Oh! How Great Thou Art
Dan Flavin’s last light in Chiesa Rossa, Milan
« I’d be delighted if someone like you could help us to find an ambiance in our church. By ambiance, I mean a living space, a place inhabited by the Word.«Don Giulio Greco to Dan Flavin
In May 1996, Don Giulio Greco of Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa wrote a letter to the artist Dan Flavin to ask if he would light his church. The building designed in 1932 by Italian architect Giovanni Muzio had recently been renovated and its Italian priest was searching for a way to regenerate his run-down neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of Milan. The priest had seen Flavin’s work in the stables at the property of Count Giuseppe Panza in Varese, declaring that there was an ‘exceptional spirituality’ in the light he saw. Don Giulio’s written gesture struck a chord with the American artist. Despite serious ill health, Flavin completed the designs and signed the certificate of intent the day before he died on 29th November that same year. Twelve months later, with sponsorship from the Fondazione Prada in collaboration with the Dia Center for the Arts and the Dan Flavin Estate, his work ‘Untitled’ was unveiled to the public. The posthumous installation would be Flavin’s last project.
The story of Dan Flavin and Chiesa Rossa is the culmination of a career spanning over 30 years and an ironic narrative of an artist whose Irish Catholic upbringing in New York saw him train as a priest before joining the air force. Flavin ultimately found his vocation in art and began exploring light and colour as a way of defining space and the relationship of art to the architectural environment. Today he is regarded as one of the main expounders of minimalism, credited with the concept of installation art and one of the most accomplished colourists of the 20th century.
Minimal form, maximal effect
Dan Flavin loved both old and new art. He owned several Rembrandt etchings amongst American Hudson River School landscape paintings, Asian ceramics, American furniture and craft objects. With exposure to religious art first at the seminary, he later studied at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts and the New School for Social Research as well as at Columbia University. Yet, in his work, he famously rejected the attachment of any symbolic or referential significance. He declared:
“It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else…. Everything is clearly, openly, plainly delivered. There is no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. I like my use of light to be openly situational in the sense that there is no invitation to meditate, to contemplate. It’s in a sense a ‘get-in-get-out’ situation. And it is very easy to understand. One might not think of light as a matter of fact, but I do. And it is, as I said, as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find.”
In reality, Flavin’s designs for Don Giulio Greco’s church in Milan, in all their colour and simplicity, are inspirational and reverential and persuasively spiritual.
Since the seminal moment in 1963 when he fixed a fluorescent, industrial yellow light tube diagonally to the wall, Flavin has pushed the boundaries of how art is seen. His understanding of light and colour coupled with an ingenious artistry in painting with light using off-the-shelf fluorescent tubes has elevated a commercially-available object to something aesthetically beautiful.
Flavin famously contradicted the labelling of his work as minimalist, maintaining that it would be relevant to consider his simple forms as ‘maximalist’ or ‘delivering a maximum of effect’. His first light experiments in the early 60s began with a series of small blank squares lit with various electric bulbs and fittings. They are minimal, yet these untitled works brim with meaning and qualities beyond the sum of their parts.
Icons to light-bar sculptures
The wall reliefs, or icons – eight small, illuminated red, yellow and black panels produced between 1961 and 1964 were intended as contemporary versions of Russian and Greek Orthodox religious icon paintings. Flavin said:
“Last week in the Metropolitan I saw a large icon from the school of Novgorod. I smiled when I recognized it. It had more than its painting, there was a physical feeling in the panel, its recurving warp bore a history. The icon had that magical presiding presence which I have tried to realise in my own icons, but my icons differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty; they are dumb – anonymous and inglorious. They are as mute and indistinguished (sic) as the run of our architecture. My icons do not raise up the blessed saviour in elaborate cathedrals. They are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.”
Though these updated versions relinquish any traditional pictorial religious reference, they retain a spiritual intensity in their use of light and its association with the divine. The devotional qualities recognised throughout Flavin’s work emerge from the physicality of the sculptures and the materials themselves. Further than that, they weave human stories with humour and playfulness into their historical fabric.
Flavin dedicated his untitled works to friends, acquaintances, or artists; a 1920’s blues singer, or Christ, or most poignantly to his twin brother who died from polio at the time that Flavin was working on the series. Icon VI (Ireland Dying) (To Louis Sullivan) honours America’s pioneering architect, who died in a Chicago hotel room, a destitute alcoholic (his burial and funeral paid for by Frank Lloyd Wright). Or Mondrian, whose life also ended in poverty and solitude, buried in a pauper’s grave in Brooklyn. And a homosexual antique dealer friend celebrated with a flesh-pink square lit brightly with flame-tip bulbs in Icon V (Coran’s Broadway Flesh). Dedications to Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Matisse, Jasper Johns and many others would follow.
Often sympathetic to the tragedy in life, Flavin’s light embodies pathos and humanity, insight and devotion, delivered with an ironic twist. In reply to fellow artist Carl André, who had enquired about the original inspiration for using light, Flavin quoted the novel by Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man. Ellison’s unseen protagonist lights up the walls, ceiling and floor of the basement in which he lives “like Broadway”. From this reference, for the rest of his career, the artist aspired to reach every part of the architectural space with the simple light from a fluorescent bulb.
Reflecting on Flavin’s artistic trajectory, Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and former friend comments that « It is no subtle irony that Flavin’s career of light art began with ‘icons’ and ended with a design for the interior of a church, when the artist never allowed symbolic or spiritual interpretation of his work. »
Light-bar sculptures, systems and infinite variations of light
In the same way that other artists of the time including Barnett Newman were pushing a minimalist philosophy and concerning themselves with the here and now rather than the spiritual outside, Flavin was pushing the present and the viewer’s visual experience in the moment. In 1963, he designed The One, a single, vertically-positioned light tube and the simplest manifestation of what an artwork could be. Flavin noted the philosophy of William of Ockham, a 14th-century English Franciscan philosopher and his principle that simpler explanations were likely to be truer than complex ones. Wrapped in this work too was the idea that things on earth could be separated from things of faith.
Flavin then did something new. He took the single 8-ft fluorescent tube and turned it to 45 degrees. It was his breakthrough moment, his own, personal “epiphany” and referred to as The Gold Diagonal or Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy of 1963. It was the first of his signature light-bar sculptures and dedicated to Constantin Brâncuși (Flavin compared his diagonal with the Romanian sculptor’s towering, rhomboid-stacked Endless Column which suggested the possibility of infinite expansion). The simplicity and potential to extend the “visible limitations of length” was implicit in both works.
From then on, Flavin worked almost exclusively with generic fluorescent light in ten colours and five shapes. The nominal three (to William of Ockham) of 1963 saw Flavin embrace the light tube as a basic building block and explore the seriality of the fluorescent light. His ‘systems’ abandoned the frames, supports and pedestals of conventional painting. The nominal three comprising three strokes using a single, double and triple bulb configuration and installed corner-to-corner at the Green Gallery in New York for the first time broke the frame with its infinite possibilities for variation. Using a limited vocabulary of form and colour, Flavin had achieved a way of positioning fluorescent tubes to diffuse light in varying intensity onto the walls, surfaces and recesses of specific architectural settings.
He considered the space not taken, the unoccupied areas in the corners of galleries and rooms which could be reached with the light from his sculptures. It was a reflection of the custom in Russian orthodox households to hang the icon painting in the corner, and of the corner constructivist square pictures of Malevich, Tatlin and the Russian avant-garde.
Installation art and architecture
Flavin began to produce more complicated designs involving barriers or corridors. Greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) created in 1966 and acknowledged as the first piece of installation art, altered the space available to the viewer by blocking access to the back of the room where the sculpture itself occupied the space.
His site-specific installations or ‘interventions’ include Grand Central Station where he lit the platform of the train leading up the Hudson River to Cold Spring where he lived. He drew up the designs for a work for Donald Judd’s museum in Marfa, Texas and at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. In 1992 he lit the rotunda of the Guggenheim and jointly installed untitled (to Tracy, to celebrate the love of a lifetime), an immense pink column shooting light up from the centre and next to which they were married.
And in the same year that he lit the Chiesa di Santa Maria Annunciata in Milan, he lit Calvin Klein’s flagship store on Madison Avenue in bright red light. It was quintessential Flavin playing the sacred against the frivolous, heaven against earth.
Lighting the corners at Chiesa Rossa
The approach to Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa gives no hint of the art sensation within. That is, until late afternoon when Dan Flavin’s lights are switched on and an elysian glow disperses from the high, cross-paned windows of the church.
As the rear doors in the plain, red brick façade open, the eyes are struck by a chromatic canopy of monumental proportions. It could be heaven itself.
The nave, up-lit in blue and green flows like an aqueous rectangular body of light to the front of the church. In humorous contrast, the transept radiates blazing, pink light to frame the arched form of the apse, illuminated in gold as it should be. Flavin’s light reaches every corner of the architectural space and is phenomenal. Colour and structure vie with formlessness. Different intensities of light play to the fabric of the building. The serious sits with the humorous. And as uncomplicated as it is in execution, its effect is utterly divine.
According to Michael Govan, “he was always sceptical about whether art was truly transcendent”. Flavin said “For years I put forward the notion that I, as an artist of fluorescent light didn’t require a museum context to grant validity or anything else…. Whatever I did should be recognizable as, let’s say, ‘something’ no matter where”.
This last installation in Milan is fresh and unpretentious. Its simple shades of green and blue, pink, gold and ultraviolet unite to reach a climactic zenith which radiates spiritual light out to the local Italian community. In electrifying majesty, in this minimal church in Milan, Dan Flavin’s ephemeral art may just (with the wink of an eye) shine for eternity.
Note: David Zwirner Paris presents an exhibition of works by Dan Flavin until 1 February 2020. For more information go to www.davidzwirner.com
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© www.arteez.ch 2019