Dan Flavin's Square Corner Before and After the Mast (issue 78, Autumn 2004)

To begin with an omission: that of Dan Flavin’s comments to Bruce Glaser during a 1964 radio interview entitled “New Nihilism or new Art?” A participant along with Frank Stella and Donald Judd, Flavin rarely intervened, later requesting that even these infrequent comments be excised from the published manuscript (1). Usually seen as an act of deference to his polemical and more articulate peers (2),  might this recusal alternatively be read as a determined refusal of the reductivist rendition of modernism proffered if not in practice than in theory by Stella and Judd? Certainly, the shifts Flavin undergoes from the earliest light pieces (produced one year before the Glaser interview) to his later, trademark 1974 corner pieces, testify to this; further, it would appear that Flavin’s proposed alternative circles around, precisely, the notion of omission.

If the notion of omission was always lodged within the narrative of modernism in the form of a kind of ever-receding horizon, the impossible situation that art found itself in the ‘60s was that this horizon was arrived at in the guise of the monochrome and blank canvas. By 1962, Clement Greenberg declared, “a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily as a successful one” (3). This shift in strategy – from positing art as an internally motivated formal progression towards flatness to a far more idiosyncratic assessment of success or failure – not only bespeaks a breach, perhaps irreparable, in the hitherto rigorous separation of the aesthetic from the everyday (a breach that modernism’s reductivist impulse had, paradoxically and with seeming inevitability, heralded), but its stopgap, taste (4).  And this turn towards taste begets a parallel turn, from art as a creative act to an act of judgment; that is, theoretically and ideally, into the purview of the general public, members of which are now compelled for individual reasons to grant an object the status of Art, but, practically and realistically, into the purview of the curator or critic, vested as he is with institutional authority to state unequivocally, “This is Art” (5).   
Into this backswell of modernist abstraction into an alternative tradition partially culled from the readymade can be folded Stella and especially Judd, who reputedly stated, “If someone says it’s art than it’s art” (6). Similarly interpreting Greenberg’s call for medium specificity as the concurrence between pictorial surface and physical support, as the total identification of depicted and literal flatness, their work surpassed even the monochrome, inadvertently veering away from painting and toward three-dimensional objects. Here, rather than consolidating art’s disciplinary boundaries – an ongoing project of modernism – by shoring up the institutional power of exhibition, pinning it under the aegis of judgment and its corollary, intention – “this is art because I say it is so” – a work of art is structured by an inviolate system.  No longer wedded to the medium of painting – the shape of the stretcher, the taut weave of the flat canvas – the serial organization manifest in Stella’s 1958 – 63 striped canvases congeals into a predetermined program deployed to cohere an object: “The thing about my work,” Judd succinctly declares, “is that it is given” (7). Indeed, even as Judd’s 1965 – 66 Progression pieces are endless, “one thing after another,” they remain rigorously empirical, based on, say, the Fibonacci Sequence (8).
Thus just as the process of art-making was disjoined from the studio-bound creative subject, it was re-tethered to a subject culled from a prescient if limited reading of the readymade (of the artist-as-pasticheur, of the curator-as-artist); and just as seriality was cast adrift from the specificity of painting, it was re-anchored, through a limited misreading of Greenbergian modernism (in the logic of the series or in algorithms) (9). That curatorial choice was not dissimilar to creative act, that logical deduction was not unlike formal reduction, would only become fully evident with the privilege of hindsight. Still, the following argues that Flavin had isolated this as an issue by addressing the latent link between Judd’s seriality and illusionism (10) as early as 1964 and that, furthermore, this discovery led in turn to a different conception of the monochrome after 1974, of the monochrome as self-different.

Restrained though Flavin was during the 1964 Glaser interview, he was nonetheless far from mute that year; he had two solo exhibitions, at the Kaymar Gallery in March and at the Green Gallery in November. Three groups of works were presented in the first: the punningly titled “shrines” such as Barbara Roses (1959 – 62), a ceramic planter crowned with an incandescent bulb containing a miniature bouquet that could be switched on and off by the viewer, that recalled Duchamp in their juxtaposition of words and decontextualized found objects(11); the 1962  “icons,” or square monochromatic Masonite boxes affixed with industrially produced fluorescent or incandescent bulbs, which combined the readymade with the minimalist tendency toward objecthood (the boxes projected as far as five inches into the gallery and, in the case of Icons VI, VII, and VIII, featured beveled edges and corners); lastly, works comprising solely of units of fluorescent tubes, which, in six standard colors and four lengths, catered to sequential combination.  “There was literally no need to compose the system definitively,” writes Flavin of these. “It seemed to sustained itself” (12).
Readymade, monochrome, system: if Flavin seems to have efficiently catalogued the gamut of early minimalism, it would not be without a distinctive mark, a twist that, as it were, with no less efficacy, critiques Judd’s undeclared and latent tendency towards illusionism – and by implication that of the entire trajectory that emerges from his singularly inappropriately titled “specific objects.” For if at the Kaymar Gallery the wires and plugs were untidily exposed (in the Icons in particular, the former hung loosely below, recalling so many unmade beds), Flavin surmounted this untidiness in the November show at the Green Gallery by, whenever possible, either abutting one end or edge of the tubes to the lateral or lower edges of the walls. Thus although in the preparatory sketch a primary picture (1964) was centered on the wall just left of the entrance hall, in the actual exhibition, it was positioned flush to a corner so that its left edge concurred with the seam where two walls met. The subtle (re)positioning accounted to more than an elegant solution to an unsightly practical problem; it also resolutely resisted sliding into the domain of sculpture which, as Yve-Alain Bois has pointed out in the somewhat related context of Mondrian’s neo-plastic works, “has the bad habit of constituting itself as figure around surrounding space, which thus functions as background” (13).
And if the positioning of these works resisted the traditional space of sculpture, so too did the fluorescent lamp itself resist that of painting. The “light stick,” to use Flavin’s own term, which he had isolated only the previous Spring with his suggestively titled the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) (14),  simultaneously reverted to the most traditional means of space articulation available – line – and obliterated it in its collapse of any distinction, and thus hierarchy, between color and drawing (fluorescent lights, unlike filamented incandescents, are atomic: all or none) (15). Even as Flavin implicitly linked the readymade and seriality – both lodged within the industrially produced and standardized lamp – with the tradition of illusionism, a tradition in which line precedes the application of color and which constitutes the pictorial analogue to the field of consciousness from which intentionality is dispatched, he eradicated it.   

At this point, Flavin arguably forgoes Judd only to side with Greenberg, who in his position paper “Modernist Painting” famously declared, “the first mark made on a canvas destroys its literal and utter flatness and the result of the marks made on it…is still a kind of illusion that suggests a kind of third dimension. Only now it is a strictly pictorial, strictly optical third dimension” (16). Yet this too would be inaccurate. For even as Flavin countered illusionistic depth with the optical, even as he claimed that his work should produce “rapid comprehensions” (17),  his line is not – or not just – optical.  As Robert Smithson rightly observed, Flavin’s works are notoriously difficult to receive visually much less instantaneously, preventing as they do “prolonged viewing” upon which “ultimately, there is nothing to see” (18).  

The “nothing” to which Smithson refers brings into purview the issue of the monochrome, and it is necessary here to distinguish two versions of it. For it was through a thorough examination of the monochrome and the attendant issue of “flatness” – which by 1964 had preoccupied critical discourse for some time – that Flavin understood that of “opticality” – which at that date had neither gained commensurate urgency nor the currency which it would soon possess with Michael Fried’s series of essays begun in 1965 with “Three American Painters” and ending in 1967 with “Art and Objecthood,” and thus was less available to an artist like Flavin who, while well-read (he studied art history in the later 1950s), was nonetheless not the most theoretically adept of his generation.  
The first version was already apparent at the Green Gallery. The placement of a primary picture was significant; more, the work’s rectilinear configuration – paired red and yellow tubes on the left, and single tubes of blue on the right, yellow on the top, and red on the bottom – recalled the monochrome’s collapse of picture plane and physical support, at once constituting the work itself and the frame of a wall-mounted “painting,” at once being contained by the gallery and framing the architecture with its luminous glow. Apposite to the titular reference to Rodchenko, a primary picture follows the signal realignment of ‘60s artworks with select earlier avant-gardes upon which they would elaborate, shifting, to borrow Craig Owens’ phrase, “from work to frame” – to the location in which art is encountered and the social nature of production and reception (19).
Fredric Jameson has discussed this overlap between container and contained in terms of the merchant marine vessel, in the process invoking one master metaphor for modernist abstraction (as well as eventually the subject matter of Flavin’s etchings and drypoints): the sea. Analyzing Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Jameson writes, “the sea is both a strategy of containment and a place of real business: it is a border and a decorative limit, but it is also a highway, out of the world and in it at once, the repression of work… as well as the absent work-place itself” (20) – a passage that recalls a primary picture’s absent center and the work’s shift from the autonomy secured by formal coherency and internal composition to the radical contingency engendered by its conflation of artwork and external context.

Yet even as the monochrome approximates a folding back reminiscent of modernist reflexivity (minus the essentialism), even as it encroaches upon – and, eventually, in much institutional critical art of the ‘70s, assumes (21) – the form of its various site in order to comment critically on them, it nonetheless itself does not escape, and indeed is complicit with, the system of commodity exchange. Jameson quickly adds:

"[The] sea is the empty space between the concrete places of work and life; but it is also, just as surely, itself a place of work and the very element by which an imperial capitalism draws its scattered beachheads and outposts together, through which it slowly realizes its sometimes violent, sometimes silent and corrosive, penetration of the outlying precapitalist zones of the globe" (22).

Read through Jameson’s caveat, the question of whether the monochrome’s foregrounding of the always present if not evident line between autonomy and industry was inadvertent and thus to be avoided (which was how Greenberg saw it) or by intention and thus to be utilized to reveal critically the intersection of art and the processes of capitalism (which was largely how advanced practices of the ‘70s saw it) attenuates in urgency. In this account, art would inevitably be subsumed by the sites in which it was situated, signaling “the ultimate absorption of ‘institutional critique’ by exactly the institutions of global marketing on which such ‘critique’ depends for its success and its support” (23).   
It is now possible to venture why opticality, for Flavin, was at best a provisional and at worst an impossible solution. For opticality was not unlike flatness in its function in the trajectory of Greenbergian modernism; as articulated by Fried, it was the next term along the lineage of abstraction and, as such, no less than flatness, was subject to the same inevitable assimilation. As a means to reinforce the division between art and the everyday, the isolation of vision would nevertheless constitute the sensorial equivalent to the objective fragmentation of the external world; as a boundary to be transgressed or dissolved, pure opticality would be succeeded only by ever-newer representational spaces of capitalism (24).

It would take Flavin nearly ten years and a foray into printmaking, the earliest results of which date from 1973, to understand the full implications of the renunciation of Judd and Greenberg alike (the dyad that had underpinned and still underpins the discourse around minimalism and post-minimalism). Although his etchings and drypoints initially depicted recent circular fluorescent works, Flavin subsequently combined the print medium with an unrelated subject matter culled from several graphite drawings from April 1974: an isolated sailboat, the single perpendicular mast of which bisects the horizon. In so doing, he would not only return to the issue – again through the sea – of the monochrome’s collapse of pictorial surface and physical support, but, through figuring a different conception of the monochrome – of the monochrome as self-differing – intimate a more permanent and radical solution to the problem of flatness than Greenberg and Fried’s “opticality.”

In transferring the issue of the monochrome into the medium of printmaking through the metaphor of the sea, Flavin effectively points out “the most additive condition of even the most monochrome of canvases, which, however objectified it might be, must nonetheless apply paint over its underlying support” (25). For not only is the processes of printmaking itself extremely layered – the application of hard ground over copper, of acid over hard ground, of ink squeegeed on and wiped away, and finally the running of the plate through the press, abutted to a sheet of wetted and blotted paper; further, as Emily Rauh notes in regard to Flavin’s 1974 “Sails” series, alluding to the difficulty (although not impossibility) of making subtractive corrections in etchings, “normal extraneous marks and even foul biting were atmospherically used by the artist. If additions could not create what the artist wished, a plate was destroyed, but never were erasures made” (26).

Flavin’s prints, then, foreground and multiply the double layer of the white weave of the sail and the white ground (through printmaking) as well as transform art into a purely additive process (through the interdiction of erasure). More, the idiosyncratic configuration of plate and page alike extend this to the actual format of exhibition and reception. With the former’s gently rounded corners and sextet of holes along the top (all deeply embossed into the heavy, fine-grained paper and modeled on a page from one of Flavin’s small six-ringed sketchpads), and the latter punctured with three actual holes, the prints declare their final destination to be a loose leaf binder, the stacked and interchangeable pages of which, as Rosalind Krauss has noted elsewhere, intimate precisely a kind of complex additive layering (27).

It is this version of the monochrome – which neither accepts the minimalist reading of the monochrome as obdurate object nor acquiesces to the modernist counter-term “opticality” – that informs Flavin’s fluorescent pieces after 1974. Of particular note is the change in format of Flavin’s trademark (near-)square 8 x 8 foot configurations.  Nestled in corners, these had previously been bilaterally symmetrical, with corresponding fixtures and colored tubes articulating the lateral edges, and with the edge where the walls intersect forming a vertical centerline.

If these older versions had functioned almost as devices to aid the viewer’s location of a 45-degree axis from the right-angled corner in which they are placed, the plan of which constituted an isosceles triangle, after Flavin’s foray into printmaking, this center line would be thrown into flux. Rather than fix the field of perception with symmetrical division – and in the process implicate both geometrical space and the diagrammatic anchor of drawing – works such as untitled (to Ellen aware, my surprise) (1975) manifest a subtle lateral displacement. Here, two inward-facing vertical eight-foot fixtures articulate the left edge of the near square while four inward-facing fixtures articulate the right one, an unevenness further reinforced by the use of different colored tubes on either side (blue and green). As a result, the piece refuses to coalesce into a single and singular unity. Not only is the centerline announced only to be put into continuous play, insofar as it constantly moves with the movement of the viewer (all of the corner pieces do this); furthermore, another center, engendered by the asymmetry, always solicits attention.  In this sense, Flavin’s asymmetry functions not unlike Newman’s asymmetrical “zips.” Yve-Alain Bois writes:

"[The] function of the zip is radically altered once it is not placed on the axis of symmetry of the canvas: it functions as a landmark that we are urged to fix, as a pole to which we could attach our gaze in the way in which Turner attached himself to the mast of a ship during a tempest.  But to fix it would mean to isolate it completely from the global field… and in doing so to lose the ground on which is based our perception as a whole, i.e., the spatial reference of our body.  Willing to become pure vision, we would lose what constitutes the total structuration of our vision" (28).

Recasting the layered complexity between the two terms of the monochrome – between pictorial field and physical support – as a similarly layered and equally complex one between the pictorial field and perceptual field, Flavin at once sidesteps Judd’s “specific object” and shifts the axis of Greenberg and Fried’s “opticality” from the vertically oriented plane that secured the disembodiment of vision and autonomy alike to “the horizontal vector that connects objects to subjects” (29). It is in this way that we should, finally, understand Flavin’s desire to produce “rapid comprehensions” in which the viewer “get[s] in and out of situations” (30) – the rapidity of which intimates the instantaneity of modernist opticality while the term “situations” simultaneously refers to minimalist objecthood. Negotiating with some finesse a conundrum apparent in one signal text about minimalism, Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” in which the modernist critic decries minimalist work as anthropomorphic (as surrogate figures) even as he describes modernist sculpture in the same terms (insofar as it depicts, if abstractly and residually, the figure) (31),  Flavin inserts the viewer into the picture as the figure who, although completing it, like the artist’s own absence from the Glaser interview, is never self-present or self-identical.


(1) Augmented by Glaser, retitled, and edited by Lucy Lippard, “Questions to Stella and Judd” was published in Artnews (September 1966).

(2) See Caroline Jones, Machine in the Studo: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996), 414 – 415.

(3) Clement Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism” (1962), Collected Essays vol. 4, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993), 131 – 132.  

(4) For an extended anaylsis of this shift, see Thierry de Duve, “The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas,” Kant After Duchamp (Cambridge: MIT, 1996).

(5) For an account of this, see Thierry de Duve, “The Archaeology of Pure Modernism,” Kant After Duchamp. De Duve takes the more generous – that is, theoretical and ideal – view.

(6) Quoted in Josepth Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” Art After Philosophy, ed. Gabriele Guercio (Cambridge: MIT, 1991), 17.

(7) Quoted in John Coplans, “An Interview with Don Judd – ‘I am interested in static visual art and hate imitation of movement’,” Artforum (June 1971): 47 – 49.

(8) For a slightly different reading of Judd's illusionism see Rosalind Krauss, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd” Artforum (May 1966).

(9) Joseph Kosuth would soon combine these positions, translating as he did Ad Reinhardt’s summa of Greenbergian modernism, “Art as Art,” into “Art as Idea” via Stella’s “What you see is what you see.” See Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962 - 1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1999): 113.

(10) Both Robert Smithson and Rosalind Krauss have pointed out the vestigial illusionism in Judd’s Specific Objects. See Smithson, “Donald Judd: 7 Sculptors" (1965) in The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University, 1979) and Krauss, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd.”

(11) See James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale Univeristy, 2001), 97.

(12) Quoted in Lucy Lippard, “Dan Flavin, Kaymar Gallery,” Artforum (May 1964): 54.

(13) Yve-Alain Bois, “Piet Mondrian, New York City,” Painting as Model (Cambridge: MIT, 1990), 172. The present essay is indebted to Bois’.

(14) Briefly and previously titled the diagonal of personal ecstasy (the diagonal of May 25, 1963), Flavin later again changed the title to the no less suggestive the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Robert Rosenblum) as a gesture to the influence of a course he took with the art historian that year on his work and, specifically, in regard to Rosenblum's comment that Flavin's lamps had “destroyed painting” for him, a comment appropriate in this context insofar as  painting first had to be destroyed to be re-invented. See Rosenblum, “Name in Lights: Robert Rosenblum on Dan Flavin,” Artforum (March 1997): 11 – 12.

(15) For a thorough examination of this in terms of Mondrian’s oeuvre, see Bois, “Piet Mondrian, New York City.”

(16) Clement Greenberg, “Moderrnist Painting” (1961) in Collected Essays vol. 4, 90.

(17) Dan Flavin, “some other comments. . . more pages from a spleenish journal,” Artforum (December 1967): 23.

(18) Quoted in Meyer, 105. Meyer adds: “the longer one looked, the more difficult the work was to perceive,” inevitably recalling Karl Kraus’ aphorism, “The more closely you look at a word the more distantly it looks back.”

(19) Craig Owens, “From Work to Frame, or, Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’,” Beyond Recognition (Berkeley: University of California, 1992), 122 – 139.

(20) Fredric Jameson, “Romance and Reification: Plot Construction and Ideological Closure in Joseph Conrad,” The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1981), 210.

(21) Owens specifically cites the work of Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, and Louise Lawler.

(22) Jameson, 213.

(23) Rosalind Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 33.  And elsewhere in the text: "[Site-specific installations] will have recourse to every material support one can imagine, from pictures to words to video to readymade objects to films. But every material support, including the site itself – wheter art magazine, dealer’s fair booth, or museum gallery – will now be leveled, reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenizing principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape and for which everything is transparent to the underlying market value for which it is a sign” (15).

(24) See Jameson, 231.

(25) Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”, 52.

(26) Emily S. Rauh, “Introduction to the recent graphic art of Dan Flavin,” exhibition catalogue to Dan Flavin: drawings, diagrams and prints 1972 - 1975 (Fort Worth: Fort Worth Art Museum, 1977), 15

(27) Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”, 52.

(28) Yve-Alain Bois, “Perceiving Newman,” Painting as Model, 203. For a reading of Flavin’s cross-shaped corner pieces in relation to Newman, see Michael Newman, “untitled (to Barbara Nüsse), 1971,” exhibition catalogue to Dan Flavin: The Architecture of Light (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1999), 42 – 44.

(29) See Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”, 29 – 30.

(30) Flavin, “some other comments,” 23.

(31) Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum (Summer 1967): 12 – 23. He is drawing from Judd’s “Specific Objects” (1965) reading of modernist sculpture, in particular the passage in which Judd recounts the effect of works of, say, Anthony Caro and David Smith: “A beam thrusts; a piece of iron follows a gesture; together they form a naturalistic and anthrompomorphic image.”