Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin 

Untitled (for Conor Cruise O'Brien) 5c, 1990

Green, red, blue and yellow fluorescent light construction


96 in. x 15 in. x 24 in. (243.84 cm x 38.1 cm x 60.96 cm)

Gift of Dorothy and Roy Lavine

The fluorescent light is an icon of the every-day. Despite their association with the banality of office cubicles and employee lunchrooms, Dan Flavin brought them into a new context—off ceilings and onto the walls and floors of fine art galleries. One of Minimalism’s mosr important artists, he explored the artistic potential of fluorescent lighting for over three decades to create his own icons for the art world.

Flavin’s embrace of the common lighting fixture exemplifies the Minimalist dogma; he created an immense body of work out of a mass-produced material. Begun in the 1960s, Minimalism is often characterized visually by what it physically lacks. Stark geometric forms, uniform planes of color, and limited materials were used to reject subjectivity in art, as a reaction against dramatic Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Though it was never a self-proclaimed movement (and its artists often fiercely rejected being labeled), Minimalism focused on the essentials of geometric abstraction and its self-referential forms, stripped of emotion and distraction. Flavin utilized a small selection of basic forms: two-, four-, six-, and eight-foot straight tubes, and in 1972, circles. Minimalist art was mainly comprised of industrial or building materials, such as steel, fiberglass, and plywood, and were often commercially fabricated according to the artist’s specifications. For example, Robert Morris’ untitled large-scale polyhedron forms were constructed from two-by-fours and gray-painted plywood.

The use of color in Minimalist art may have been restrictive, but such limitations often created bold, striking visuals. Flavin used only ten colors of lights during his career: red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultraviolet, and four different whites. The colors of the lights bounce and blend on the walls surrounding his pieces, interacting to create unusual and surprising combinations. Also on the MIT campus, in the atrium space between MIT’s new Green Center (Building 6C) and the Institute’s older Buildings 4, 6, and 8, Sol LeWitt’s Bars of Colors Within Squares, 2007 is another eye-catching example of a Minimalist color sensibility.

Flavin’s fluorescent assemblages follow in the footsteps of the work of Marcel Duchamp, the revolutionary artist whose “readymades” challenged the art world as never before. His most notorious, Fountain, 1917, was a porcelain urinal turned on its side, signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” and placed on a pedestal at the New York Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917. Though it was quickly taken down, and the original was lost or destroyed soon after, it had a powerful effect on the art world as it forced viewers to ask, “What is art?” It challenged the historical notions of what defines art: that it must use traditional materials like marble, wood, metal, charcoal on paper, or paint on canvas, that it be unique, and that it must involve a sufficient amount of craft on the artist’s part. Untitled (for Conor Cruise O’Brien) 5c, 1990 defies the same perceptions, and lets the standard, commercially sold, fluorescent tube stand on its own as high art through its new context in an art environment.

*Note - this artwork is accessible to the public by appointment only.

Building Number: NW35

Accession Number: 2003.024 a-b

Audio Transcript

Installed in Ashdown House, Dan Flavin's 1990 work, Untitled (for Conor Cruise O'Brien) 5c, is set at a 45-degree angle on the wall and composed of green, red, blue, and yellow fluorescent lights. Since the early 1960s, Flavin had been making sculpture with fluorescent tubes, a medium more associated with cubicles and cafeterias than art. It was part and parcel of his adherence to that formerly restrictive tenants and commercially fabricated materials of minimalism. MIT professor, Caroline Jones.

For Flavin, it was terribly important to be able to go to the hardware store and buy this stuff and put it on the wall. In playing with light as if it were a stick that he could compose with, he's provoking a notion that the light is not there for us to work by or read by with it humming overhead, but rather the light is there for us to contemplate as light.

Flavin died in the mid 1990s. At the time, he could not have anticipated that fluorescent bulbs would become a rare commodity, abandoned in favor of environmentally friendly CFL bulbs.

It was not his intention to think of these fluorescent tubes as precious and rare, and now conservators have to stock up on these things before they stop being manufactured and hold them in cold storage and treat them very tenderly because the only way we can keep this piece in our present is to conserve that past.