Best known for his Minimalist constructions made from industrial fluorescent light tubes, Dan Flavin’s light installations, or ‘situations,’ as he termed them, forged an entirely new mode of artistic creation in the latter half of the 20th Century. His light installations altered the physical exhibition space, designed as experiential art rather than visual art.
Flavin was born in 1933 in New York City. After studying for a time for the priesthood and following a spell in the United States Air Force, Flavin attended Columbia University where he studied Art History during the 1950s. Having worked both in the mail room of the Guggenheim and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it was in 1961, while Flavin was working as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History, that he first started to conceive of sculptures that integrated electric lights. Later that year, he created what he called ‘icons:’ assemblages of lights and monochrome canvases. By 1963, he had ceased to use canvas completely, creating for the first time, artworks made solely from fluorescent tube lighting. Gradually, these became large-scale installations.
Large-scale works were a focus of Flavin’s later career, with site-specific light installations commissioned for the The Menil Collection, Houston; the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Marfa, Texas, and a converted church in Bridgehampton, New York, which was established in 1983 as the Dan Flavin Art Institute.
Flavin’s first solo exhibition using only fluorescent light opened at the Green Gallery, New York in 1964. The first major retrospective of Flavin’s work was organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa in 1969. Among Flavin’s many significant solo exhibitions in Europe were shows at the Kunstmuseum Basel and Kunsthalle Basel (1975), the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden (1989), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1992) and a major traveling retrospective held first at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., before moving to Chicago, London, Paris, Munich and Los Angeles.
In the late 1970s, Flavin began a partnership with the Dia Art Foundation that resulted in several permanent site-specific installations and led most recently to the traveling exhibition, Dan Flavin: A Retrospective (2004–2007).
Dan Flavin died in 1996 in Riverhead, New York.