Public Art

Untitled (for Conor Cruise O’Brien) 5c , 1990

Dan Flavin
An installation by Dan Flavin consists of parallel LED light beams.

Dan Flavin, Untitled (for Conor Cruise O’Brien) 5c, 1990, Gift of Dorothy and Roy Lavine, Photo by Chuck Mayer Photography.

Ashdown House (Building NW35), Stairwell Lobby
Dan Flavin
Green, red, blue and yellow fluorescent light construction
96 x 15 x 24 in. (243.84 x 38.1 x 60.96 cm)

Gift of Dorothy and Roy Lavine

Minimalist art, which emerged in the 1960s, is often characterized by what it physically lacks. Stark geometric forms, uniform planes of color, and industrial or commercially fabricated materials indicated artists’ rejection of emotion and subjectivity in art.

Dan Flavin’s embrace of common fluorescent lighting fixtures as the building blocks for his expansive body of work made him one of the most important Minimalist artists as he explored human perception and spatial relationships through formal uses of a mass-produced material. His pieces were composed from a small selection of basic forms: two-, four-, six-, and eight-foot straight fluorescent tubes, and, in unusual works from the 1970s and 1980s, fluorescent circles. His palette was a restricted set of ten colors: red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultraviolet, and four different whites. By juxtaposing these forms and colors in different combinations, with an increasing attention to the surrounding architecture, Flavin created perceptually stimulating sculptures and installations in which light itself is the medium, bouncing and blending on the walls. 

Untitled (for Conor Cruise O’Brien) 5c demonstrates Flavin’s sculptural understanding of light. The work consists of fluorescent tubes installed flush to the wall at a forty-five degree angle to the floor; one eight-foot green tube forms its primary axis. Parallel to this longest tube are three four-foot green tubes, angling up from the floor, and one four-foot red tube, aligned to the upper side of the long tube. Toward the middle of the piece, four shorter two-foot yellow and blue tubes protrude from the wall, supported by the end points of the four-foot tubes. The red tube connects to a short yellow light while the green tubes connect to short blue lights. Depending on the angle from which the viewer approaches the work, its overall cast may seem to differ. As indicated by its title, Untitled (for Conor Cruise O’Brien) 5c was one of several sculptures Flavin dedicated to the controversial Irish writer, politician, and polemicist Conor Cruise O’Brien; others include tubes of different lengths, but all are installed at a diagonal to the floor with short protruding tubes roughly halfway up the composition. While the work may primarily invite geometric or optical observations, its title, proportions, and protrusions at hip height suggest a human body, one that is either reclining or rising, which also points to a possible spiritual reading of this cross-like form (Flavin attended a seminary in his teens, which likely impacted his visual vocabulary). These connotations are reinforced by the work’s installation at MIT, next to a staircase in Ashdown House, where people are regularly ascending or descending within the space.

Dan Flavin (1933–1996) was born in Jamaica, New York. After attending seminary in Brooklyn, New York, he served in the military and studied art through a University of Maryland Extension Program in Korea during the mid-1950s. After returning to the United States, he took art history courses at the New School for Social Research and Columbia University. In the summer of 1961, while working as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Flavin began sketches for sculptures incorporating electric lights. After 1963, he exclusively used commercially produced fluorescent light tubes and fixtures in his sculptures, and by the late 1960s, he was creating room-size installations of light. Among his most important exhibitions was his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1992, for which he lit the entire rotunda and constructed a central column of pink lights extending from the floor to the skylights. 

*Note - this artwork is only accessible to the public by guided tour only. 


Listen: Caroline Jones on Dan Flavin