Dan Flavin, Icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin 1933-1962)1962, reconstructed 1969. White Formica with daylight fluorescent light box: 113 x 113 x 28.3 cm; light fixture: 9.2 x 61 cm. Purchased 1969, National Gallery of Canada (no. 15903). © Dan Flavin Estate / SODRAC (2011). Photo © NGC / CMCP
Dan Flavin, Icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin 1933-1962)1962, reconstructed 1969. White Formica with daylight fluorescent light box: 113 x 113 x 28.3 cm; light fixture: 9.2 x 61 cm. Purchased 1969, National Gallery of Canada (no. 15903). © Dan Flavin Estate / SODRAC (2011). Photo © NGC / CMCP
Icon IV (the pure land) is a white formica box with a fluorescent light fixture asymmetrically positioned on the top. A daylight tube contrasts slightly with the formica. For Flavin, the overall whiteness of this construction is a reference to the use of white in Chinese funerals. This was the largest in a series of eight icons. Most of Flavin's works were dedicated with "equal doses of respect and irony" to friends, acquaintances, or others who influenced and inspired him. At the time that he was making Icon IV, his twin brother, David John Flavin, died of polio. The artist dedicated this piece to him.
“… in daylight and cool white” by Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin and Jean Boggs at the opening of the Flavin exhibition
Dan Flavin and Jean Boggs at the opening of the Flavin exhibition
September 1969
Photography: John Evans. National Gallery of Canada.
Opening of the Dan Flavin exhibition, National Gallery of Canada
Opening of the Dan Flavin exhibition, National Gallery of Canada
September 1969
Photography: John Evans. National Gallery of Canad
(to Frank Lloyd Wright who once advised Boston’s “city fathers” to try a dozen good funerals as urban renewal)” . . we might, if, like the things outside us we let the great storm over-ride us, grow spacious and anonymous.” – Maria Rainer Rilke
“It looks like painting is finished.” – Don Judd
“Dan Flavin has destroyed electric lights for me. I’m going back to candies.” – Tom DoyleMy name is Dan Flavin. I am thirty-two years old, overweight and underprivileged, a Caucasian in a Negro year. I was born (screaming) a fraternal twin twenty-four minutes before my brother, David, in Mary Immaculate Hospital, Jamaica, New York, at about seven in the morning on a wet Saturday, April Fool’s Day, 1933, of an ascetic, remotely male, Irish Catholic truant officer whose junior I am, and a stupid, fleshly tyrant of a woman who had descended from German royalty without a trace of nobility.

Early, I was the victim of a part-time substitute mother, an English “nanny”, fraught with punctilious schedules, who tried to toilet-train me at two weeks of age. When she failed or I failed, she slapped me. Before becoming seven, I attempted to run away from home but was apprehended by a fear of the unknown in sunlight just two blocks from our house.

While a young boy, I began drawing by myself. (My mother has reported that I had made a vivid, if naive record of hurricane damage on Long Island in 1938 which, subsequently, she destroyed along with almost every other drawing from my childhood.)

“Uncle Artie” Schnabel, the vice-president of my father’s East River boat club, became my first instructor on art. He was a portly, ebullient, red-faced old World War veteran, whose battered left leg bore a brace and pained him gravely when it was about to rain. Also, he had been gassed. I saw his Purple Heart.

On a certain, sunny Sunday afternoon, dockside on the river, “Uncle Artie” set aside a stein of beer, adjusted his glasses for close observation, and showed me how to put down pencil water around a ship by lightly dappling just some of the surrounding space with the tiniest “half moons”. His cosmic touch for space is in my drawings even now.

Soon religion was forced upon me to nullify whatever expressive childish optimism I may have had left. Rank suppression at seven in the name of God the Father or any other of the “heavenly host” did not deter me from devising fantasies in secret. I heard the altar boys’ whispered responses in distant Latin as the wonderful soprano of angels concealed above and behind the high altar.

In time, I grew curiously fond of the solemn high funeral mass which was so consummately rich in candlelight, music, chant, vestments, processions and incense – and besides that, I got fifteen cents a corpse serving as an acolyte.

I also dwelled in serious fantasies of war – digging in with little lead soldiers under the Japanese yews of my father’s rock garden, and changing pencil sketches of supposed World War bombing devastation as it worsened, these disintegrating depictions mutually drawn with an older boy friend, who, while serving as an aerial gunner, was killed over Guam in the next real war.

By ten, I had filled a corrugated cardboard carton with hundreds of pencil and pen-and-ink drawings after the “Horrors of War” picture cards of Gum, Incorporated, and sundry other wartime illustrations.

In parochial school, I was compelled to become the good student and a model child. The sisters diverted me from some of my war-torn tendencies and trained my hand in the peaceful uses of water-colour, but they did not permit much freedom for thought about what was to be drawn and washed.

My class work-dutifully done drawings and water-colours on prescribed themes preserved in folders by the nuns as good example for the students of following years until, when in 8A, I defied one of the good sisters by putting a single handle on a vase of flowers instead of two as she demanded. I recall that that “black” lady began to scold me as a heretic or at least a sinner, but second looks at my plump innocence checked her incipient anger and restored her to modest nunliness.

At fourteen, after Dave and I graduated from St. “Joke’s” (the Saints Joachim and Anne Parochial School) with honours, my father committed us to a junior seminary in Brooklyn in order that we might doubly fulfil his own lost vocation for priesthood. No one had examined me as to whether or not I wanted to go there, but that seemed hardly to matter since I had not been permitted to consider much else since consciousness.

I continued to draw, to doodle somewhat privately in class, in the margins of my textbooks. Now there were battered profiles of bloodied boxers with broken noses and Dido’s pyre on a wall in Carthage, its passionate smoke piercing “pious” Aeneas’ faithless heart outbound in the harbour below.

Young Father Fogarty, my second year Latin professor, was unimpressed with such demonstrations of talent, especially as they evolved in his class against the daily lesson plan. He often censured, even ridiculed, me. Nevertheless, I acquired a certain personal power with him. When he chastened me, I noticed that he blushed redder than I did.

My grades failed so evidently by once-repeated senior year that I felt compelled to flee seminary failure for the terrifying profanity of life outside 1914 Gothic which, importantly, I had never experienced. Somehow, at eighteen, began to think about art-Roman Catholic diversions of it, of course.

I read art, looked for it, and listened about it. In an army anti-aircraft battalion library near Osan-ni, Korea, I found only Jacques Maritain’s Art and Poetry. It was confounding to try to master. After buying a pair of Georges Rouault’s prints from Miserere et Guerre, I wrote an American “fan letter” to the aged artist. He responded effectively with a poem. Later, during a Saturday afternoon in the office of the Hansa Gallery, where new generations of New York art were being introduced, co-directors Dick Bellamy and Ivan Karp and artists George Segal and Allan Kaprow engaged in a “bull session” before me. Frustrated, I understood little of what I strove to hear.

Since leaving high school, I had attempted few drawings and no painting until, in 1955, while loitering in Korea with an army of occupation as an Air Weather Service Observer, I became so restless that I sought out another reluctant soldier, an army private from Special Services, who had studied painting in Oberlin College and would not bathe for four successive days as some sort of most personal aesthetic assertion. I assisted this “raunchy” G.I. in establishing regular class sessions in figure drawing. Within a few weeks, the program was suspended by an army major who presumed the probability of a possibility of an unmanly, immoral disclosure in the posing of fellow G.I.’s stripped to the waist while leaning on brooms.

Fortunately, I eluded further formal instructions in art after four inconclusive (and disenchanting) sessions in the Hans Hofmann School of New York’s Eighth Street in 1956. Following that discouragement, my drawing had the personally concerned criticism of a new “American” painter, Albert Urban, a gentle unreconstructed “pariah”, who, as a young man, had had his work acclaimed in Hitler’s museum for “degenerate” art. I never studied in his studio, which Albert maintained as barred sanctuary daily from nine to five, but on several evenings, weeks apart, we sat for hours with his wife, Reva, in their spacious West Tenth Street apartment examining my papers.

After scanning a first batch of divers expression, Albert sighed, settled back into his easy chair, lighted the tobacco in a pipe and, for a while, distractedly puffed smoke through his wiry black moustache. When he finally spoke, he plainly suggested that I might better become a scholar – a religious art historian.

I was secretly shocked and grieved by Albert’s lack of recognition. In the months that followed, I fervently produced more hundreds of poor drawings and a few horrid aspirations in oil on canvas paper and similar board which I supposed must be what paintings were like. Albert, with comprehensive tolerance, kept watching and talking but he could not be encouraging.

Of a sudden, dear Albert suffered a heart attack and died on his living-room floor. But I had not been with him for quite a while and then I was completely off on my own again. This was April 1959.

At about this time, I studied additional survey courses of art history and participated in Ralph Mayer’s drawing and painting Tools and Materials program for two semesters in Columbia University.

These sessions with Mr. Mayer permitted contact with a variety of antique artistic modes of “permanent painting” which few persons will ever use again. In the second semester, I scumbled a fruited still life too intensely and achieved the effect of a thin “B” for the effort.

In February 1959, despondent about a failed personal relationship (after an attempt at irrelevant suicide), I burst from Columbia University into a belated full-time affair with art. At first, I was with everybody else’s work – Guston’s, Motherwell’s, Kline’s, Gorky’s, Pollock’s, Rothko’s, Jasper Johns’ and “What have you seen in the new Art News?”

A painter-friend, Ward Jackson, sent inspirational postcards bearing reproductions such as one of a ten year-old painting by Robert Motherwell which looked strikingly like my last week’s work, but nevertheless, I persisted because, by then, I knew no other way to live. Considerations of much more work were constantly in mind.

For a year or more, I celebrated just about anything: crude Cézanne’s self-portrait mask ennobled in a whirl of charcoal; drab tenements on the waterfront silhouetted in oil – sienna, umber, ochre, black and white; freight trains through the rain, indicated by fingered smears of black ink; mis-spent “ejaculations” of water-colour and ink out by themselves; words of the—Song of Songs” in my script, embraced by tenderly rendered washes which sustained sentiments such as giving breasts in the field in morning light; a Luis Lozano Pure Superfine Olive Oil tin found flattened in the gutter disclosed as itself fastened to a busily-textured golden box marked mira, mira.

By 1960, I had well established my first complete “studio”, a small sunny railroad flat on Washington Street in the midst of the old wholesale meat market on Manhattan’s West Side below Fourteenth Street and near the Hudson River waterfront. (I have usually chosen to live by broad expanses of water. I prefer to sense that breadth in continuous flux.)

This place quickly became chock-full of curiosities – a rhythm of carefully distributed objects-arranged like a strange, dirty, cumulative composition but with a random appearance. Most materials deposited there were found during wanderings near piers.

When Dick Belamy first visited me, he paced from room to room delightedly for some time, and then announced that he wished he could transport the entire apartment into his new Green Gallery. It had never occurred to me that the way in which I wanted to live could become an art commodity.

By 1961, I was tired of my three-year-old romance with art mainly as tragic practice. I had found that all of my small constructions, with the exception of mira, mira, were like memorial plaques and that the numerous pages and several folding books of water-colour and poetry which I had completed were dominated by black ink.

The four-room flat felt shrunk to a mental closet. Too many things of old emotion and consideration were accumulated there (an insistent history which seemed bound to restrict further use). It had to be abandoned. My new wife, Sonja, and I pooled our earnings so that we might rent a large loft away in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I could begin again to change from so many small derived -celebrations” to more appreciable efforts-much more intelligent and personal work.

While walking floors as a guard in the American Museum of Natural History, I crammed my uniform pockets with notes for an electric light art – “Flavin, we don’t pay you to be an artist,” warned the custodian in charge. I agreed and quit him.

I used the word “icon” as descriptive, not of a strictly religious object, but of one that is based on a hierarchical relationship of electric light over, under, against and with a square-fronted structure full of paint “light.” These notes of spring were put to structure in the fall. My wife and I were elated at seeing light and paint posted together on the wall before us. Then, for the next three years, I was off at work on the series of electric light “icons.”Some previously sympathetic friends were alienated by such a simple deployment of typical electric lights against usual, plainly painted square-fronted constructions. “You have lost your little magic,” I was admonished. Yes, for that appreciable achievement, difficult work, blunt in bright repose.Somewhat in my mind at this time, were quietly rebellious thoughts about proposing a plain physical factual painting of firm plasticity in opposition to the loose, vacuous and overwrought tactile fantasies spread about yards of cotton duck (my friend, Victor Caglioti, has characterized these paintings as “dreaming on a brush”) which inevitably overwhelmed and stifled the invention of their practitioner victims – a declining generation of artists whom I could easily locate in prosperous commercial galleries. (I do not mean to be misleading. Plastic polemics did not persuade me to initiate work. Most often, I simply thought about what I would plan to build next.)

Work that was somewhat new to my attention and comprehension such as the homely objective paint play about objects of Jasper-Johns, the “easy” separative brushed on vertical bar play in relatively grand scale by Barnett Newman or the restrained multi-striped consecutive bare primed canvas-pencil-paint frontal expanse play from Frank Stella did not hold an appropriate clue for me about this beginning. I had to start from that blank, almost featureless, square-fronted construction with obvious electric light which could become my standard yet variable emblem-the “icon.”

During Spring 1963, I felt sufficiently founded in my new work to discontinue it. From a recent diagram, I declared the diagonal of personal ecstasy (the diagonal of May 25, 1963), a common eight-foot strip with fluorescent light of any commercially available colour. At first, I chose “gold”.

The radiant tube and the shadow cast by its supporting pan seemed ironic enough to hold alone. There was literally no need to compose this system definitively; it seemed to sustain itself directly, dynamically, dramatically in my workroom wall-a buoyant and insistent gaseous image which, through brilliance, somewhat betrayed its physical presence into approximate invisibility.

(I put the paired lamp and pan in position at an angle forty-five degrees above the horizontal because that seemed to be a suitable situation of resolved equilibrium but any other positioning could have been just as engaging.)

It occurred to me then to compare the new diagonal with Constantin Brancusi’s past masterpiece, the Endless Column. That artificial Column was disposed as a regular formal consequence of numerous similar wood wedge-cut segments extended vertically-a hewn sculpture (at its inception). The diagonal in its overt formal simplicity was only the installation of a dimensional or distended luminous line of a standard industrial device. Little artistic craft could be possible.

Both structures had a uniform elementary visual nature, but they were intended to excel their obvious visible limitations of length and their apparent lack of complication. The Endless Column was like some imposing archaic mythologic totem risen directly skyward. The diagonal, in the possible extent of its dissemination as common light repeated effulgently across anybody’s wall, had potential for becoming a modern technological fetish. But who could be sure how it would be understood?

In time, I came to these conclusions about what I had found with fluorescent light, and about what might be accomplished plastically: now 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. Regard the light and you are fascinated-practically inhibited from grasping its limits at each end. While the tube itself has an actual length of eight feet, its shadow, cast from the supporting pan, has but illusively dissolving ends. This waning cannot really be measured without resisting consummate visual effects.

Realizing this, I knew that the actual space of a room could be disrupted and played with by careful, thorough composition of the illuminating equipment. For example, if an eight-foot fluorescent lamp be pressed into a vertical corner, it can completely eliminate that definite juncture by physical structure, glare and doubled shadow. A section of wall can be visually disintegrated into a separate triangle by placing a diagonal of light from edge to edge on the wall; that is, side to floor, for instance.

These conclusions from completed propositions (in the Kaymar Gallery during March 1964 and in the Green Gallery during November 1964 and December 1964) left me at 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.

Since December 1964, I have made attempts at this (in the Institute of Contemporary Art from March 1965 through May 1965, and again at the Ohio State University during April 1965 and May 1965) through bringing the lamp as image back in balance with it as object by putting it diagonally from the wall out onto the floor in Philadelphia; by extending it horizontally from an entry arch into the room in Philadelphia and, in Columbus, by placing a complementary pattern of lamps parallel to the diagonal of a flight of stairs and then letting a sole two-foot, cool white fluorescent lamp act as a partial horizontal visual and physical bar across the staircase.

What has art been for me?

In the past, I have known it (basically) as a sequence of implicit decisions to combine traditions of painting and sculpture in architecture with acts of electric light defining space and, recently, as more progressive structural proposals about these vibrant instruments which have severalized past recognitions and increased them into almost effortless yet insistent mental patterns which 1 may not neglect. 1 want to reckon with more lamps on occasion-at least for the time being.

This text represents the first half of a lecture presented at the Brooklyn Museum Art School during the afternoon of 18 December 1964, and again, in revised form, in the Ohio State University Law School Auditorium during the evening of 26 April 1965. It was edited and augmented for publication in the December 1965 issue of Artforum during the last week of August 1965 and the first weeks of September 1965. It was re-edited for present publication in the spring of 1969.

Dan FlavinExcerpts from Dan Flavin, fluorescent light, etc., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1969, p. 8-22. Exhibition catalogue by Brydon Smith