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Original Creators: Minimalist Light Sculptor Dan Flavin

Original Creators: Minimalist Light Sculptor Dan Flavin

© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Dan Flavin.

“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

Light has been the subject of art for centuries, from the dark paintings of Caravaggio to the interior environments and garments of Vermeer. The Impressionists tried to depict it and the invention of the photographic camera changed the whole game by capturing light on blank sheets of paper. However, Dan Flavin gave continuity to his precedents practices by utilizing the light emitting object itself. A craft that not only depicted the subject as the medium but that playfully explored color theory and the designing of space.

During his time employed as a guard in the Museum of Modern Art in 1959 he met co-workers and fellow influential artists Sol LeWitt and Robert Ryman. Together they defined the new aesthetic of “less is more”—characteristic of Minimal art—creating a mind blowing visual revolution.

As one of the pioneers of Minimalism, Dan Flavin is best known for works that are entirely constructed with fluorescent light tubes. He might be considered as the first artist who physically employed electronic lighting into art. His works also established a new tradition of perceiving art and a new way of adapting specific work to specific places (site specificity), through various forms of installation and what was later known as environmental art.

Starting his artistic career as a painter under the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Flavin quickly shifted his practice to assemblages that incorporated electronics. After 1963 he decided to restrict his medium to one material: fluorescent light. By using the commercially available fluorescent light tubes as his body of work Flavin challenged the traditional art market—and by following the philosophical ideas of Marcel Duchamp he vigorously pursued the widest range of aesthetic arrangements of lighting within the use of its minimal form.

Flavin’s legacy can be seen not only in the fields of art but architecture and design as well, creating a bridge between the early painters and today’s tech artists, and influencing a generation of new media practitioners like UVA, Rioji Ikeda and many others.

Icon—V Image (1962)

Oil on Mansonite, Clear incandescent lightbulbs 107 × 107 × 25 cm

© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Icon Series was Flavin’s first experiment with industrial lighting material. He combined a solid, monochrome painting with light-bulbs. The term “Icon” was employed not as a religious object but a non-hierarchical arrangement of light and shapes. The Icon V from this series preluded his later style: The ambient glow of the many lights surrounding the square dematerializes its geometric form, pointing away from singular, discrete objects towards a more environmental art.

Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (1963)

Cool Yellow Fluorescent Light, 1.244cm

© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A single, yellow fluorescent tube is affixed to the wall at a 45 degree angle. This piece marked the beginning of Dan Flavin’s use of fluorescent light as his medium. He also created a new kind of gallery experience where the work did not exist only as an object, but as a play of light and shadow that extended through the gallery space.

“A common lamp becomes a common industrial fetish, as utterly reproducible as ever but somehow strikingly unfamiliar now” — Dan Flavin 1964

Fluorescent Light (1964)

© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In Flavin’s first solo show at the Green Gallery New York, he carefully placed several fluorescent light sculptures in the gallery space. The experience of viewing his art altered to an experience of the surrounding space. The white, pink and multicolored lights highlighted some of the corners, floor and walls of the gallery. This show was the landmark of Flavin’s shift from individual art object to the creation of an environment.

Monuments to V. Tatlin (1964-1981)

© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This series of work was created as a homage to Russian constructivist sculptor Vladimir Tatlin. The works served as a testament to Flavin’s longstanding fascination with Russian Constructivism, an avant-garde art movement associated with the communist revolution whose formal innovations anticipated aspects of Minimal practice. Flavin continued working on the series until the 1990s.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1992)

© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Flavin’s site specific installation for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Each bay of the rotunda was lit by blue, pink, yellow or green fluorescent lights, an immense vertical column of pink fluorescent tubes was placed in the museum’s atrium, going from the floor to the skylight, the column colors change during different times of a day.