The Artist Birthday Series

Dan Flavin

Today’s Artist Birthday: Dan Flavin (1 April, 1933 – 29 November, 1996), minimalist master of light

“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, 1987

Daniel Nicholas Flavin Jr. was born in New York of Irish Catholic descent and sent to Catholic schools. He studied for the priesthood at the Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn between 1947 and 1952 before leaving to join his fraternal twin brother, David John Flavin, and enlist United States Air Force. During military service in 1954–55, Flavin was trained as an air weather meteorological technician and studied art through the adult extension program of the University of Maryland in Korea. Upon his return to New York in 1956, Flavin briefly attended the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts and studied art under Albert Urban. He later studied art history for a short time at the New School for Social Research, then moved on to Columbia University, where he studied painting and drawing.

From 1959, Flavin was shortly employed as a mailroom clerk at the Guggenheim Museum and later as guard and elevator operator at the Museum of Modern Art. Flavin’s first works were drawings and paintings that reflected the influence of Abstract Expressionism. It was at this time he began to make assemblages and mixed media collages that included found objects from the streets, especially crushed cans.

"Juan Gris in Paris (adieu Picabia)," by Dan Flavin, crushed can, acrylic collage, 1960
“Juan Gris in Paris (adieu Picabia),” by Dan Flavin, crushed can, acrylic collage, 1960

In the summer of 1961, while working as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Flavin started to make sketches for sculptures that incorporated electric lights. The first works to incorporate electric light were his “Icons” series: eight colored shallow, boxlike square constructions made from various materials such as wood, Formica, or Masonite. The “Icons” had fluorescent tubes with incandescent and fluorescent bulbs attached to their sides, and sometimes beveled edges. One of these icons was dedicated to Flavin’s twin brother David, who died of polio in 1962.

From Flavin's "Icons" series, 1961 - 1963
From Flavin’s “Icons” series, 1961 – 1963

The “Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963),” a yellow fluorescent placed on a wall at a 45-degree angle from the floor and completed in 1963, was Flavin’s first mature work; it is dedicated to Constantin Brâncuși and marks the beginning of Flavin’s exclusive use of commercially available fluorescent light as a medium.

diagonal flavin
“Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963),” dedicated to Constantin Brâncuși, by Dan Flavin, 1963
flavin diagonal with caravaggio crucifiction
“Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963),” seen here displayed mirroring the composition of Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter”

A little later, The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) (1963) consists of six vertical fluorescent tubes on a wall, one to the left, two in the center, three on the right, all emitting white light.

"The Nominal Three," 1963 by Dan Flavin (seen here)
“The Nominal Three,” 1963 by Dan Flavin (seen here)

In the decades that followed, he continued to use fluorescent structures to explore color, light and sculptural space, in works that filled gallery interiors. He started to reject studio production in favor of site-specific “situations” or “proposals” (as the artist preferred to classify his work). These structures cast both light and an eerily colored shade, while taking a variety of forms, including “corner pieces”, “barriers,” and “corridors.” He confined himself to a limited palette (red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultraviolet, and four different whites) and form (straight two-, four-, six-, and eight-foot tubes, and, beginning in 1972, circles).

flavin rainbow


in honor of harold joachim,untitled 3 1977 flavin

Most of Flavin’s works were untitled, followed by a dedication in parenthesis to friends, artists, critics and others: the most famous of these include his “Monuments to V. Tatlin,” an homage to the Russian constructivist sculptor Vladimir Tatlin, a series of a total of fifty pyramidal wall pieces which he continued to work on between 1964 and 1990.
Flavin realized his first full installation piece, greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), for an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, in 1966. By 1968, Flavin had developed his sculptures into room-size environments of light. That year, he outlined an entire gallery in ultraviolet light at documenta 4 in Kassel, Germany.

Dan Flavin, "Monument" for V. Tatlin, 1969, cool white fluorescent light with fixture, 96 x 30 1/2 inches
Dan Flavin, “Monument” for V. Tatlin, 1969, cool white fluorescent light with fixture, 96 x 30 1/2 inches

Flavin began to create “corridors”, to control and impede the movement of the viewer through gallery space. They take various forms: some are bisected by two back-to-back rows of abutted fixtures, a divider that may be approached from either side but not penetrated (the color of the lamps differs from one side to the other). The first such corridor, untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg), was constructed for a 1973 solo exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, and is dedicated to a local gallerist and his wife. It is green and yellow; a gap (the width of a single “missing” fixture) reveals the cast glow of the color from beyond the divide. In subsequent barred corridors, Flavin would introduce regular spacing between the individual fixtures, thereby increasing the visibility of the light and allowing the colors to mix.

Dan Flavin Corners 2

dan flavin

In 1992, Flavin’s original conception for a 1971 piece was fully realized in a site-specific installation that filled the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s entire rotunda on the occasion of the museum’s reopening.

flavin guggenheim 1992
One of Flavin’s last works was the lighting for a glass-enclosed arcade (1996) at the Wissenschaftspark Rheinelbe (Rhine-Elbe Science Park) in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The arcade was designed by Uwe Kiessler; it stretches 300 metres (980 ft), and connects nine buildings.

Wissenschaftspark flavin

Flavin generally conceived his sculptures in editions of three or five, but would wait to create individual works until they had been sold to avoid unnecessary production and storage costs. Until the point of sale, his sculptures existed as drawings or exhibition copies. As a result, the artist left behind more than 1,000 unrealized sculptures when he died in 1996.

Flavin died in Riverhead, New York of complications from diabetes. A memorial for him was held at the Dia Center for the Arts, on January 23, 1997. Speakers included Brydon Smith, curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Fariha Friedrich, a Dia trustee, and Michael Venezia, an artist.

dan-flavin from the exhibition %22wish you were here%22

(Edited from:

2 thoughts on “Dan Flavin

  1. Hello
    I am an employee of an agency called LOL Company in Korea.
    We will be exhibiting Dan Flavin’s exhibition at the Lotte Museum in Korea from January 2018.
    While looking up your post, I would like to ask you if we can use the bottom-most picture of the current page as an online poster background.
    Please mail me to my e-mail address
    Thank you.
    Have a good day

    1. Hello there,

      I am afraid I cannot find the email you sent me, please resend and I will be happy to answer you in full there. In the meantime, the photo information is: “A visitor views a light sculpture by artist Dan Flavin, part of the art exhibition “Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s” at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., April 4, 2012. (David Duprey/Associated Press)” – I use the image here under the Fair Use understanding, in an educational, non-commercial context. For your use, you may want to contact the Associated Press directly. I found this contact page that might help:

      I see also the newspaper “The Telegraph” used the photo as well at one time, perhaps you can reach out to them and perhaps they might have more information about usage for you: – contact info here:

      If there is anything else I can do to assist, please let me know. Thank you!

      Best to you!

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