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Dan Flavin (1933-1996)
Beyond Boundaries: Avant-Garde Masterworks from a European Collection
Dan Flavin (1933-1996)

the diagonal of May 25, 1963

Dan Flavin (1933-1996)
the diagonal of May 25, 1963
pink fluorescent light
96 in. (244 cm.)
Executed in 1963. This work is number two from an edition of three and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.
Alain Tarica, Paris, acquired directly from the artist
Gift from the above to the present owner, circa 1970
M. Govan and T. Bell, Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights 1961-1996, New Haven, 2005, p. 219, no. 20 (diagram illustrated).
“Light & Shape, Enough for Everyone,” The New York Sun, vol. 122, no. 169, December 2006.
New York, Paula Cooper Gallery, Dan Flavin, October-December 2006 (another example exhibited).

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Alex Berggruen
Alex Berggruen

Lot Essay

The warm pink glow of Dan Flavin’s the diagonal of May 25, 1963 gently illuminates the space around it, and like all masterworks of Minimalism, it transforms ubiquitous, commercially available materials in an experience that heightens one's awareness of their immediate surroundings. As one of the earliest examples of what would become the artist’s signature motif, the pink diagonal of a streak of light achieved Flavin’s goal of transcendence without reference to traditional spiritual iconography. As the artist himself said of his work, "My icons do not raise up the blessed savior in elaborate cathedrals… they are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms" (D. Flavin quoted by J. Meyer, “The Minimal Unconscious,” October, Vol. 130 (Fall, 2009), p. 154). With the diagonal of May 25, 1963, he established that an unadulterated fluorescent bulb could stand alone as an object of formal interest. He discovered that the abundant luminosity of the lamp could only be revealed once this was staged as single entity. The eight-foot diagonal standard length and hue that could be arranged in a seemingly infinite number of combinations.

In 1963, a young Flavin quit his job as a security guard at the American Museum of Natural History, where he had been “cram[ming his] uniform pockets with notes for an electric light art” (D. Flavin, “‘ daylight or cool white.’ an autobiographical sketch, Artforum 4 (December 1965): 20-24, reprinted online, [Accessed August 4, 2017]). As the artist later explained in a lecture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School in December of 1964, “These notes began to find structural form in the fall. … My wife and I were elated at seeing light and paint together on the wall before us. Then, for the next three years, I was off at work on a series of electric light “icons.” Some previously sympathetic friends were alienated by such a simple deployment of electric light against painted square-faced construction. “You have lost your little magic,” I was warned. Yes, for something grander–a difficult work, blunt in bright repose” (Ibid.).

Prior to 1963, Flavin had been making assemblages (such as mira mira, 1963), from materials culled from the streets of New York, and expressive drawings in the style of his forbearers, the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School. The artist’s description of his electric light work as “icons” was directly related to a transcendent experience Flavin had had with Russian icon painting at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1962 that would change the course of his practice. As art historian Briony Fer wrote in Dan Flavin: New Light, “The brooding gold ground or scintillating silver encasement of the icon seemed to offer Flavin a way of thinking beyond mira mira to something closer to the intense, even hallucinatory aura of an icon painting. Flavin wanted to keep the aura without the mystical dimension or spiritual meaning. The gold and silver literally blank out the possibility of a contemplative gaze and displace attention onto the heightened intensity of the lights” (B. Fer, “Nocturama: Flavin’s Lights Diagrams” in Dan Flavin: New Light, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 35). The artist would return to his Brooklyn studio and begin work with florescent light.

May 25, 1963, the date indicated by the title of this work was the date of the first iteration of this motif, and consequently Flavin’s major breakthrough which led to a radical change in the course of his practice and of art history as a whole. Given the inspiration of the glowing gold leaf of Russian icon paintings, it is not surprising then that Flavin’s first fluorescent light work was gold. A range of colors, such as the pink of the present work, but also green and red, soon followed suit. As for the angle of the fluorescent light–forty-five degree–Flavin, wrote, “I put the lamp band in position forty-five degrees above the horizontal because that seemed to be a suitable situation of dynamic equilibrium but any other placement could have been just as engaging. ...The diagonal in its overt formal simplicity was only a dimensional or distended luminous line in a standard industrial device.” Flavin described the fluorescent light itself as, “The radiant tube and the shadow cast by its span seemed ironic enough to hold on alone. There was no need to compose this lamp in place; it implanted itself directly, dynamically, dramatically in my workroom wall–a buoyant and relentless gaseous image which, through brilliance, betrayed its physical presence into approximate invisibility.” The wall behind the light is just as important for the light itself, a canvas of sorts for the bold display of color, Flavin wrote of having “to start from that blank, almost featureless, square face which could become my standard yet variable emblem–the ‘icon’” (D. Flavin, ibid.).

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