For disciples of the artist Dan Flavin, May 25, 1963, is a momentous date. That day, Flavin took a yellow fluorescent light tube and affixed it to the wall at a 45-degree angle to the floor, making a golden slash that was the first of his signature light-bar sculptures. Titled the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi), it’s generally considered his breakthrough work.
Already, however, Flavin had been experimenting with electric light in a series called the “icons”—modestly sized, illuminated wall reliefs, made between 1961 and 1964. There are eight icons in all, boxy, Judd-esque wall constructions of painted wood and Masonite rigged with common incandenscent and fluorescent bulbs. (Flavin’s wife at the time, Sonja, did the electrical wiring.)
The icons are dispersed throughout various public and private collections, including the Dia Art Foundation, the Judd Foundation (Donald Judd was one of the artist's closest friends), and the National Gallery of Canada, but since April five of the eight have been on view at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, a former firehouse and Baptist church renovated under Flavin’s direction in the early 1980s and housing a permanent installation of his fluorescent light-tube sculptures. The icons, shown in an intimate ground-floor gallery (through April 30, 2017), make for a revealing prequel to the larger installation upstairs. They also whet the appetite for a fall exhibition of Flavin’s mid-1960s “corners, barriers and corridors,” at David Zwirner in Chelsea (opening September 10).
The “icons” were inspired, in part, by the small “icon paintings” associated with the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches. (Flavin—who had trained as a priest before going into the air force and then turning to art—had a well-documented obsession with Russian art and later dedicated a group of fluorescent light “monuments” to the Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, who had trained as an icon painter.) In his “icons,” Flavin used the red, yellow, and black palette of traditional icon paintings, and tried to approximate the luminosity of their metallic gold backgrounds with electric lighting.
He wanted to update the icon, to adapt it to contemporary architecture and Minimal and Conceptual art while retaining its spiritual intensity. In a note from 1962, reminiscing on an icon from Novogrod he had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he wrote: “My icons differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty; they are dumb—anonymous and inglorious. They are as mute and distinguished as the run of our architecture. My icons do not raise up the blessed savior in elaborate cathedrals. They are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.”
Even so, they have a devotional quality—something that’s very much apparent in this former church setting, and is everywhere explicit in the works’ titles. Flavin dedicated individual “icons” to friends, a teacher, a 1920s bluesman, an anonymous martyr, Jesus, and (most poignantly) his twin brother, who died of polio while the series was underway.
Each one has its own personality. Icon V (Coran’s Broadway Flesh), named for Flavin’s acquaintance Stanley Coran, captures the gaudiness of a theater-district marquee with its pinkish-red square and fringe of clear “candle” bulbs (the type found in chandeliers). Icon VII (via crucis), a black box with an angled corner highlighted by a white fluorescent bulb, makes reference to the path Christ followed as he carried the cross and is suitably somber and stark.
The most complex, and affecting, of the icons at Dia is icon VIII (1962-3), which combines structural elements from icon VII and icon V. Flavin dedicated this work to the 1920s blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson, and gave it a loaded title; the musician is identified by name and also with a racial slur, apparently intended as a comment on the dismissive treatment of groundbreaking black musicians and on other forms of lingering prejudice in these pivotal years of the Civil Rights movement. The piece itself is dignified and contemplative; small red lights affixed to the beveled corners of a bright yellow box flash in sequence, evoking jeweled Byzantine metalwork.
At once sacred and profane, ornamented and stripped-down, Flavin’s icons look and feel transitional. Their light, as he wrote, was “limited.” But it led him to see the light bulb itself as a medium, and to go on to make the fluorescent cathedrals in which art lovers worship today.