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Electric icon: Joseph Masheck situates Dan Flavin's early icon works but gives the spotlight to more recent works by Stephen Antonakos.

The abstract sculptor Dan Flavin (1933-1996), one of the original Minimalists, is well known for his reliefs and installations consisting of fluorescent lamps emitting white or 'high colour' light. Some may have heard that early on he had made eight painted 'Icons,' shallow, square wood reliefs, painted in monochrome, with electrical lamps attached. I for one had no substantiated sense of what these were like, and hence, how or in what way they were religious or spiritual, if at all. Come to think of it, I had been told that Flavin studied for the priesthood, only to quit and turn from faith, but had even forgotten that. A handsome album produced in connection with an exhibition of these early works at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, in 2006-07, now has me thinking on them, their wider art-historical situation in a period of time that I remember, and speculating on related developments in that period which deserve historical recall. (1)

Fundamental to those developments was the establishment of abstract or non-objective art in postwar New York, including the final overthrow (British and Irish, please copy!) of the very idea of a 'picture' in painting. This deserves to be harped on because a proper icon, as the Orthodox have never tired of insisting, is anything but a picture in the usual Western sense. (2) So much New York abstract painting already stood closer to icon tradition than most painters other than Ad Reinhardt would have been prepared to acknowledge, when Constructivist-influenced Minimalism emerged as a deliberately inert mode of three-dimensional object-making: sculpture only by default, and art as immanent as possible. (3)

The Flavin works in question are eight monochrome wood reliefs from the early 1960s with, first incandescent, and then fluorescent, sockets and bulbs attached, the latter adumbrating the fluorescent tube installations--some times connotative, sometimes purely phenomenal--for which Flavin is regarded a central member of the American Minimal Art movement. Ignoring the present popular use of the term as a matter of fashion, Minimalism proper in the 1960s and '70s was a modality of mere object-making (hence mainly sculptural) disposing plain, mostly industrial materials in forms of bluntly anti-formalistic, self-evident simplicity, whether singular or repeated. (4) Minimal Art has a blunt neutrality of non-statement that would probably have accommodated Flavin's Icons more readily had their rather hobby-like attached lamps not introduced a Pop element; though in retrospect, once these changed from incandescent to fluorescent they pointed the way to Flavin's mature and scrupulous Minimalism, accommodating even vividly colored fluorescent bulbs in arrangements with frequent Constructivist allusions.


Because I was of a sufficiently younger generation than the Minimalists to resent their invasion, my coming to terms with their work in light of, especially Russian, Constructivist tradition, makes useful testimony now in respect to these early Flavins. Nothing would prove as important, for anything Russian-iconic, as Camilla Gray's The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922 (1962); but I myself remember being unable as yet to discern the deep difference between Suprematism and the Constructivist aesthetic which seemed still lively, if chilly, in George Rickey's Constructivism: Origins and Evolution (1967). In 1969, provoked by writings of the Minimalists featured in Studio International, I railed with youthful audacity in a letter to the editor, the genially brilliant Peter Townsend (1919-2006), against the 'up-tightness' of the emergent movement, and Dan Flavin for a too hearty self-presentation. My conversion to Minimalism came only gradually. Organizing an exhibition of Richard Serra drawings in 1974, I adduced in an essay, for one thing, early Jasper Johns, whose boxy early 'Target' paintings with wood flaps are indeed Pop-relevant to Flavin's Icons. But clearly, 38 years ago I myself still didn't understand the true disjunction between the Suprematisticonic and Constructivism, though by then I appreciated what Constructivism meant for Minimalism. Reviewing this now, I think Flavin's Icons are themselves critically confused between Suprematism and Constructivism: no wonder they can't seem to decide between being serious or a send-up.

Are these Icons, still tinged with Pop, to be taken as actual icons in any religious sense? Some of the titles hold open the possibility by speaking noncommittally of blessing or mystery, even icon III (blood) (the blood of a martyr), 1962. Taken together, however, they seem to range between serious personal and social memorializiation, as of a departed brother and the victim of a lynching, and mere tease, especially when Flavin's several years in a junior seminary is invoked with his subsequent turn against religion withheld until the abandoned commitment has its publicity effect, even in expired form. Even with serious dedications the pieces have such a crafty American grin, tinged with the folksy farfetchedness as DIY contraptions, that they constitute curious (indecisive?) way-stations to the classic fluorescent-lamp bars of colour-light disposed directly on the wall as bold and direct 'industrial' devices. On some level this major abstract artist wanted to invoke the icon concept, which Thierolf and Vogt appreciate, if only to sustain the usual yes-but-no duplicity of touting art as titillatingly religious only to reassure presumably irreligious art folk not to worry, it's really no such thing. More problematic than that, however, especially for readers of Art and Christianity, would be Thierolf and Vogt's identification of 'religiousness' (religiosity) with 'a conservative way of life'. Leaving such interpretation to its own devices, I want to respond by placing these works in a broader art-historical context than Thierolf and Vogt do, now that they have given us a good look at them as icons of some sort.


In cultural retrospect, it is disappointing that though the Flavin Icons were made during Vatican II, which conservatives still accuse of being all too immanentist in thrust, Flavin might conceivably have produced some appropriate new mode of post-Conciliar religious icon, had he not jumped ship. Certainly he could have helped to overcome the incorrigible pictorialism of so much Catholic church art, well meaning calls to modernity notwithstanding. As the new theology was unfolding even in the popular press, it should have been interesting, had he made the intellectual effort (though he has always seemed to me a lazy artist), to see religious potentiality, of course not sentimentally 'spiritual', in something like the very immanentist sense which did make his brother Minimalists Carl Andre and Don Judd look downright plain-Jane Yankee Protestant alongside such other practitioners as Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris and Tony Smith. Well, if Flavin's Icons don't really count as religious art of that particular period, they are not sui generis either; and it is interesting to consider their relationships to other contemporary art.

Significantly, when the architect Robert Venturi appeared on the scene, seeming, I remember, to straddle the cheerfully lowbrow insouciance of Pop and the brainy, unapologetically industrial look of Minimalism, he produced a directly Vatican II-inspired church installation, one even technically related to Flavin, which offended its congregation (probably as culturally patronizing) and was removed. At the time, exposed bulbs and neon or fluorescent light fell under a taboo as categorically tasteless, hence out of the question in decent religious circumstances. That was sufficient reason for Venturi & Rauch's 1968 postmodernization of the Neo-Byzantine interior of St Francis de Sales Church, in Philadelphia, with a--one might have thought rather understated--suspended white cathode light curving into, around, and out of the sanctuary, to be rejected and dismantled. Well after Flavin had abandoned naked incandescent light bulbs in old-school porcelain sockets, a young artist picked up on just such elements and connected them in rectilinear arrays of live wires, defining and subdividing open spaces: David Knoebel (b. 1949) has since given up sculpture for poetry, but in 1978 he produced one such installation in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York. Today, of course, we can think of Tracey Emin's ACE-award-winning neon artist's script (following art-historically in the line of Bruce Nauman's spiraling The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967) in Liverpool Cathedral: For you, 2008.

Given his ever applauded irreligion, we might not want to declare Flavin's Icons the art-historical source of all this. But ironically his very possibly last realized project (executed posthumously in 1997) was a complete neon 'colourization'--yellow apse, green and blue nave, red transept--of the theretofore plain interior of a 1936 Catholic church, S Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, Milan, projected in response to a 1996 request from Fr Giulo Greco, the pastor.

Nevertheless, to take Flavin, thanks to his questionably serious early Icons, as alpha and omega of even electrified and colorized iconic abstraction, would lock out an already overlooked, faithful Greek Orthodox older contemporary of Flavin and friend of mine, a maker of decidedly icon-informed square relief paintings with built-in neon who has just died. Although I've never written on his work until now, I came to know Stephen Antonakos (1926-2013) in the late 1970s while actively pursuing, for a practical reason, the theological aesthetics of the icon in relation to abstract art. For on assuming the editorship of Artforum I had settled on a plan to introduce newer artists alongside 'names' by pursuing my own thinking on iconic materiality/ideality, especially in the line of Malevich, in light of their works. The relevant omnibus articles are 'Cruciformality' (Summer 1977), 'Hard-core painting' (April 1978), 'Iconicity' (January 1979), and 'Nothing / Not Nothing / Something,' (November 1979). (5) If Antonakos's work--nor Flavin's 'Icons', for that matter--never figured in these investigations it was because I was out to defend oil-on-canvas in a diehard Malevichian way as anything but counterrevolutionary. Now that capitalism is said to have 'won', and the once dependable morale-building of religion becomes an inconvenient critical obstacle to the universal sovereignty of money, that is no doubt harder to imagine; but there it was in the late '70s, as some of us, including Stephen, if not Dan Flavin, seriously pondered the pertinence of icon-painting to contemporary abstraction. Antonakos always understood the sempiternal significance of the icon (he was also a friend of the Jesuit Byzantinist Thomas F Mathews). He seems all the more conspicuously missing now for having been seven years older than Flavin yet still active, it seemed, until just the other day, making his boxy square abstract relief icons of sorts, and even designing and building chapels.


My Greek-American friend, a New Yorker since childhood, first worked with neon in 1960; and from 1974 onwards, when he did a 'Neon' for the exterior of the Fort Worth Art Museum, producing such pieces in the US, Europe and Japan. But it is Antonakos's square monochrome reliefs, similar to Flavin's in size, with neon light leaching out from underneath, which compare with Flavin's Icons. Examples include Transfiguration, 1989, on gilt panel; Saint Anthony, 1996, white-painted wood; Lift Up (its title suggestive of the Sursum Corda), 2005; and a particularly Suprematistic relief Archangels Michael and Gabriel, 2012, of gold and aluminium leaf on Versacel with neon. (6) In 2001 I facilitated a mounting of the second of these, measuring 36 x 36 x 7 inches, as Saint Anthony: An Installation for the Easter Season, at my own Roman Catholic parish church, Corpus Christi, in Manhattan, where from a shadowy neo-Georgian niche Antonakos's levitating abstract icon smartly shot its neon colours around its silhouetted square--like the iconic square halo of a holy figure shown as still living an earthly life.

Joseph Masheck's latest book is Adolf Loos: The Art of Architcture (IB Tauris, 2013)


(1.) Corinna Thierolf and Johannes Vogt, Dan Flavin: Icons, trans. Jeremy Gaines (Munich: Schirmer / Mosel, 2009). The text is poorly edited. In 22 two-columned pages (plus substantial notes) there are several puns, 'strips of paint' instead of 'stripes', etc. Also, a small but non-trivial point: the authors base some dates on leaves from what they call a 'ring-bound pad that [Flavin] always took with him'; but these pages come from a small loose-leaf notebook, so that their variable sequence can hardly be a basis for dating.

(2.) Thierolf and Vogt credit a principle of 'leav[ing] the picture behind' to the art historian Laszlo Glozer (b. 1936) as of A.D. 1981. Rather outrageously, this is despite the New York School's relentless critical hostility to the term 'picture', notably on the parts of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. A Minimalist remark by Flavin is quoted, 'My icons do not raise up the blessed Saviour in elaborate cathedrals', without realizing this is a likely allusion to a famous statement in Newman's text 'The Sublime Is Now' (1948): 'Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or "life," we are making it (sic) out of ourselves, out of our own feelings'. But the fundamental distinction between (false) 'picture' and (true) 'painting' was so solidly established in New York art before the 1960s that even the Pop artists were anti-pictorial, i.e., decidedly not describing objects as if coexisting in a common illusionistic space.

(3.) The Russian icon was entertained in conjunction with Russian modernism in the Constructivist Naum Gabo's Mellon lectures, published as Of Divers Arts (1962), which everybody had but it seemed nobody knew what to make of.

(4.) The architect John Pawson, a proponent of elegant simplicity, may be more responsible than anybody else for the currently fashionable misconstrual; but no orthodox Minimal Art is elegant because elegance is at odds with Minimalist bluntness. When Wikipedia concedes 'Minimalism is any design or style wherein the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect', it quite throws the meaning away, because anything 'less is more' too transcendentally contradicts the immanently what-you-see-is-what-you-get of Minimalism proper. On the origins and meaning of Minimalism see Joseph Masheck Adolf Loos; The Art of Architecture (London: Tauris, 2013), ch. 9.

(5.) All reprinted, unfortunately without illustrations, in Masheck, Historical Present: Essays of the 1970s (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984). The last article takes note of Thomas Aquinas's amazingly Constructivist-friendly notion 'that in God there is no composition' ('Iconicity', in Historical Present, 209-28, esp. p. 217), while 'Iconicity' speculates on Orthodox icon rhetoric possibly surviving the first Soviet generation and beyond. Thus in a state-published book of 1936 which today would give cynical unchurched capitalists a good anti-'utopic' laugh there still reverberates something of the promised Kingdom of Justice where the figures of Kuzma PetrovVodkin (1878-1939) are said to offer 'a tendency to monumentalism, decorativeness, and stylization [read abstraction] which strengthens his art as a reflection of future life'; and in what would prove to be late Soviet art a certain cross motif stage design by Lev Nusberg (b. 1937) is pointed up: 'Nusberg seems aware of iconicity, in at least ... generalized constructivist form', citing a critical statement on the emphatic axial symmetry of his design for 'heightening 'the ornamental character of the work, as being symbolic of man's relation to infinity' qu. Willy Rotzler, Constructive Concepts: A History of Constructive Art from Cubism to the Present, (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), with illus.

(6.) Ironically, such works may have run into a taste problem, no doubt less for being too mundane for a church, as Venturi had in 1968, than as closer to Pawson's hyper-elegance today.
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Author:Masheck, Joseph
Publication:Art and Christianity
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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