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PRINT September 2012

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Dan Flavin’s “‘. . . in daylight or cool white.’”

Page from Artforum 4, no. 4 (December 1965). Dan Flavin, “‘. . . in daylight or cool white.’ an autobiographical sketch.” Shown: Dan Flavin, the diagonal of May 25, 1963.

A SOLITARY LAMP mounted on an aging, flaking studio wall: Shown this way, in an unprepossessing photograph, the diagonal of May 25, 1963 is both lowly and beatific. Accordingly, for the layout of Dan Flavin’s “ ‘. . . in daylight or cool white.’ an autobiographical sketch,” which appeared in these pages in December 1965, the radiant image was reproduced in black-and-white on matte amber stock. For all its candor, the diagonal is weird and complex: a gas-filled electrical readymade that traffics with pictorial and sculptural varieties of modernist abstraction. Flavin tells us that the diagonal signified a rupture: “In the spring of 1963,” he writes, “I felt sufficiently founded in my new work to discontinue it. I took up a recent diagram and declared ‘the diagonal of personal ecstasy’ (‘the diagonal of May 25, 1963’), a common eight foot strip of fluorescent light in any commercially available color. At first, I chose gold.” He recounts the origin of the work as having been a case less of invention than of recognition. As such, named for the day of its anointment, the diagonal was, from the start, self-commemorating.

Flavin’s essay is a confessional, at times sarcastic, account of his artistic formation, which he characterizes in no small part as a means of resisting an oppressive Catholic upbringing. To identify the lamp as a phallic “diagonal of personal ecstasy” is, then, to make a sacrilegious pun. The diagonal descends from the icons, a series of works made between 1961 and 1963—square, shallow, monochromatic boxes of Masonite, wood, or Formica to which small incandescent or fluorescent fixtures are attached. As a group, the icons are named for Byzantine gold-ground painting; in that some of their titles bear sacred allusions, the low-tech lighting fixtures flirt with kitsch. But Flavin’s relationship with religion—like his relationship with utopian abstraction—is clearly ambivalent: One icon, all white, is dedicated to the memory of his twin brother, who died in his late twenties. Indeed, given both the irony and the ingenuousness that distinguish the essay of 1965, ambivalence can be said to describe the artist’s early application of the medium of fluorescent light overall. The very designation of the yellow lamp reflects this. As a color term, gold (for yellow) is appropriated directly from the commercial inventory, where it is a simple come-on. But given Flavin’s sacred charade, the speciousness of it shows technology—at least in the banal, utilitarian context of a Canal Street hardware store—to be representing itself as a false god.

While Flavin’s attention to the particularity of the medium would diminish over time, early on it preoccupied him. Fluorescent color-light is born of a chemical reaction within the glass tube (wherein gases and phosphors are stimulated by an electric current). Flavin was enthralled by the compound nature of the lamp—the lamp as object and the seepage of the light, which exceeds it: “Regard the light and you are fascinated—inhibited from grasping its limits at each end.” Through-out his text, he summons the rhetoric of miraculous beholding; post-icon, the diagonal still qualifies as pseudodivine, “a buoyant and relentless gaseous image which, through brilliance, betrayed its physical presence into approximate invisibility.” (Facing the light, Flavin even had recourse to formlessness, invoking Kant: “The Sublime is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it, or by occasion of it, boundlessness is represented.”) With the diagonal, the mounted lamp was, then, an object of fixation. But through it all, Flavin resists true believing. “‘The diagonal,’ . . . in the possible extent of its dissemination as a common strip of light or a shimmering slice across anybody’s wall, had the potential for becoming a modern technological fetish; but, who could be sure how it would be understood?” Who indeed? Elsewhere in “‘. . . in daylight or cool white.,’” an operative term emerges to describe the light: illusion. With it we are reminded that the light’s magic—as a species of phantasmagoria—is subtended by deceit.

In speaking of his work, Flavin would soon come to subordinate the nature of the medium to the imperatives of form; following suit, Minimalism’s interpretive literature has made little room for the salience of the medium’s fetishistic allure. But early on, two artist-critics kept this quality close at hand. In 1966, Robert Smithson called Flavin’s “monuments” for Vladimir Tatlin “instant-monuments,” part of a wave of recent work in media such as “plastic, chrome, and electric light” (which substitute for the presumably timeless ones of marble and granite). The new objects drew from a postwar culture of materials that were produced_not _to last, and in Flavin’s case, instantaneity was said to be conditioned by the medium as molecular substrate: “Flavin’s destruction of classical time and space is based on an entirely new notion of the structure of matter.”¹ One year later, Mel Bochner addressed eccentric opticality as an intrinsic factor. The work’s structure, he explained, is virtually undone by the “obliterating” effects of light and shadow; consequently, “the gaseous light . . . is indescribable except as space.” Bochner is accounting for the influence of the light on his apprehension of a specific place, the Kornblee Gallery (a town-house parlor on the Upper East Side for which, in January 1967, Flavin exhibited an iterative sequence of six works in “cool white” light): “The room was brought into an equilibrium in which any implication of possible action or change was excluded.” As such, “the vacancy of the room is as much part of the pieces as the arrangement of the lamps.” Through suspended animation, Flavin’s work—as opposed to that of “the so-called light artists”—creates an “alienation effect.”² Bathed in light, the room is estranged, made uncanny by the eerie glow.

In isolating and dating the gold lamp, Flavin cast the diagonal as an ur-object, thereby grounding the origin of his subsequent work in technologized hallucination. Here the single lamp, which would henceforth serve as the modular component of increasingly complex objects, is staged both as a viable abstract form in and of itself and as the vessel of a strange medium—the work’s material source. For a time, it was impossible for Flavin’s best critics to ignore the vaporousness of the illuminating gas. With what does the medium fill the room? Both dream and lie. The lamps shed illumination; they also flicker and buzz and induce optical fatigue. Finally, they burn out. Flavin did not, at first, anticipate the obsolescence of fluorescent-light technology, but he eventually caught up to it. Later in his life he began to look after the posthumous longevity of his work. But more than once he held that the art—like the man—would someday go dark. Nothing’s sacred, after all.

Jeffrey Weiss is senior curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and an adjunct professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

NOTES

1. Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum 4, no. 10 (June 1966): 27.

2. Mel Bochner, “Serial Art Systems: Solipsism,” Arts Magazine 41, no. 8 (Summer 1967): 42.