(to Frank Lloyd Wright who advised Boston’s “city fathers” to have a dozen good funerals as urban renewal)
“. . . we might, if, like the things outside us we let the great storm over-ride us, grow spacious and anonymous.”—Maria Rainer Rilke
“It looks like painting is finished.”—Don Judd
“Dan Flavin has destroyed electric lights for me. I’m going back to candles.”—Tom Doyle
My name is Dan Flavin. I am thirty-two years old, overweight and underprivileged, a Caucasian in a Negro year.
I was born (screaming) a fraternal twin twenty-four minutes before my brother, David, in Mary Immaculate Hospital, Jamaica, New York, at about seven in the morning on a wet Saturday, April Fool’s Day, 1933, of an ascetic, remotely male, Irish Catholic truant officer whose junior I am, and a stupid, fleshly tyrant of a woman who had descended from Bavarian royalty without a trace of nobility.
Early, I was the victim of a substitute mother, an English “nanny,” fraught with punctilious schedules, who tried to toilet-train me at two weeks of age. When she failed or I failed, she slapped me.
Before I was seven, I attempted to run away from home but was apprehended by a fear of the unknown just two blocks from our house.
I started drawing by myself as a small boy. (My mother told me that I had made a vivid, if na´ve, record of hurricane damage on Long Island in 1938).
“Uncle Artie” Schnabel, the vice-president of my father’s East River boat club, became my first instructor in art. He was a portly, ebullient, red-faced old World War veteran, whose battered left leg bore a brace and pained him gravely when it was about to rain. Also, he had been gassed. I saw his Purple Heart.
On a certain sunny Sunday afternoon, dockside on the river, he set aside a stein of beer, adjusted his glasses, and showed me how to put down pencil water around a ship by lightly dappling just some of the surrounding space with the tiniest of half moons. His cosmic touch on space is in my drawings even now.
Soon religion was pressed upon me to nullify whatever childish optimism I may have had left. Rank suppression at seven in the name of God the Father or any other of the heavenly host did not deter me from devising fantasies in secret. I heard the altar boys’ whispered responses in strange Latin as the beautiful soprano of angels concealed behind the high altar.
In time, I grew curiously fond of the solemn high funeral mass which was so consummately rich in incense, music, chant, vestments, processionals and candlelight. Besides that, I got fifteen cents a corpse serving as an acolyte.
I also dwelled in serious fantasies of war—digging in with lead soldiers under the Japanese yews in my father’s rock garden, and changing pencil sketches of World War devastation as it progressed, these depictions mutually drawn with an older friend, who, as an aerial gunner, was killed over Guam in the next real war.
Before I was ten, I had filled a corrugated paper carton with hundreds of pencil and pen-and-ink drawings after the “Horrors of War” pictured cards of Gum, Incorporated, and sundry other war-time illustrations.
In parochial school, I was compelled to become a good student, a model child. The sisters diverted me from some of my war-torn tendencies and trained my hand in the peaceful uses of watercolor, but they did not permit much freedom for thought about what was to be drawn and washed.
My class work—dutifully done drawings and watercolors on prescribed themes—was preserved in folders by the nuns as good example for the students of following years until, when in 8A, I defied one of the good sisters by putting two handles on a vase of flowers instead of one as she demanded. I remember that that black lady called me a heretic or at least a sinner, but one look at my plump innocence checked her incipient anger and restored her to modest nunliness.
At fourteen, my father committed my brother and me to a junior seminary in Brooklyn so that we might doubly fulfill his own lost vocation. No one had asked me if I wanted to go there, but that hardly mattered, since I had not been permitted to contemplate much else since birth.
I continued drawing privately in class, in the margins of my textbooks. Now there were battered profiles of boxers with broken noses and Dido’s pyre on a wall in Carthage, its passionate smoke piercing “pious” Aeneas’ faithless heart outbound in the harbor below.
Young Father Fogarty, my Second Year Latin professor, was unimpressed with my talent, especially as it continually evolved in his class against his daily lesson plan. He often censured, even ridiculed, me. I acquired a certain personal power with him though. When he chastened me, he blushed redder than I did.
My grades worsened so badly by my senior year that I had to flee the seminary for the terrible profanity of life outside its Gothic walls which, in large measure, I had never experienced. At eighteen, I turned toward art.