The moment Dan Flavin radically set a lone fluorescent light on a 45-degree diagonal against the wall marked the pioneering dawn of Minimalism, a movement whose austere, profoundly rational aesthetic philosophy would transform the next half-century of art-making. Experiencing the “ecstasy” of artistic breakthrough, from that point forward Flavin would exclusively explore the luminous clarity emanating from this industrial readymade. The artist’s Alternate Diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd) is one of his earliest formative fluorescent works, a version of which was included in the seminal first solo exhibition of Flavin’s neons at the Green Gallery in New York in 1964. At an impressive twelve feet in length, it remains one of the largest diagonal neon installations Flavin ever produced, second only to the site-specific work commissioned by Dominique de Menil for Richmond Hall in 1996. While Flavin has garnered comparable renown for his vertical and horizontal compositions, the 45-degree diagonal configuration is the form solely responsible for launching his eponymous artistic style. As noted by Michael Govan, “As Flavin describes it, most of the terms of his new practice were inherent in the glowing diagonal lamp: its luminosity, its lack of handiwork, and its potentially variable placement and continuous linear repetition.” (Michael Govan in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art (and travelling), Dan Flavin: A Retrospective, 2005, p. 33)
One of the original mature articulations of Flavin’s archetypal artistic language, Alternate Diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd) arranges four commercial neon tubes together against the wall, so that the three tubes side-by-side at the base of the configuration echo the serial progression of Judd’s celebrated “Stacks”. The artist used only commercial, readily available fluorescent lights which come with limited formats, a finite palette and a pre-determined parameter of brightness; the artist’s hand is erased, and yet the sculpture is nevertheless charged with Flavin’s sweeping creativity and reductive thoughtfulness. In 1965, Flavin wrote, “The ‘diagonal’ in its overt formal simplicity was only the installation of a dimensional or distended luminous line of a standard industrial device. Little artistic craft could be possible… The ‘diagonal’, in the possible extent of its dissemination as common strip of light or a shimmering slice across anybody’s wall, had the potential for becoming a modern technological fetish.” (Dan Flavin, “…in daylight or cool white,” Artforum, December 1965) Appropriating the bulbs whose mass industrial production served to illuminate the conduits of advertising that Pop artists were already probing to the fullest extent, and with only a few circumscribed variations of color, arrangement and size, Flavin rendered light in its purest form—at once metaphysical and concrete. In its majestic command of the wall, the present work demonstrates Flavin’s exceptionally acute sensitivity to arrangement and context, emblematic of his interest in how works occupy three-dimensional space within a particular environment.
At the heart of the work’s exterior cool is an elegiac monument to the relationship between two friends who together quietly sparked a revolution. Dan Flavin and Donald Judd inspired each other’s shared aesthetic interest in mining industrial materials for their inherently sensitive expressions of light and space, yet each retained wholly individual approaches that are both iconic in their own right. Judd intrinsically understood Flavin best when he said, “Three main aspects of Flavin’s work are the fluorescent tubes as the source of light, the light diffused throughout the surrounding space or cast upon nearby surfaces, and the arrangement together or placement upon surfaces of the fixtures and tubes. The lit tubes are intense and very definite. They are very much a particular visible state, a phenomenon. The singleness of isolation of phenomena is new to art and highly interesting.” (Donald Judd quoted in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Op. Cit., p. 72) As Michael Govan remarked, for Judd—a man who valued concise minimal expression as much in his work as in his speech—this was the highest of accolades. Both artists sought to avoid metaphorical interpretations of their work as icons of a divine, transcendent spirit, instead conceptualizing their formal achievements in terms of rational, earthly and matter-of-fact phenomena.
Accentuating its overwhelming historical significance, another edition of the present work is held in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, while various permutations bearing the identical size and title but varying in fluorescent hues belong to the Dallas Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Flavin’s very first diagonal—a single yellow bulb from 1963 that is the only diagonal composition to precede Alternate Diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd) —paid tribute to Constantin Brancusi, whose totemic columns mirror Flavin’s own sculptures in their formal simplicity and apparent capacity for limitless distention. Embodying the surging skyward potentiality of a Brancusi, while emitting light from its inner core similar to Mark Rothko’s color-fields or Barnett Newman’s “zip”, the present work is a paragon of Flavin’s oeuvre, which quaked the foundations of art history and illuminated a new trajectory for its future.
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