The Morgan Library’s current showing of Dan Flavin brings another aspect of the artist’s practice out of the shadows.
This articles orginally appeared in the April issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Light Years, but Mostly Beyond”.
Depending on whom you ask, there are two well-known Dan Flavins—one is the American minimalist sculptor who gained art-stardom with his light installations during the last quarter of the 20th century, the other is a Louisiana politician who served as a member of the state House of Representatives from 1996–2005. While admiring the works installed in the opening room of the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition “Dan Flavin: Drawings” (through July 1) viewers might wonder whether the Bayou State politician secretly took up sketching as a hobby. The Morgan, and the exhibition’s curator, Isabelle Dervaux, have done their part to thwart any such confusion by installing two light sculptures for museum-goers to behold in all their incandescent glory; untitled (to the real Dan Hill) 1a (1978) leans in the corner of the first room, and untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 (1977) turns the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery on the museum’s first floor pink, yellow, green, and blue. The vast majority of the exhibition, however, is made up of over 100 sketches that span the career of Dan Flavin, the artist. Some are elaborate works in their own right, others are simple character sketches of passersby, while others are diagrams of his light works. On view also are pieces from his private collection of drawings—a multifarious grouping of wispy Hudson River School renderings, Japanese ukiyo-e works and modernist examples by his buddies and contemporaries. Paving the way to a deeper understanding of the artist’s tastes, techniques and talents, the show doesn’t stop at merely revealing a different side of Flavin; it seeks to tell a fuller version of his story.
Flavin, who was born in New York in 1933 and briefly studied for the priesthood in Brooklyn, was trained as a meteorological technician while serving in the Air Force. The exhibition begins after his dispatch in the late ’50s, with drawings in a broad, gestural and almost rambunctious style inspired by Abstract Expressionism. Here a group of watercolors featuring handwritten passages from the Bible and James Joyce’s cycle of poems Chamber Music provides a view into his education and scholarly sense for detail. A timely 1961 watercolor titled to those who suffer in the Congo, which was inspired by the crisis that led to Congolese independence, reveals a socially conscious side of the artist. “These early drawings,” says Dervaux, “show him searching himself, while also looking at other artists who inspired him—Mondrian, Cézanne, Brancusi.”
Between 1961 and 1963, Flavin began to develop his first continuous series of light-related constructions, which he called icons. The name was inspired by the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich’s reference to his abstract art as “the icon of my time.” Flavin fabricated his icons out of painted wooden squares with at least one lamp attached. Though only eight were made, far more sketches of icons were plotted out on paper by the artist—some on 3 x 5 inch notebook pages and others as larger-scale pencil or pastel diagrams. Flavin noted that his icons “differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty; they are dumb—anonymous and inglorious…they are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring limited light.” Yet in his personal notes he described icon V (Coran Broadway Flesh), a piece for which he made multiple sketches, as “a perfectly resolved piece—symmetrical square of one color which is totally lighted.” The icons’ portion of the exhibition shows off the artist’s meticulous organization of his work, with notes, numbers and labels accompanying everything and setting the stage for his more elaborate fluorescent light sculptures. The series provides a window into the artist’s mind on the precipice of discovery.
A turn of the corner leads into the many drawings that accompanied Flavin’s light sculptures. Again there are sketches on 3 x 5 in. notebook paper with copious technical notes, but there are also sheets of graph paper labeled “final finished diagrams” that are fleshed out with ink and colored pencil. Here, too, the viewer is offered a deep look into Flavin’s conceptualization, with multiple sketches of the same projects, some made after a sculpture’s completion. It seems that as he began to delve deeper into these installations—the most notable artistic output of his career—he also began to explore different drawing styles. Taking a break from his raucous, Ab-Ex inspired style, a sublime drawing, the diagonal of May 25, 1963, is simply a pristine white line floating on a black page. Similarly, landscapes rendered in pastels, charcoal or pencil are merely a whisper of horizon line or splashy water. Multiple drawings of sailboats, such as sails (1985) and sails (1986) are sudden bursts of movement that seem to just hang in an unseen ocean. There are also caricature-like portraits of friends such as Claes Oldenburg and Donald Judd, as well as of strangers, spangled across the sheets of his many six-ring notebooks (viewers can find them in glass cases), usually captured in ballpoint pen and with as few lines as possible. Of the , Flavin observed, “figures spring and grope through pressed lines and tonal smears.”
Though at times the show portrays Flavin as a serious draftsman and an introspective thinker, his lighter side (no pun intended) is also on display throughout. In a glass case is the text of an unsent 1971 telegram to Richard Koshalek, then curator of the Walker Art Center, where Flavin was planning a show, reading, “RAISE THE DAMNED CEILING RICHARD, OR ELSE YOU ARE CRAMPING MY STYLE. LOVE, FLAV.” Another endearing Flavinism is the constant dedications to other artists and friends in his titles. There are sketches in memory of “Sandy” Calder, Pablo Picasso and Flavin’s father, as well as dedications to Barnett Newman and dealer Ivan Karp.
Flavin’s collection of drawings by other artists also reveals a great deal about his own artistic inclinations. He often sought to collect unfinished drawings or studies, such as the hasty sketches rendered by Mondrian on the wrapper of a pack of cigarettes. After his move to Cold Spring, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley, in 1965, he became attracted to sketches by Hudson River Schoolers, including John Frederick Kensett’s Catskill Mt. (1849) and Aaron Draper Shattuck’s The Narrows, Lake George (1858). Drawings by contemporaries such as Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd he most likely acquired through exchange. Also on view are some of Flavin’s works by Japanese artists including Hiroshige, Hokusai and Kuniyoshi. Dervaux says these drawings especially resonated with Flavin because they “expressed so much with just a few lines.” A quality that Flavin is famous for.