Between 1966 and 1971, Dan Flavin created a series of nine works in fluorescent light, each dedicated to a European couple. Eight of these nine works from the Dia Center for the Arts’ permanent collection were exhibited in New York from winter of 1995 to summer 1996.
With the exception of ultraviolet, which Flavin has rarely used in his work, all the commercially available colors of fluorescent light have been included in the European Couples: daylight, cool white, warm white, yellow, pink, blue, green, red and soft white. Except for soft white, all of these colors were represented at Dia.
This is the palette of an enormous body of work, and Flavin’s use of these ten colors has remained unaltered since 1963. But the formal restrictions of the work are even greater, as these colors are only available in lengths of two, four, six and eight feet. In retrospect, it seems almost unbelievable that an oeuvre of such visual richness and diversity is based on so few parts, yet Dan Flavin’s entire work consists of a total of forty components. A great variety has been achieved with these components, ranging from small single pieces to large installations for entire rooms. From 1963 until today some 500 works have been realized.
When Flavin began the European Couples in 1966, he had been working with fluorescent light for three years. Astonishingly enough, within that time he had already developed innovative and fundamental ways of using this new material. He had executed a number of single pieces, placed on both the wall and the floor, and had made a significant step toward creating his art in direct reference to its surrounding architecture. The first public introduction of this new material was at the Green Gallery in November/December of 1964. This exhibition consisted of several basic configurations, with diagonal, horizontal and vertical arrangements of one or more tubes, in one or more colors, placed on the floor or on a wall. With this initial exhibition, Dan Flavin began to explore the aesthetic potential of illuminated lines of color as a medium for his art.
There were two major developments after the Green Gallery show, in 1965 and 1966. First, reaching out into a space, primarily by constructing barriers; and second, the idea of broadening the illuminated area by projecting light in more than one direction. A combination of these two ideas–the positioning of light in opposing directions and the incorporation of space by cornering the work–is evident in the European Couples series.
A drawing dated in 1966 shows what is probably the first instance of mounting fixtures with their tubes back to back, so that their light shines in opposite directions. One tube is placed with the light outward, across a corner and close to the floor. A second, shorter tube is fixed vertically in the middle of the first, facing the corner. There are no remarks regarding color. A piece based on this drawing was shown at the Kornblee Gallery in February of 1966. From the same year dates a more fully developed version, Monument on the Survival of Mrs. Reppin, which was exhibited in the recent retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo. The horizontal tube is now lifted from floor to eye level, supported by two additional tubes which run against the wall and meet in the corner. The shorter vertical tube remains attached in the middle, as in the previous drawing. This new configuration increases the illuminated area substantially, as the left tube shines to the right, the right shines left, the horizontal span pours into the room and the vertical shines into the corner. The colors are warm white for the horizontals and a vertical red.
Using the corner as a reflection plane was further developed in a series I will refer to as “near-square corner installations.” In December of 1966 at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, Flavin showed a frame-like piece consisting of four cool white tubes, each eight feet long. It was placed rather traditionally, with equal spacing from floor to ceiling. Flavin’s positioning of the tubes is intriguing: the top light shines upward, while at bottom the light projects into the room. The two sides are fastened at their backs flat to the wall. One can clearly understand Flavin’s intention to create an area of light as “full” as possible by directing the tubes in different directions; however, in this piece he has not made optimum use of the walls that form the corner. The piece lacks both the clarity and the natural simplicity which he will achieve a little later in more fully developed works from this group.
The next near-square corner installations were signed under the name of Wheeling Peachblow, a reference to pastel-colored American glass from the 19th century. A drawing dated 1968 shows the square with a middle division. It is noted: “farthest corner” and “gold gold” (which is the former name for yellow) and “possible pink or green.” In a further development, the central post was omitted, as it obscured the corner, and two single, vertical strips were placed at the outside.
Following this, a work was built with pink vertical tubes facing the corner and yellow horizontals projecting out. The vertical tubes were now attached back to back with the horizontals, thus directing more light into the corner. This provided a greater luminosity upon the walls. The piece was now freestanding, instead of hanging on the wall like a painting.
The near-square frame shape provided options for variations of shape and color. Naturally, it must have interested the artist to tint the two walls flanking the corner in different colors, as in the piece To Donna from 1972. The drawing gives an idea of how Flavin evaluates the placement of dark and light colors. In a work of 1975, To Ellen, Aware, My Surprise, the two horizontal tubes facing us are pink, the two vertical ones on the left are blue and the four on the right, green. Flavin increased the green, which by nature is the most intense color of all, thus making green occupy a large area of the corner, dominating the blue.
These few examples demonstrate the range of variations for near-square corner installations and provide a context for the European Couples’ series, which are monochromatic. They are the less complicated, the simpler and clearer versions, which provide the opportunity to compare color and observe certain characteristics.
The first room in the Dia exhibition contained pieces in blue, green, yellow and pink. The second room held work in red, warm white, cool white and daylight. Red is an intense color but its reach is short. Conversely, both green and pink project greater distances, blue somewhat less. Yellow radiates even less, but its tubes keep their intense color while green, pink and blue appear pale. The value of these four colors is comparatively similar, while red and the various whites differ remarkably. For this reason white is rarely combined with another color in Flavin’s work, it usually remains alone or in combination with another white.
With the remaining four colors–pink, yellow, blue and green–Flavin has developed a most subtle coloration. It is interesting to note that these four colors are often combined in one work, and that has been the case from 1964 until today.
The Guggenheim exhibition offered an example of an early work from 1964 dedicated To Henri Matisse. It consisted of four tubes placed contiguously, each measuring eight feet. The sequence of colors from left to right is pink, yellow, blue, green. Pink and green are on the outer sides, yellow and blue inside. Yellow is next to pink; blue next to green. This exact sequence is repeated in many other works, both in smaller ones as the one dedicated to the Real Dan Hill, also shown at Dia, and in large site-specific installations such as the one realized in the Kunstbau in Munich—an addition to the municipal museum, which was inaugurated in 1994 with a work by Dan Flavin. The work is situated in a long, narrow space—a remainder from the nearby subway station. It is without daylight. Flavin’s amazingly simple intervention was to replace the four rows of regular white fluorescent tubes on the ceiling with “his” colors of pink, yellow, blue and green. The effect is breathtaking: the entire space is tinted, including the walls, the ramp, the columns, a circular built-in room and the floor, which also reflects the stripes from the ceiling.
The vast emptiness of the space allows for greater perception of the power of fluorescent light. It is remarkable how far pink reaches: dyeing the length of one wall, it also fills the space up to the row of columns that bisects the space. Yellow appears to have little impact, but it is reflected on the glossy floor. On the opposite side of the columns we enter the blue/green zone, and it’s interesting to see the difference in function of these colors in relation to the pink and yellow. Closest to the wall is green, reflecting upon the wall and into the space. Yet the blue, placed further from the wall, supersedes its neighboring color and takes possession of the lower section. Green remains in the upper area. From a distance, the stripes of green, pink, green and blue create something new, for which I am lacking a word. It reminds me of painting, of course, but at the same time it is very far away from that.
The four colors pink, yellow, blue and green occur repeatedly in Flavin’s work, especially when the intent of the installation is to expand color to a large volume, to have color occupy large areas of wall space. Of these colors, pink has two specific characteristics, which, taken together, separate it from the other three. Like green, pink has the ability to project a great distance. Unlike green, it also has little impact on the human eye. After looking at pink for a while, the eye remains clear and is able to adjust easily to other colors.
Dan Flavin introduced a new aspect to visual art: the pouring, or flooding of color into space. By diffusing in all directions, the light creates a volume of color. Within this volume, however, color becomes visible only when it touches a reflecting plane, such as a wall, a floor, the ceiling, furniture or people. One cannot see the color flowing within a space, as it is not materialized. It is light—colorful light.
There is little which can be compared or even related to this extremely fascinating phenomenon. Perhaps the most obvious comparisons are with stained glass windows in cathedrals, where color awakens when hit by daylight or with the colorful, natural event of a sunset. Here as there is endlessness. Color without boundaries, which Dan Flavin has made his tool in the creation of art.
Flavin’s use of color is so new that we are only now beginning to understand its nature. By introducing fluorescent light to art, he also introduced a new type of color to art. It is his innovation. Color and light become one thing in Flavin’s work, which is the reason for its newness; however, the ground for this new work was paved by a previous generation of artists. Only through their achievements could this new invention be possible.
Jackson Pollock’s use of paint was no less new, revolutionary, or free. Allowing paint to drip directly onto the canvas, without brushing it, liberated the entire process of producing a painting; and at the same time he freed painting from being a picture, making the subject matter a different thing from what it had been before. Or, to quote Flavin: “I learned eventually to ignore the grisly pictorial distortions of women of Mr. de Kooning for the wildly intense, far better humored drip, dribble, splash, dash painted systematics of Mr. Pollock at his apparently self-assured uttermost. I sensed that they pretended toward infinity to painting anywhere ultimately nohow nowhere.”
However, I believe the work of two other artists has had a greater impact on Flavin than Pollock: Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. From early on, Flavin had admired Newman’s work and they were friends for many years, seeing each other on a regular basis and being familiar with each other’s work and ideas. In 1969 Newman made a special effort to travel to Ottawa and give the opening remarks at Flavin’s important exhibition in the National Gallery of Canada. Flavin was naturally wary, at first, of the similarity of Newman’s zips to his own stripes, as this does seem to be the most obvious connection between them. In an interview with Flavin, Michael Venezia asked the artist why he positioned the tube diagonally in his very first piece and Flavin answered: so as not to be confused with Barnett Newman. But Newman’s groundbreaking achievement, which has to be seen as fundamental for a younger generation of artists, was his emphasis on the physical presence of color. Newman increased both the scale of painting and the quantity of color by the late ’40s, as his paintings sought to envelop the spectator as color reached an new expansiveness combined with a directness previously unknown. Even today, when walking through the Museum of Modern Art, Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis is the one painting whose presence as color is not surpassed by any other painting exhibited. The other important impact of Newman’s paintings is their emphasis on one color: at times a single hue covers almost the entire surface. The value which Newman attributed to plain color must have left an indelible impression on other artists with similar concerns. But while Newman had worked within the realm of painting, younger artists like Flavin and Judd turned away from painting toward work which allowed color to expand in three dimensions.
For Flavin, Barnett Newman may have been more influential, yet there are striking similarities with Mark Rothko’s work. Fluorescent light creates a soft-bordered area of color, and the diffused colors call to mind the work of Rothko. As I approached a corridor in the Guggenheim show, which reflected a large green, a yellow, and a blue installation, I felt I was facing a three-dimensional version of a painting by this great artist. Both Newman’s and Rothko’s paintings attempt to invade other areas beyond their flat surface, and Rothko’s murals in particular immerse the viewer in color, as do many of Newman’s super-sized paintings. It took another generation and another medium to factually carry color away from the flat surface, into space.
When Dan Flavin installed what he called The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy in May of 1963, he realized the potential of this “buoyant and insistent gaseous image” regarding colored articulations of an entire room. A drawing from 1963 shows that from the beginning he was involved in “the complete fluorescent system” including the wall, floor, and ceiling in his work, and he became aware that he could “play on the structure that bounded a room but not yet so involved in the volume of space which is so much more extensive than the room’s box.” He added: “I knew that the actual space of a room could be disrupted and played with by careful, thorough composition of the illuminating equipment.” If a single strip of light had the capacity to generate enough color to dip the surrounding area, how much more interesting must it be to deal with architecture on a larger scale?
For a show at the Kornblee Gallery in 1966, Flavin proposed a work to occupy the entire room. Two bars of green fluorescent light were to run diagonally, crossing each other within the space. Their construction was based on the post-lintel structure. The higher bar was to be built from eight-foot-long tubes, the shorter one from four-feet tubes. Their placement was designed in direct response to the existing architectural data: the higher bar starts in one corner and runs across the room to the window frame, while the lower one runs in the opposite direction, starting at one door frame and ending at another.
As the installation was never realized at Kornblee, we have only a drawing and the artist’s instructions. Incidentally, I consider the drawing to be reminiscent of Malevich and Lissitzsky’s drawings, and it’s coincidental that Flavin’s green barrier is the first work of art incorporating an entire space–outside of painting–since Lissitzsky created the Proun Room in 1923. Referring to the Russians, Flavin explained in 1965: “Thus far, I have made a considered attempt to poise silent electric light in crucial concert point by point, line by line and otherwise in the box that is a room. 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.” I believe that the results of what he modestly describes as “trying” are Flavin’s greatest achievements.
The gallery space is structured asymmetrically, dividing the room into unequal areas. Interestingly, attention is given to visitor interaction at the bottom of the sketch where Flavin notes: “a fluorescent room for the Kornblee Gallery, which will inhibit and permit movement of an adult.” By creating a slightly precarious situation, Flavin introduced a psychological nuance to the work, an aspect which would later become crucial to Bruce Nauman’s work.
The gallery’s entrance is marked at the bottom of the drawing; visitors would enter here and have no other choice than to walk to the right, as the left side would be blocked by the lower bar. To the right, however, they would be able to pass underneath the tall bar and enter a small triangular area, but would then be stopped from walking further by the low bar. Although they could see into it, they could not enter the rest of the room. We can only guess what the perception might have been like; however, the juxtaposition or retention in a narrow area with a view of a wider one reminds me of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Múnch am Meer with the figure looking out onto the sea in front of him and thus eternity. Although I am well aware of the exaggeration, there is clearly an disequalibrium and tension between the tighter back area and the wider front, where the green light could perform uninterrupted.
Although not for the Kornblee Gallery, the barrier was realized later in the same year for the exhibition KunstLichtKunst (Art Light Art), which took place in the VanAbbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. It was the first long barrier ever constructed by Flavin. Its complete title is Greens Crossing Greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) and thus seems perfectly suited to be first shown in the native land of this great 20th-century artist, much admired by Flavin. It was again reconstructed for the Guggenheim exhibition where unfortunately the booth-like situation could not provide the original sensation of enclosure.
In his next show at Kornblee the following year, Flavin created another holistic installation, again exclusively with green light. Diagonals were attached to every wall, surrounding the room in a sort of frieze. Each diagonal consisted of two parallel lines–the left composed of two 4-foot tubes and the right of four 2-foot tubes. Their positioning was again determined by the given architecture: with each unit leaning away from the entrance door and each upper end touching a corner, a door frame or molding. The angles of each unit were equal, and were determined by the greatest possible angle on the narrowest section of wall.
In his first two architectural installations, the artist followed two rather different concepts: previously, the green barriers occupied the space; later, the diagonals left the space empty. In sketching the barriers, Flavin viewed the gallery as a picture plane, a frame within which to create the work. The lines formed by the tubes invade the room through repetition, the adding of one element to another, thus going beyond strict two-dimensionality. However, the barriers do not create volume, but rather occupy the space.
The diagonals work differently: by remaining on the walls in an empty space, they are two-dimensional lines. But their placement on these walls lends a coherence to the room, tying together the various elements.
These two different concepts highlighted the relationship between art and architecture, and proved to be fundamental to all future installations using whole. A basic principle in Flavin’s art is that, no matter what the single works and installations are like, they are always composed of lines. Lines may occupy, clarify, determine, decorate or obstruct a space–but they do not constitute a mass, they don’t create a volume. If one had to place Flavin’s work in a traditional category of art, it would be drawing, certainly not sculpture. In fact, Flavin has commented in the past on the wrongness of this word when applied to his work.
Naturally, three-dimensionality exists in his works, but I would prefer to call it an extended two-dimensionality. It evolves by adding units in a linear way, as in the barrier of Untitled (to Flavin Starbuck Judd) from 1968 or the counterposition of tubes in Monument on the Survival of Mrs. Reppin—but that is as three-dimensional as Flavin’s objects get. The volume of the work is created not by the tubes or the fixtures themselves, but by colored light, expanding in every direction and creating an essentially limitless aura, fading into invisibility.
The green fluorescent room at the Kornblee Gallery stands at the beginning of Flavin’s exploration into what he calls “retinal optics.” This refers to fluorescent light’s impact on the eye. A description of this impact in the Kornblee installation, from Flavin’s Ottawa exhibition catalogue, reads: “The phenomenal effect of this exposition was discovered after a few moments in the gallery. Although the room was pervaded by green light, the light-providing tubes appeared to be empty of almost all color. When the viewer then looked toward the daylight source outside the gallery, he saw only complementary rose, until his eyes readjusted.”
After the Kornblee installation, Flavin continued to explore the use of this visual “event” in various exhibitions. This event is made up of both the retinal effect on the viewer, and the specific architecture of the space. From the number of outstanding exhibitions over the past two and one half decades, I would like to concentrate on the one realized in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada in 1969, because of the striking quality of its installation and the audacity of both the artist and the curator. In addition to one hundred and fourteen items exhibited retrospectively, the exhibition included seven new installations, most of which were site-specific.
Three Sets of Tangented Arcs in Daylight and Cool White (To Jenny and Ira Licht) occupied a rectangular room with two doors located in the middle of the two smaller walls. The long walls and the floor were covered by three pairs of arcs, their curves determined by the planar dimensions on which they were placed. The catalogue comments: “Although the overall linear ordering of this room with fluorescent lamps could be immediately comprehended by the participant when he stepped into either of the two opposing bays, the system was slightly confounding to him optically, for each arc in a tangentially paired set was lighted in an opposite colour of white. The optical complication became doubly confusing if the participant viewed this installation a second time from the other bay, for he then saw the reverse of his previous colour experience.” Subtle refinement characterizes this installation, with its delicate variations in white. It was the only time Flavin used curves in his work.
Another room in Ottawa consisted of Alternating Pink and Yellow (to Josef Halmy). Beginning at the edge of each of the walls in the room, Flavin placed at the walls’ alternating pink and yellow lamps, covering the perimeter of the room. From these two colors, orange emerged, flooding the room entirely from floor to ceiling.
This orange room was situated between two others, which, when combined, formed a dramatic layout: in the room preceding Alternating Pink and Yellow was a work of white fluorescent light, from which could be perceived a pale orange from the merging colors in the next room. In the following room, accessible only through the orange room, the viewer was confronted with a large green barrier piece. Upon exiting the green room, the character of Alternating Pink and Yellow changed: it now appeared as a deep red rose volume, at least until the eyes re-adjusted.
The design of a glowing line along a room’s periphery (which I consider one of Flavin’s finest ideas because of its simplicity and integral unimposing quality) dates back to yet another proposed installation for the Kornblee Gallery in 1967. A drawing from that year indicates positioning double rows of green fluorescent lights horizontally, just above the baseboard of the room. Flavin eventually dismissed this idea for the Kornblee, but a variation was executed in 1968 in Kassel for Documenta IV. Here, the room was illuminated by ultraviolet lamps running along the floor and the four corners.
A third room in Ottawa was triangular, with walls of different lengths. The installation experimented with the idea of triangularity by the placement of diagonals spanning the entire length of the walls, thus dividing each plane into two equal triangles. The installation was asymmetric, yet energetic. The ascending lines made the room seem light, and although there were triangles everywhere, their appearance was hardly noticeable. The dynamic shape of the room was matched by a dynamic, linear decor, providing a wholly different spatial sensation: unacademic and cheerful, simple and complex, clear and enigmatic, all at once.
Dan Flavin was 36 at the time of the National Gallery exhibition in Ottawa in the fall of 1969. But the show represented, as Barnett Newman said in his opening speech, “the intensity and mature devotion of a lifetime, even though it’s a young lifetime.” In this exhibition Flavin proved his great understanding of the properties of colored light of fluorescent tubes, and his ability to modulate it in subtle, as well as conspicuous ways. He not only introduced a new medium into art, but by incorporating the area surrounding the object he also invented a way to use it beyond its actual shape as an object. Flavin freed color from the flat surface, even from its generating source: the lamp. This fluorescent color cannot exist independent of its source, but it can radiate out from it. The ability to create large areas of color without actual application was a fascinating idea and led to the conclusion that “the entire interior spatial container and its components wall, floor and ceiling, could support a strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it.” Flavin could now color an entire space and thereby change its appearance. At the same time, the configuration of the illuminated lines retained its clarity, remaining distinct from the surrounding color fields.
Flavin’s approach to space was immediate and thorough. His approach toward color in space happened on a larger scale than ever before, as something not just added to the space, but integral to it. Color in his work is less material than a phenomenon, or to quote Don Judd: “color is an immediate sensation.”
I have always been captivated by Dan Flavin’s work and its colors, and it’s hard for me to imagine that others might not share my enthusiasm. The generosity, brightness, and intensity of color which bathe the eyes have a constant appeal and are seductive as ever. I was therefore puzzled when I visited the Guggenheim exhibition with a friend, who, after a while, expressed his doubts as to whether the colors used by Flavin were “spiritual” and then asked my opinion.
The question was so unexpected that I didn’t know what to say. I believe I nodded, indicating that I certainly thought so, but then realized I had never thought about it. It was not clear to me how my friend could consider Barnett Newman’s colors as being spiritual, but not Dan Flavin’s. I suspected the reason was the wide use of fluorescent light in commercial and industrial contexts, thereby giving it a vulgar, unrefined, one-dimensional quality, while art was somehow different.
I felt trapped: on one hand I require art to be new, on the other hand there was this more utilitarian use of the material. Could material content be good or bad, right or wrong? No. Bronze has been used for both sculpture and weapons; wood for altar pieces and barrels; therefore fluorescent light should not be an unsuitable medium for art.
I began to look at painting again, in the hope of finding whether my friend’s judgement bore any truth. I was seeing anew. I looked at Perugino, Rogier van der Weyden, Dürer, Andrea del Sarto, ignoring the symbolic meaning of color I had learned in school—only looking at color as color.
Andrea del Sarto’s Archangel Raphael and Tobias is composed mainly of two complementary colors, red and green, which are no less bright, audacious or concentrated as a red and green fluorescent work by Dan Flavin.
Other art works are even more striking, for instance Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheimer Altar, painted in 1512 to 1515. The color configuration of the entire altarpiece is startlingly radical, especially the two panels of The Annunciation and The Resurrection. In The Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel is draped in a warm golden-yellow and bluish-red garment to which, on the left side of the panel, a yellowish-red curtain and a yellow window reflection correspond. From foreground to background there are marked gradations of green, filling the entire chapel, coloring the walls and vault.
The Resurrection is even more surreal. A huge aureole dominates the panel with a radiant light yellow at center, darkening outward to deep yellow, orange and red, surrounded by a blue-green circle. Light pours over Christ, whose head appears to be light itself, coloring the robe yellow at top and shading to red below. The light also illuminates both the foreground containing the grave and two soldiers, and the background’s large rock and two figures. Yellow-orange dominates and illuminates the three main areas of the painting: the foreground grave, the background rock and the light circle at top. The formal as well as spiritual link between these three areas is the long drapery which falls from Christ’s shoulders and reaches to the grave. It repeats the blue-green and is transformed from darkness in the top to a very light color at bottom.
Grünewald’s colors are a bit mysterious and certainly unusual, even if one considers the time in which he painted. Yet the colors are also modern, and could occur in a Versace dress, or in an ice cream parlor. Art history shows that color is often used within given spiritual or liturgical contexts, but it also shows that it may be independent of such themes.
I refer to one last example, The Deposition by Jacopo Pontormo, painted between 1526 and 1528, for the Santa Felicità church in Florence. It is a symphony in light blue, pink, beige-brown and red. Light blue and pink prevail. In terms of color and light, this painting is closer than any other known to me in evoking the work of Dan Flavin. The dynamic movement of the figures fully dramatizes Christ’s deposition—and the emotion expressed in the figures’ faces is reflected in the posture of their bodies—but it is the efflorescence of luminous, unearthly color that heightens the effect.
In answering historian Benedetto Varchi’s question on the predominance of art over nature, Pontormo stresses that the elements of a painting are to be subordinate to the artistic purpose. About the artist, Pontormo said:
He is overbold, indeed, wishing to imitate with pigments all the things produced by nature, so that they will look real and even to improve them so that his pictures may be rich and full of varied details. He will paint, for instance, wherever they fit his purpose, glares, nights with fires or other lights, the air, clouds, landscapes with towns in the distance or close by, buildings with many varied systems of perspective […] and a multitude of other things. Sometimes a scene painted by him will include things that nature never produced. Furthermore, as I said above, he will improve the things he depicts and with his art he will give them grace, arrange them and group them where they will look best. […] But what I said above about the painter being overbold is proved by the presumption to surpass nature in trying to infuse spirit into a figure and make it look alive while painting it on a flat surface. (Pontormo, 1547).
Four hundred years later, Dan Flavin doesn’t try to compete with nature; rather, he fully concentrates on what Pontormo alluded to: the manipulation of the artist’s materials in order to achieve his intentions.
Dan Flavin has enriched art with a new type of color and thus a new sensation. His colors in the form of fluorescent light have a degree of richness previously unknown in art. His work is thoroughly modern, particularly in its use of a standard, prefabricated material, easily handled and available in any hardware store. Although much has been said about this so-called “Duchampian” aspect of Flavin’s work, it doesn’t lead to any further understanding of it. His use of a standard manufactured product is very different from Duchamp’s “Readymades”: Flavin buys tubes of fluorescent light just as some other artists buy tubes of oil paint; and, like a painter, he transforms his materials and creates something which didn’t exist before. On the other hand, little has been said regarding the truly modern, democratic aspect of his work. No craftsmanship is required, no expertise, no special knowledge. Anybody can build the work. One can go to the store, select some tubes, return home and produce a Flavin. This may not be a pleasant idea to art dealers or the artist, but it is certainly an inherent aspect in Dan Flavin’s work.
Finally, Flavin’s work involves a simplicity of form and economy of material—reductive in means and reasonable in cost—composed with a very direct, factual clarity. It is simple, but at the same time includes a complexity of space, relating to its site modestly and unimposingly, visually present but physically unpossessing. It is seductive, refined and delicate; and although its components are factual, their effects are enigmatic, and transcend any language which might attempt to describe it.