Dan Flavin - Sailing Across Gardners Bay Near Lion Head Beach (To Thomas Moran), 1982 (detail)

Dan Flavin /   Daniel Nicholas Flavin Jr.

United States 1933 - 1996

Minimal Art, Light Art

Dan Flavin
Daniel Nicholas Flavin Jr.
United States
January 27, 2017
Music, Gestalt, .

After struggling for years to find the appropriate medium for his artistic expression, Dan Flavin was finally liberated by fluorescent light. It was a paradoxical choice – to use commonplace commercial fixtures and reconfigure them into artworks that both suppressed the artist’s hand, and, through this absence, magnified his presence. When Flavin adopted the fluorescents as the building blocks of his work, they were thought of as utilitarian, modern, and not exactly easy on the eyes. They were, in fact, mostly used to provide cheap, unforgiving illumination in industrial, or at least commercial, environments. To use such a thing and successfully turn it into art was a radical gesture.[1] But, what a gesture it was! Dan Flavin continued to charm the world for the next 30 or more years, inspiring countless other artists who pursued his ideas – though rare ones ever approached him in terms of quality.

Dan Flavin untitled flavin's yellow color fixtures from 1996 are on view in terms museum in new york
Dan Flavin – untitled (to Saskia, Sixtina, and Thordis), 1973

Personal Life

Daniel Nicholas Flavin Jr. was in Jamaica, New York and was raised by Catholic parents. Both Dan and his twin brother, David, went to parochial school and attended church services regularly. The artist began drawing at a young age, and the first person to encourage Flavin’s artistic leanings, showing him how to represent movement in the water with little “half-moons.” After studying for the priesthood for a brief period of time, Dan, along with his brother, enlisted in the US Army – US Air Force more specifically. In 1953, he was posted in Korea, where he served as an air weather meteorological technician. While there, he managed to take art classes offered by the University of Maryland adult extension program. Three years later, being reassigned to Roslyn Air Force Base, he returned to New York. Pursuing his interest in art, he frequently visited New York galleries and took art classes at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts, as well as the New School for Social Research. The following year, he matriculated at Columbia University with the intention of becoming an art historian to support his work as an artist. Abandoning this route after three semesters, he took various odd jobs, including working in the mailroom of the Guggenheim and as a guard at The Museum of Modern Art. While he was working at MoMA met his first wife, Sonja Severdija. They got married in 1961 and worked together on the construction of the Icon pieces. In 1962, Dan went through a personal tragedy when his brother died. In 1992, Flavin re-married to the artist Tracy Harris. Four years later, Dan Flavin died of complications from diabetes.

Dan Flavin’s biography is a story of art

Dan Flavin works are on view and flavin's colors collection is in museum
Dan Flavin – untitled (to Piet Mondrian), 1985 (Left) / untitled (for Otto Fruendlich) 3a, 3ab, 3g and 3j, 1990 (Right)

Dan Flavin Art

It is important to mention the artistic environment in which Dan Flavin made his first works. The years 1955–1965 saw artists wreaking havoc with the parameters of painting. At this time, Flavin was creating paintings, assemblages, and collages, showing his interest in Abstract Expressionism. In the summer of 1961, while working as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he started to make sketches for sculptures that incorporated electric lights. Later that year, he translated his sketches into assemblages he called “icons,” which juxtaposed lights onto monochromatic canvases. By using such an everyday material (neon tubing) and arranging it in simple compositions (in rows, or as diagonals, grids, right angles, arcs), Flavin attained a powerful combination of ordinariness and grandeur, and a purity on a par with the modernist artists to whom he dedicated works – Brancusi, Mondrian, Tatlin.[2] By 1963, he removed the canvas altogether and began to work with his signature fluorescent tubes; and by 1968, he had developed his sculptures into room-size environments of light. In the 1970s and 80s, Flavin began to create more complex figurations of fluorescent tubes, notably his “barred corridors” and corner installations. His work increasingly concentrated on the relationship between his sculptures and the spaces they inhabited. In the 1990s, the scale of his light installations became more and more grandiose. A master colorist, Flavin’s works often evoke a cheerful response from visitors – though he does have darker pieces. The monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death) (1966) was created in response to the Vietnam War and is made from blood-colored tubes that jut off the wall aggressively — invading the viewer’s space.

Dan Flavin collection is highly valued
Dan Flavin – monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to PK who reminded me about death), 1966

Related Artists

When discussing Dan Flavin and artists somehow related to him, there are at least two major criteria by which we categorize them. One is Light, other Minimalism. Speaking of the first, there are some people associated with the Light and Space movement, who successfully explored the possibilities of Neon. To name a few: Robert Irwin – an innovator in the Light and Space movement, began his career as a painter and turned to installation as a means of disposing with medium and object altogether. His use of light was painterly, supple and sophisticated; Keith Sonnier – another of the iconic neon artists of the 20th century. He differs from many of his minimalist and post-minimalist contemporaries in the vague figuration of many his works in fluorescent light, which often reference natural forms; Bruce Nauman – an artist less focused on neon as an expressive medium than as a reference to American consumer culture and a vehicle for his bold statements, questioning the role and function of art in society. Though he produced a huge number of neon works, including many that were quite sexually explicit, his best-known work in the medium might be his spiraling 1967 statement, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths; Tracey Emin – her confessional works transpose her lovesick confessions into neon, written in her own handwriting. During February 2013, several of her neon phrases, like “You touch my soul” and “I promise to love you” lit up Times Square’s billboards every night at midnight. On the other side, speaking of Minimalism, one name stands out – Donald Judd. Even though he objected the term Minimalism due to its generality, he was remembered as one of the most important minimalists in the history of art. Without making grand philosophical statements, he was approached his work with the intention of creating pieces that assumed a direct material and physical presence.

Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin – pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963 (Left) / alternate diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd), 1964 (Center) / monument 1 for V Tatlin, 1964 (Right)

Most Notable Works

When someone is as creative, prolific, and groundbreaking as Dan Flavin, is can be quite a challenge to point out to several of his works and mark them as the most influential ones. His breakthrough with fluorescent light was the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) – in this seminal work, Flavin first used fluorescent light alone. He eliminated the square box of the icons, and instead positioned a single, unadorned yellow fluorescent light at a 45-degree angle against a gallery wall. By declaring that a fluorescent light tube can stand on its own as a work of art, Dan Flavin boldly challenged the history of art (particularly the discipline’s theoretical separation of art and everyday life), similarly to Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades of the early 20th century consisted of ordinary, utilitarian objects. The “Monument” 1 for V. Tatlin (1964) is a distant rendition of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. It is one of 39 so-called monuments to the Russian Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin, who Flavin held in extremely high regard. Meant to be an office building built according to the ideals of Constructivism, Tatlin’s Third International was never constructed, although the plans for the monument remain a symbol of the movement. Flavin’s Monuments, made up of light bulbs that either burn out or are turned off, have an element of impermanence that memorializes the ghost of Tatlin’s unrealized project. The green crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) (1966) is one of Flavin’s so-called “barriers” – it blocks off the gallery space with two intersecting, fence-like constructions. Dictated by the dimensions of the gallery space in which it is installed, this piece displays traits associated with Conceptual art and can also be considered one of the first pieces of installation art. The crisscrossing framework of Greens crossing greens approximates Mondrian’s paintings, which in turn evoke stained glass windows, one of the oldest forms of lighting design. The intense light and imposing physical presence of the installation almost aggressively push against the viewer.

His work still influences many artists

Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin – greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), 1966

The Legacy of Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin is, without a doubt, one of the most important and innovative artists of the late twentieth century. The simplicity and systematic character of his extraordinary work, along with his relentless exploration and ingenious discovery of an art of light, established him as a progenitor and chief exponent of Minimalism. Uniquely situated outside the mediums of painting and sculpture, the majority of Flavin’s work after 1963 consists of art made from light.[3] However, by subjugating his material to expiration (neon tubes will eventually burn out) and even choosing the light as his medium (as opposed to the otherwise industrial character of standard Minimalist materials like steel, aluminum, concrete, plastic, glass, and stone), he managed to position himself not just beyond Minimalism, but to reach that unique place that exists outside of the realm of artistic movements in general. In a way, “Flavin’s legacy has to do with the temporal nature of his work. It has an ephemeral quality. It is (as he implied, when he used the word “exposition” instead of “exhibition”) a proposal. It is not so resolute or absolute as marble sculpture or oil painting. A single structure can have different colors, the quality of the light is elusive and changes over time, and the materials are replaceable. On the other hand, he made permanent site-specific work. His oeuvre was open and contradictory in many ways. So I guess the legacy is and will be multifaceted.”[4]

He is represented by David Zwirner.

Dan Flavin lived and worked in New York.


  1. Dixon G., Focus: Dan Flavin, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden [2012]
  2. Fuchs R., Kraus K., Neuner S., Rebentisch J., Wäspe R., Dan Flavin, Hatje Cantz, Berlin [2013]
  3. Govan M., Bell T., Dan Flavin: A Retrospective, Yale University Press; First Edition edition [2004]
  4. Waschek M., Installing in Flavin’s Absence: An Interview with Tiffany Bell and Steve Morse, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts [2007]

Featured image: Dan Flavin – Sailing Across Gardner’s Bay Near Lion Head Beach (To Thomas Moran), 1982 (detail). Black crayon drawing on stone with an embossment. 22 x 27 in. 55.9 x 68.6 cm. This is a unique work. Photo courtesy Berry Campbell Gallery
All other images courtesy of David Zwirner

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Embracing the Contemporary: The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs CollectionPhiladelphia Museum of ArtGroup
2016Pop, Minimal, and Figurative Art: The Fisher CollectionSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, SannFranciscoGroup
2016Drawing Dialogues: The Sol LeWitt CollectionThe Drawing Center, New YorkGroup
2016Objects and Bodies at RestModerna Museet, StockholmGroup
2016Drôles de trames!LeFresnoy-Studio national des arts contemporains, Tourcoing, FranceGroup
2016Between the EyesSotheby's S|2, LondonGroup
2016Drawing Then: Innovation and Influence in American Drawings of the SixtiesDominique Lévy, New YorkGroup
2016Dan Flavin: It is what it is and it ain't nothing elseIkon Gallery, Birmingham, United KingdomSolo
2016Die Sprache der Dinge: Materialgeschichten aus der Sammlung21er Haus, ViennaGroup
2015Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan WagnerThe Whitney Museum of American Art, New YorkGroup
2015Opening the Box: Unpacking MinimalismThe George Economou Collection, Athens, GreeceGroup
2015Blue Moon. The Feeling of LightKunsthalle HGN, Duderstadt, GermanyGroup
2015Black SunFondation Beyeler, Riehen, SwitzerlandGroup
2015Bienal Internacional de Curitiba 2015: Luz Do MundoCuritiba, BrazilGroup
2015Objects and Bodies at Rest and in MotionModerna Museet, MalmöGroup
2015Take an ObjectMuseum of Modern Art, New YorkGroup
2015Double Eye Poke: Lynda Benglis, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Bruce NaumanGalerie Kamel Mennour, ParisGroup
2015Notations: Minimalism in MotionPhiladelphia Museum of Art, PhiladelphiaGroup
2015What’s New is New Again: Dan Flavin, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie LevineMarc Jancou, New YorkGroup
2015American Icons: Masterworks from SFMOMA and the Fisher CollectionGrand Palais, ParisGroup
2015Andy Warhol in the Closet: Works from the Collection Rosetta BarabinoMuseo di Arte Contemporanea di VillanCroce, Genova, ItalyGroup
2015LuminationPatricia Low Contemporary, Gstaad, SwitzerlandGroup
2015Geometries On and Off the Grid: Art from 1950 to the PresentThe Warehouse, Dallas, TexasGroup
2015Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015Whitechapel Gallery, LondonGroup
2015The New York School, 1969: Henry Gedzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of ArtPaul Kasmin Gallery, NewnYorkGroup
2015Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWittPaula Cooper Gallery, New YorkGroup
2015Dan Flavin: Corners, Barriers and CorridorsDavid Zwirner, New YorkSolo
2015Dan Flavin, 2 works101 Spring Street, Judd Foundation, New YorkSolo
2015Dan Flavin: iconsDan Flavin Art Institute, Bridgehampton, New YorkSolo
2014GorgeousAsian Art Museum, San FranciscoGroup
2014Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi CollectionGuggenheim Abu Dhabi, ManaratnAl Saadiyat, Saadiyat Cultural District, Abu DhabiGroup
2014Sufficient Force: Minimal art, conceptual art and land art. The adventurous spirit of the American avant-garde artnof the nineteen sixtiesKröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The NetherlandsGroup
2014Still Life: Dan Flavin | Alex IsrealNahmad Contemporary, New YorkGroup
2014Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of NonviolenceMenil Collection, HoustonGroup
2014Burning Down the House10th Gwangju Biennale, Republic of KoreaGroup
2014Schenkungen NeuerwerbungenKunsthalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld, GermanyGroup
2014ghost outfitTeam Gallery, New YorkGroup
2014Love Story: The Anne and Wolfgang Titze CollectionWinter Palace and 21er Haus, Belvedere, ViennaGroup
2014The Illusion of LightPalazzo Grassi, VeniceGroup
2014Roesler Hotel #26 – SpectresGaleria Nara Roesler, São PauloGroup
2014Grażyna Kulczyk Collection, Everybody is Nobody for SomebodySala de Arte Santander, Boadilla del Monte,nMadridGroup
2014BeaconsCentre Pompidou-Metz, Metz, FranceGroup
2014Prints: Flavin, Judd, SandbackDavid Zwirner, New YorkGroup
2014Dan Flavin: Red and green alternatives (to Sonja)Paula Cooper Gallery, New YorkSolo
2013Dan Flavin and Donald JuddDavid Zwirner, New YorkGroup
2013Licht - Dan Flavin, Francois Morellet, Keith SonnierGalerie Thomas Modern, MunichGroup
2013Davant l’horitzóFundació Joan Miró, BarcelonaGroup
2013Jimmy Desana and Dan FlavinHome Alone 2, New YorkGroup
2013Artist Rooms: Dan FlavinTate Modern, LondonSolo
2013Repetition: 1960-1975Paula Cooper Gallery, New YorkGroup
2013Light ShowHayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, LondonGroup
2013Dan Flavin / Donald Judd: Sets / SeriesSenior & Shopmaker, New York, NYGroup
2013Luminousflux: LightworksLawrence Wilson Art Gallery, the University of Western Australia, PerthGroup
2013Once Upon A Time… The Collection NowVan Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The NetherlandsGroup
2013Re-View: Onnasch CollectionHauser & Wirth, LondonGroup
2013Répétition IIPaula Cooper Gallery, New YorkGroup
2013Dynamo: Un Siècle de Lumière et de Mouvement Dans L’Art 1913-2013Grand Palais, ParisGroup
2013Haim Steinbach: Once Again the World is FlatCenter for Curatorial Studies, Hessel Museum of Art, Annandaleon-nHudson, New YorkGroup
2013Königsklasse: Artworks from the Pinakothek der Moderne at Herrenchiemsee PalaceHerrenchiemsee Palace,nHerrenchiemsee, GermanyGroup
2013Piet Mondrian – Barnett Newman – Dan FlavinKunstmuseum Basel, Basel, SwitzerlandGroup
2013Dan Flavin/Donald JuddGalería Elvira González, MadridGroup
2012Dan Flavin: Drawing The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NYSolo
2012The Substance of Light: James Turrell / Robert Irwin / Larry Bell / Dan FlavinCuadro Fine Art Gallery, DubaiGroup
2012Sculpted MatterPaul Kasmin Gallery, New YorkGroup
2012Neon: La Materia Luminosa dell’ArteMuseo D’Arte Contemporanea Roma, RomeGroup
2012Color Ignited: Glass, 1962-2012Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OhioGroup
2012Everyday Things: Contemporary Works from the CollectionMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design,nProvidence, Rhode IslandGroup
2012Light Works: Dan Flavin and Robert Irwin, Art from the 1960sCantor Arts Center, Stanford University, PalonAlto, CaliforniaGroup
2012Neon: Who's afraid of red, yellow and blueLa Maison Rouge, ParisGroup
2012Il Guggenheim: L'Avanguardia Americana, 1945-1980Palazzo delle Esposizione, RomeGroup
2012Unlikely Friends: James Brooks and Dan FlavinGreenberg Van Doren Gallery, New YorkGroup
2012The UnseenFourth Guangzhou Triennial, Guandong Museum of Art, Guandong, ChinaGroup
2012Dan Flavin: An installation Galerie Perrotin, Paris, FranceSolo
2012Carte Blanche to Paula Cooper Gallery, New YorkGalerie Patrick Seguin, ParisGroup
2010Dan Flavin Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2009Castelli, Flavin, Judd, Uecker Haunch of Venison, LondonGroup
2009Electricity Leo Castelli, New YorkGroup
2008Dan Flavin (to Don Judd, colorist) 1-7 Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl, New YorkGroup
2007UntitledBjorn Ressle Fine Art, New YorkSolo
2006UntitledGallery Nikki Diana Marquardt, ParisSolo
2006UntitledGallery Nikki Diana Marquardt, ParisGroup
2006UntitledMusée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, FranceGroup
2004A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958-1968 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los AngelesGroup
2004UntitledNational Gallery of Art, Washington, DCGroup
2004Design‚Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, NYGroup
2004UntitledDesign Museum, New York, NYGroup
2003UntitledDia: Beacon, New YorkGroup
2003Flavin, Judd, Lewitt, Serra - Early Works Zwierner & WirthGroup
2003Collection, Nouvelle Presentation Musee Art Contemporain Lyon, FranceGroup
2003Flavin, Andre, Judd National Gallery of Canada, HalifaxGroup
2003Flavin, Judd, Lewitt, Serra - Early WorksZwirner & WirthGroup
20033x3: Flavin, Andre, Judd, national Gallery of Canada, OttawaGroup
2003Collection, Nouvelle Presentation Musee Art Contemporain Lyon, FranceGroup
2003UntitledPaula Cooper Gallery, New YorkGroup
2001UntitledSerpentine Gallery, LondonSolo
2000UntitledGalerie Trabant, Vienna, AustriaGroup
2000UntitledZwirner & Wirth, New York, New YorkGroup
1999UntitledPaula Cooper Gallery, New York, New YorkGroup
1999UntitledAnnemarie Verna Galerie, Zürich, SwitzerlandGroup
1999Dan Flavin: icons, 1961-1963Dan Flavin Art Institute, Bridgehampton, New YorkSolo
1999Dan Flavin: The Architecture of Light Deutsche Guggenheim, BerlinSolo
1997Dan Flavin: Fluorescent Light, 1963-96 Sabine Knust-Maximilian Verlag, MunichSolo
1997UntitledCentro Cultural Light, Rio de JaneiroSolo
1997UntitledFundacion Proa, Buenos AiresSolo
1996UntitledPaceWildenstein, New York, NY (solo)Group
1990Dan Flavin: (for the master potters, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper) themes and variations 1990 Galeries Grasslin-Ehrhardt, Frankfurt am MainSolo
1989UntitledGallery Nikki Diana Marquardt, ParisGroup
1987UntitledGallery Nikki Diana Marquardt, ParisGroup
1983The First Show: Painting and Sculpture from Eight Collections, 1940-1980 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los AngelesGroup