Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Dan Flavin (American, 1933–1996)

the alternate diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd), 1964

Fluorescent lights

145 x 12 x 4 in. (368.3 x 30.5 x 10.2 cm)

Gerald S. Elliott Collection

Dan Flavin was one of the first minimalist artists to match the use of commercially available, industrial material to a reductivist spirit in art-making. In the early 1960s Flavin introduced his spare works composed solely of fluorescent light bulbs, contributing, in truly original and landmark fashion, to an investigation of the artwork’s occupation of space. While Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, had already introduced the everyday object into the realm of art, Flavin was one of the first to make use of it as a purely formal element. Flavin’s more immediate focus on the nature of materials and transformation of space, however, is enhanced by subtle expressions on a more spiritual and personal level.

Flavin was born in 1933 in Jamaica, New York, to a Roman Catholic family of Irish and German descent. He attended the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglastown, New York. In 1953 he entered the US Air Force in Rantoul, Illinois, and then served as an air weather service observer in South Korea. Back in New York, he enrolled at the New School for Social Research (1956) and took art history classes at Columbia University (1957–59). Self-taught as an artist, he developed in the late 1950s primarily under the influence of abstract expressionism and Jasper Johns. In 1961, his artwork was debuted at the Judson Gallery in New York, which included watercolors and constructions. Later that year Flavin introduced light as a material in his “icons,” painted wooden boxes with light bulbs attached. His first piece composed solely of light, the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi), is an eight-foot-long yellow fluorescent light tube hung at an angle of forty-five degrees to the horizontal.

An early supporter of Flavin’s work (and fellow Minimalist), Donald Judd singled out the diagonal of May 25, 1963 in a review of the first museum exhibition of Minimal Art, Black, White, and Gray, held at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, in January 1964. Two months later Flavin exhibited more lightbulb works at the Kaymar Gallery in New York, including the alternate diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd) (1964). the alternate diagonals references its predecessor in its angle and in its use of a long yellow bulb. Paying homage to Judd is in keeping with Flavin’s dedicating works to artists to whom he owes an aesthetic debt, such as Constantin Brancusi or Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. The color scheme reflects the palette Judd was using in his sculpture at the time (the MCA’s 1962 Untitled by Judd is exemplary of this trait).

Beyond the introduction of industrial materials as formal art elements, Flavin’s light works possess an austere, spiritual quality. Referring to the more “otherworldly” connotations of light and illumination, the haunting solitary presentation of the work in the gallery space gives it an ethereal quality rarely found in Minimal Art. Yet, the alternate diagonals remains true to Minimalism in its use of light to occupy—and determine one’s experience of—the surrounding space. The interplay between the bright gold glow of the lone yellow bulb and the darker “field” created by the shorter red bulbs reflects the Minimalists’ consideration of color as a necessary vessel of meaning in their spartan visual vocabulary.