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Journey into Light:
Dan Flavin's Sober Icons

Seven years ago, the exhibition Dan Flavin: Architecture of Light illuminated the Deutsche Guggenheim. The show presented key works by the American Minimalist from the collection of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York. Now, the biggest retrospective to date of the artist, who died in 1996, can be seen at the Pinakothek in Munich. Achim Drucks paid a visit.

"Dan Flavin: Architecture of light",
exhibition view Deutsche Guggenheim 1999,
Photo: Mathias Schorman, Courtesy Deutsche Guggenheim

The four light bulbs are blinking somewhat garishly from the four corners of the yellow-painted wooden box. Their flicker evokes associations of street fair booths or neon signs blinking outside the seedy bars of old Technicolor films. In any case, this object does not seem like an icon at first glance. Yet it actually is an icon – to be more precise, Dan Flavin's icon VIII (the dead niggers icon) (to Blind Lemon Jefferson), made in 1963. "dead nigger" – that sounds pretty bitter.

icon VIII (the dead niggers icon)
(to Blind Lemon Jefferson), 1963, Private Collection,
Photo: Bill Jacobson. Courtesy Dia Art Foundaion

And indeed, Flavin's reduced construction isn't only a distilled homage to Blind Lemon Jefferson, the black singer and guitarist of the '20s, but also to the feeling of the Blues and the racism of the American South. Jefferson's emotional singing often filled Flavin's studio in New York as he worked on his icons. In 1929, the musician died in destitution under circumstances that were never fully resolved. What's left is the sound of the word "lemon", Flavin's sober, lemon-yellow box with flattened corners, and the naked light bulbs that could also be right out of a Vaudeville theater.

Dan Flavin at the Dwan Gallery, New York, 1967,
Courtesy Stephen Flavin

"They are dumb – anonymous and inglorious. They're as mute and undistinguished as the run of our architecture", as Flavin wrote about his objects in 1962. "My icons do not raise up the blessed savior in elaborate cathedrals, they are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light." To visitors experiencing the complete series of these wall objects for the first time in the magnificent Dan Flavin retrospective at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Flavin's remarks might indeed seem like an understatement. Because it's precisely in their reduction and factuality that the American artist's works convey a surprisingly sublime feeling.

icon VII (via crucis), 19664, Dia Art Foundation,
Photo: Bill Jacobson, Courtesy Dia Art Foundation

The light shines pure and white from the fluorescent tubes that Flavin attached to the top of a box covered in white Formica – another secular icon titled the pure land that he dedicated to his twin brother, David John Flavin. David died of polio while Dan was working on this piece. The pure land is without emotion, a square box reminiscent of Malevich's White Square on a White Ground from 1919 – an "unframed icon" of the Russian avant-garde and trademark of the Modernist revolution. White is the Buddhist color for grief, the pure land a station along the spiritual journey to Nirvana. White as freshly fallen snow, the icon for Flavin's dead twin is also as banal as something from a hardware store.

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