PRINT February 2005


1. For years I took Donald Judd at his word: that Minimalism is absolutely opposed to pictorial illusionism and virtual space (why, I thought foolishly, not take a literalist literally?). But is this account true to the art of Judd, let alone that of his friend Dan Flavin, early or late?1 What is the fate of the celebrated opposition between “specific object” and illusionist space in the aftermath of Minimalism—and the role of Flavin in that story? Opposed to illusionism, might Minimalism also be propped up by it, bound up with it, invested in it? In my own literalism (which was deepened by the literalism of process and site-specific art), I didn’t attend enough to how this illusionism, however transformed, might be preserved in Minimalism, even expanded by it—and, further, released everywhere, in the dispersive opticality of the Light and Space art that floated on Minimalism (especially on Flavin), with Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and others. Perhaps the Minimalist break from pictorial virtuality into actual space was only partial and temporary, a historical ruse on the way to the current triumph of the virtual—and not in art alone.

2. Judd had illusionist panic in the way some men have homosexual panic, and it compelled him to project illusionism away from his work and, to a lesser extent, that of Flavin. “They don’t involve illusionistic space,” Judd declared of the Flavin “icons” in 1964, which he described as “blunt” (high praise for him), only to qualify his assessment with the fluorescent lights: “I want a particular, definite object,” Judd wrote in 1969. “I think Flavin wants . . . a particular phenomenon.”2 Flavin never did sign on fully to the program of specific objects; yet both artists entertained a play between “object” and “phenomenon,” material support and illusionist effect (here Judd turned an oscillation within both practices into an opposition between the two).3 Essential to our experience of a Flavin fluorescent is the relay of our attention between fixture, gas, luminous tube, extended glow of color, and spatial diffusion of light; and he knew it well: “The composite term ‘image-object’ best describes my use of the medium.”4

3. For Flavin the struggle with illusionism was chiefly to hold “the lamp as image back in balance with [the lamp] as object.”5 Yet this struggle preceded the fluorescent works as well; it was in play ever since he moved, in the late 1950s, from his fussy watercolors to his tins and tools smashed against brushy Masonite grounds (which he called, in a typical riff of Joycean assonance, “plain physical factual painting of firm plasticity”).6 The mix of abstract painting and found object here attests to the two principal forces at work then: Like others in his milieu, Flavin was impressed by Barnett Newman, and in those days one couldn’t avoid Rauschenberg and Johns (whose lineage was underscored by the exhibition “The Art of Assemblage,” mounted at MoMA in 1961, when Flavin was still a guard there). Either of these lines of influence—Newman or Rauschenberg/Johns—might have led Flavin to extrude pictorial into actual space; yet another influence, not represented in the moma show or elsewhere in New York in 1961, clinched the move: the Constructivism of Tatlin and Rodchenko. This precedent came by way of a book by English art historian Camilla Gray, The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863–1922, published in 1962 (it was also important to Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, who alerted Flavin to it). Three years later he looked back on this Constructivist project as the basis of his own “proposal”: “This dramatic decoration has been founded in the young tradition of a plastic revolution which gripped Russian art only forty years ago. My joy is to try to build from that ‘incomplete’ experience as I see fit. Monument 7 in cool white fluorescent light memorializes Vladimir Tatlin, the great revolutionary, who dreamed of art as science. It stands, a vibrantly aspiring order, in lieu of his last glider, which never left the ground.”7 Although this recovery of “that ‘incomplete’ experience” was an important part of the neo-avant-garde project of the ’50s and ’60s, it was also, necessarily, a retreat: What was, for Tatlin, a radical monument that emblematized a new order had become, with Flavin, a “dramatic decoration” that eulogized a failed artist. And Flavin does remain on the threshold between the illusionist and the actual, the aesthetic and the utilitarian.

4. “I can abuse lighting in a sufficiently useful way,” Flavin once remarked, “and still accomplish what I regard as art.”8 Supplied by “any hardware store,” fluorescent lights were deployed, in the early ’60s as they still are today, in workaday spaces: factories, offices, lunchrooms, subways, train stations (in 1976 Flavin installed lights on two platforms at Grand Central Terminal). They were also used commercially, and the colors are unnatural, often gaudy; in fact, beyond workaday, the lights are a little tacky, and Flavin did not shy away from this association: He once remarked that the fluorescents evoke a “Brooklyn Chinese restaurant,” and an incandescent work like icon V (Coran’s Broadway Flesh), 1962, has a campy side, too (with its fleshy tint and flashy lights, it was titled in homage to “a young English homosexual who loved New York City”).9 On the one hand, then, Flavin held that “there is no room for mysticism in the Pepsi denigration. . . . My fluorescent tubes never ‘burn out’ desiring a god.”10 On the other hand, the lights can be glorious, the effects ecstatic, and Flavin often used both terms almost in the sense of religious transport. Here is another irony of different associations held together in tension: evocations of transcendental spaces on the one side (Flavin designed lights for a church in Milan, finally realized in 1997, a year after his death) and of train stations and subways on the other. Newman zips in Broadway lights.11

5. Flavin engages other oppositions—between immediacy and mediation, for example, and materiality and immateriality—oppositions in play almost everywhere in advanced art of the ’60s. And he often spoke for both sides. On the one hand, “the physical fluorescent light tube has never dissolved or disappeared by entering the physical field of its own light.”12 On the other hand, the “brilliance” of the light can “somewhat betray its physical presence into approximate invisibility.” Here again Flavin wants to hold the effects in tension; yet the tension is difficult to maintain, and often his work appears more site erosive than site specific: “An eight-foot fluorescent lamp . . . pressed into a vertical corner,” he admitted about a piece like the one he dedicated to Johns, “can completely eliminate that definite structure.” 13 This crucial aspect of his work prompts my principal claim here: With Flavin we see Minimalist anti-illusionism troped or trumped as an expanded field of illusionism. That is to say, his work moves beyond the frame of painting and off the pedestal of sculpture into a realm less of specific objects than of pictorial space writ large. Might it be that his primary achievement was not only to abstract such pictorialism (that was done before him) but also to atomize it?14 In his Minimalism (if that is still the right word), to literalize is also to pictorialize, even to opticalize: Illusion is not negated so much as extruded into space.15 This diffusion of colored light into actual space, Rosalind Krauss argued in 1969, has “the simultaneous depth and physical inaccessibility of illusionistic space”; in effect “the [real] space ‘of the room beyond’ . . . bear[s] on the conventions of painting.”16 With Flavin the literal does not correct the illusionistic; rather, it is subsumed by it. And the same might be said of our own bodies in the midst of his work: At its extreme, his colored light overwhelms our visual apparatus. Beyond any optical mixing, his light seems to exist in our dazzled eyes.

6. “As I have said for several years,” Flavin wrote in 1966, “I believe that art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realized decoration. Symbolizing is dwindling—becoming slight. We are pressing downward toward no art—a mutual sense of psychologically indifferent decoration—a neutral pleasure of seeing known to everyone.”17 As we know, Flavin didn’t want to shed this “mystery” altogether (early on he termed his art “blank magic”), but “decoration” was not a slight to him, as it was to abstractionists from Kandinsky and Mondrian in the 1910s and ’20s to the Greenbergers in the ’60s.18 For decoration is valued negatively only if abstraction is pledged absolutely to medium specificity and/or aesthetic autonomy, and for Flavin it was not. “At times,” he said of the icons, “they may be lamp blocks losing their identity to a greater ensemble”; and even more with the fluorescents, “the lights are integrated with the spaces around them.”19 But Flavin refused any connection with then-incipient installation art: “I do not like the term ‘environment’ associated with my proposal,” he wrote in 1967. “It seems to me to imply living conditions and perhaps an invitation to comfortable residence. Such usage would deny a sense of direct and difficult visual artifice.”20 Despite his move into actual space, he wanted to retain the punctual intensity of late-modernist abstraction: “I intend rapid comprehensions—get in and get out situations. I think that one has explicit moments with such particular light-space.”21 This “keenly realized decoration,” which releases the opticality of a Poons or Olitski painting in the spatial medium of colored light, shifts Flavin away from Judd, Andre, and friends toward Irwin, Turrell, and company; that is, it aligns him with a genealogy of art that often involves conditions of immersion and effects of bedazzlement (“regard the light and you are fascinated”).22 If the prominence of an artist like Olafur Eliasson is any indication, this once-secondary line (which effectively undoes the materialist dimension of Minimalism—its will to “specify” object, viewer, and space) is now dominant. And this devolution might be taken to represent a catastrophe (in the etymological sense of a “down-turning”)—the catastrophe of Minimalism.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004).


1. This text derives from a talk given at a conference on October 23, 2004, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, on the occasion of the Flavin retrospective there. Judd laid out the Minimalist case against illusionism in his celebrated essay “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965. Rosalind Krauss pointed, presciently, to the persistence of illusionism in his work in her short but suggestive text “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd” (Artforum, May 1966), but her argument was that Judd was not anti-illusionistic enough, and by the time I had read her piece, it was also overridden for me by my own Judd-inflected account of the Minimalist break (as articulated in “The Crux of Minimalism” [1987], in The Return of the Real: Art and Theory at the End of the Century [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996]).

2. Donald Judd, in fluorescent light, etc., from Dan Flavin (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1969), reprinted in Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959–1975 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 200.

3. “Please do not refer to my effort as sculpture and to me as sculptor. I do not handle and fashion three-dimensioned still works, even as to Barbara Rose’s Juddianed ‘specific objects.’ I feel apart from problems of sculpture and painting” (Dan Flavin, Letter of June 17, 1967, to Jan van der Marck, in Dan Flavin: three installations in fluorescent light [Cologne: Kunsthalle Köln, 1973], 95).

4. Dan Flavin, “‘some remarks...’” (Artforum, December 1966), in ibid., 91.

5. Dan Flavin, “‘. . . in daylight or cool white’” (Artforum, December 1965), in ibid., 87.

6. Ibid., 86.

7. Dan Flavin “‘The Artists say’” (art voices, Summer 1965), in ibid., 84.

8. “Dan Flavin Interviewed by Phyllis Tuchman” (1972), in Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell, Dan Flavin: A Retrospective (New York: Dia Art Foundation; Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2004), 194. I am indebted to Bell for her expertise.

9. Ibid.

10. Dan Flavin: three installations in fluorescent light, 94. “Pepsi denigration” is a good example of his wit.

11. A related irony is active in his prose (perhaps Flavin learned it from Joyce), where ecstatic states are sometimes undercut by humorous humiliations. Irony is a key term for Flavin, as in this remark: “The radiant tube and the shadow cast by its supporting pan seemed ironic enough to hold alone” (ibid., 87). This suggests that each aspect “ironizes” the other in a way that resists our deciding for one as first or fundamental. In this respect Flavin is an ironist more than a literalist, or rather he finds in literalism an ambiguity that holds both work and viewer in tension: What you see is never quite what you see.

12. Ibid., 91.

13. Ibid., 87.

14. Perhaps this is what Robert Smithson had in mind when he wrote in 1966, “Flavin’s destruction of classical time and space is based on an entirely new notion of the structure of matter” (Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996], 10).

15. Dan Graham called the effect a “reversed illusionism” in his “Art as Design/Design as Art,” in Rock My Religion: Writings and Projects 1965–1990 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 211.

16. Rosalind Krauss, untitled review, Artforum, January 1969, 53–54.

17. Dan Flavin: three installations in fluorescent light, 89.

18. Ibid., 83.

19. Ibid., 82 and 89.

20. Ibid., 95.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 87.