Dan Flavin - Edition Schellmann: Fifty Are Better Than One London Thursday, June 6, 2019 | Phillips
  • Literature

    Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell, Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights 1961-1996, New York, 2004, p. 399 (cat no. 643)
    Jörg Schellmann, ed., Forty Are Better Than One, Munich/New York, 2009, pp. 100-101

  • Catalogue Essay

    “While walking floors as a guard in the American Museum of Natural History, I crammed my uniform pockets with notes for an electric light art. ‘Flavin, we don’t pay you to be an artist,’ warned the custodian in charge. I agreed and quit him.”
    -Dan Flavin, 1965

    In the late spring of 1963, Dan Flavin took a standard 8ft-long yellow fluorescent lighting unit and fixed it to the wall of his studio at a 45-degree angle, with the lowest corner of the unit’s housing just touching the floor. It was not the first time the artist had worked with light fittings, having previously attached short strip lights and small incandescent bulbs (some flashing) to simple, painted, boxy structures. These icons, as he called them, were intended as memorials, with their tragic pathos tempered by the comic and ironic kitsch quality of an electrified Catholic shrine. Each one was beautifully and laboriously crafted, whereas mounting the fluorescent strip light to the wall took almost no time or effort at all. Describing the work in his 1965 'autobiographical sketch', Flavin recalled that “it seemed to sustain itself directly, dynamically, dramatically on my workroom wall – a buoyant and insistent gaseous image which, through brilliance, somewhat betrayed its physical presence into approximate invisibility.” The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy, as this work became known, was an epiphany for Flavin – a single, simple gesture that launched the rest of his artistic career.

    For the following thirty-three years of his life, Flavin worked solely within a rigorously simplistic set of criteria. His pieces were created strictly from standard, mass-produced fluorescent light fittings that could be purchased from any hardware store, and he limited himself to the palette of ten commercially available colours (four types of white, pink, yellow, blue, green, red, and filtered ultra-violet) in standard 4ft, 6ft, and 8ft lengths. Despite the constraints of his choice in materials, Flavin quickly discovered that his medium was infinitely variable and by the late 1960's, Flavin had come to master the numerous subtle, and not-so-subtle possibilities of constructing arrangements and environments in fluorescent light.

    Dedicated to the nurse who cared for Dan Flavin during a period of illness in the early 1990's, the present lot, Untitled (to Mary Elizabeth), 1992, exemplifies and distils the artist’s nuanced approach to colour. Throughout his career, Flavin experimented with the chromatic and perceptual possibilities afforded by the four commercially available variations of 'white' fluorescent light: cool white, daylight, warm white, and soft white. Here, he uses daylight on the outer fixtures, with two protruding arms bracketing the hazy glow of the inner warm white light. The hypnotic central bar appears like the core of a shimmering sun, the edges burning into pure white that disperses gently across the wall.

    Flavin’s chosen whites remain disparate, separated by their metal housings, which allow the subtle differentiation from pale amber to pale blue to seep into the gaps between the bulbs and spill over to the space in which the work inhabits. The resulting effect of elegant tranquillity, elevates the prosaic nature of the fluorescent bulbs – long familiar from numberless ordinary bathrooms and institutional corridors – to that of the elegiac. After decades of refinement, Flavin's 'situations' (as he preferred to call his works) transmute the impetus of his early icons from tangible memorial, to pictorial space that is felt as much as it is seen. As with the present lot, the artist offers us an experience that is as all-encompassing as it is transformative.

  • Artist Biography

    Dan Flavin

    American • 1933 - 1996

    Dan Flavin employed commercially-sold fluorescent light tubes in order to produce what he liked to call "situations" or installations. His minimalist approach transcended simplicity through his use of neon colors and thoughtful compositions. With straight-edged light beams, Flavin would often create dynamic arrangements reminiscent of Fred Sandback's work with yarn.

    View More Works


Untitled (to Mary Elizabeth)

Daylight and warm white fluorescent light.
21 x 122 x 61 cm (8 1/4 x 48 x 24 in.)
Signed in black ink and numbered '1 of 5' (printed) on the accompanying Certificate of Authenticity (only 3 examples were fabricated), published by Edition Schellmann, Munich and New York.

£100,000 - 120,000 

Sold for £125,000

Contact Specialist

Anne Schneider-Wilson

Head of Sale, Senior Specialist 
+44 207 4042

Edition Schellmann: Fifty Are Better Than One

London Auction 6 June 2019