Dan Flavin and Luminosity
Works by American artist Dan Flavin (1933–96) stand out in museums, galleries and public spaces for their innovative use of fluorescent light. Created for the most part from a limited vocabulary (four tube lengths and ten colours), Flavin’s luminous sculptures engage with architectural space and transform it, diffusing light and offering new aesthetic experiences. Although he rejected labels such as Minimalism, the artist now represents one of the pillars of this pioneering and still influential movement, characterized by geometric forms, seriality and industrial materials.
In 1969, the National Gallery of Canada hosted a groundbreaking exhibition of Flavin's work. Collaborating with NGC curator Brydon Smith on configuring the Gallery spaces and writing the catalogue, the artist was given greater agency than was usual. Flavin installed 114 works on two floors of the Gallery, which was then located on Elgin Street. The artist also added seven newly conceived installations. The exhibition was a critical and popular success in Canada and drew critical interest from influential American observers. It provided most Canadian visitors with their first, sublime experience in an immersive art environment. In the fifty years since then, sustained curatorial and academic interest in Flavin has confirmed his place in the modern canon and acknowledged the Gallery’s contribution to his career.
At the time of the exhibition, the Gallery purchased what has become one of Flavin’s best-known works – the nominal three (to William of Ockham) – produced in an edition of three and consisting of eight-foot (244 cm) tubes in cool white fluorescent light. The dedication references a 14th-century English Franciscan monk who challenged Papal authority. He is known today for the philosophical dictum of Ockham’s razor which requires that no more entities be posited than are necessary. The three tube groupings provide the minimum, basic sequence to illustrate an infinite, mathematical progression. Flavin expert Michael Goven suggests that this much-exhibited work could be considered a Rosetta Stone for Minimalism. When the nominal three was to be installed in the Gallery's new building on Sussex Drive, artist and curator agreed on the spacing between the three clusters to attain an ideal illumination.
Also acquired in 1969, Flavin's icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin 1933–62) is a reconstructed earlier work dating to 1962. It was the largest in a series of eight constructions that Flavin termed “icons” and created between 1961 and 1964. Flavin dedicated the sculpture to his twin brother who passed away while the artist was working on the piece. Unlike many artists of his generation, Flavin often titled and dedicated his works with reference to art history, philosophy and personal relationships. The “daylight” fluorescent colour was chosen to contrast slightly with the Formica box cover. The 1969 catalogue records that, to the artist, the all-white construction suggested an association with Chinese funerals. The exhibition correspondence reveals that he resisted a specific catalogue reference linking “the pure land” in the title with Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Flavin scholars have, however, drawn attention to the use of this phrase in Buddhist cosmology. Significantly, the Flavin family had the phrase inscribed on the artist’s grave.
In the 1969 catalogue, Flavin's autobiographical reference to pursuing “Roman Catholic diversions of art” reignited a discussion about the place of religion in his œuvre. As a former seminary student of Irish-American descent, Flavin had a complex relationship with Catholicism. Given age-old traditions associating light with spirituality, it has proven difficult to completely disassociate Flavin's art from its sacral qualities. His final commission, in point of fact, involved the interior of Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa in Milan. It was completed two days before his death in 1996 and was installed a year later.
Flavin and Smith continued to correspond after their intensive 1969 collaboration. In a personal note to Smith on Flavin’s premature passing, Gallery Director Shirley Thomson wrote, “Your friendship with him was so strong and so pure. In return, Dan Flavin honoured you and, through you, the National Gallery. To this day, his presence here is truly luminous.” In 2004–05, Smith contributed to the catalogue for the artist’s posthumous retrospective, held at the National Galley of Art in Washington, and was honoured for his expertise. The National Gallery of Canada owns a total of five Flavin sculptures, one of which was a gift from the artist in 1994.
Dan Flavin’s the nominal three (to William of Ockham) and icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin 1933-62) are on view at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article, and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to discover more about art in Canada.