F
is for
Dan Flavin

In May 1996, Don Giulio Greco of the Santa Maria Annunciata Church in Chiesa Rossa, Milan, wrote to the American artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996), whose work he had recently seen at the home of Count Giuseppe Panza in Varese. The neo-Roman style church, designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio in the 1930s, had been recently renovated, but the priest felt it still lacked a “ray of light”, “a beacon of hope” for the run-down neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, troubled by poverty and ethnic tensions. He felt that there was an “exceptional spirituality” in Flavin’s work, so he made the decision to reach out, writing “I’d be delighted if someone like you could help us to find an ambiance in our church. By ‘ambiance,’ I mean a living space, a place inhabited by the Word.” Flavin appreciated the passion of Greco’s letter, and sent his studio assistant to take photos and measure the space, as he himself was too sick with diabetes to travel. Indeed, he signed off on the final specs for the project from his Long Island hospital bed in November 1996, only two days before he died. The work was finally realised a year later by the Fondazione Prada in collaboration with the Dia Center for the Arts and the Dan Flavin Estate.

The site-specific installation, which remains in place to this day, is a transcendent one. Flavin’s signature fluorescent lights provide the only illumination inside the church and permeate the entire space, transforming the plainness of the church’s austere architecture into coloured pools of light, which spill from the church’s arched windows onto the street. Upon entering you are at once bathed in an otherworldly, vibrant blue, as if you have stepped into an Yves Klein painting.  The nave’s vaulted ceiling is illuminated in a bright turquoise, like a tropical ocean. As you proceed down the aisle towards the transept, the light becomes purplish, then pink, before ending in the golden yellow glow of the apse, in a chromatic progression meant to invoke the progression of light from night through dawn to daylight. Once you step back onto the street, the effect of the strong blue light is such that everything you see is tinged with the same peachy pink as the sunrise.

As Michael Govan once wrote, “it is no subtle irony that Flavin’s career of light art began with ‘icons’ and ended with a design for the interior of a church, when the artist never allowed symbolic or spiritual interpretation of his work.” It is true that Flavin, who once trained for the priesthood, rejected an association with the spiritual in his work, and while he had placed his works in religious buildings before, they had always been deconsecrated ones. “My icons,” he wrote, “do not raise up the Blessed Saviour in elaborate cathedrals, they are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.” The artworks for which he is most known uphold the rational simplicity of what his friend the artist Donald Judd called “the specific object.” His art, he famously maintained, “is what it is and it ain’t nothing else”. And yet this, his last installation, certainly brings a quiet sense of metaphysical contemplation to Flavin’s otherwise minimalist work.

— Natasha Rosenblatt

 

Detail from Dan Flavin’s light installation at Santa Maria Annunciata Church in Chiesa Rossa, Milan, 1997.