s job teaching architecture students at Cooper Union in New York.

3. This was a conversation between Flavin and the author in 1985, when we were planning the installation of his “New Works” piece at Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

4. fluorescent light, etc. from Dan Flavin/lumiere fluorescente, etc. par Dan Flavin (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada; Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1969), 152.

5. Donald Judd, “New York Exhibitions: In the Galleries,” Arts Magazine, April 1964, 31, quoted in Michael Govan, “Irony and Light,” in Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell, Dan Flavin: A Retrospective (New York: Dia Art Foundation; Washingon, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2004), 31.

6. Flavin noted on a related drawing that he wanted to remake East New York Shrine in a much larger “33-gallon can” version, which he proposed to title “my tomb with a flower.”

7. Dan Flavin, “some other comments . . . more pages from a spleenish journal,” Artforum, December 1967, 25.

8. “It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else . . . There is no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with . . . It’s in a sense a ‘get-in-get-out’ situation. And it is very easy to understand. 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.” Dan Flavin, quoted in Michael Gibson, “The Strange Case of the Fluorescent Tube,” Art International 1 (Autumn 1987): 105. Flavin’s dicta have a Yahweh-like implacability that I have turned to a different use.

9. Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine, January 1990, 45. Govan presumes this “phallic reference [was] no doubt intended by the artist” (“Irony and Light,” 37).

10. Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Frank Stella, “New Nihilism or New Art?” moderated by Bruce Glaser, WBAI-FM, New York, February 1964, tape BB3394 (author transcript), Pacific Radio Archive. Flavin’s remarks came in response to Frank Stella’s charge that “fussiness” resulted from any asymmetrical composition.

11. Ibid.

12. Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum, June 1966, 26.