A Radical’s Romantic Side: Dan Flavin’s Drawings at the Morgan
Dan Flavin: Drawing at The Morgan Library & Museum
February 17 to July 1, 2012
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York City, 212-685-0008
When we think about the work of Dan Flavin (1933-1996), his drawings are hardly the first thing to come to mind. Instead, it is the fluorescent light sculptures that had the enduring impact on 20th- century art, making him one of the most significant minimalist visionaries. But his works on paper remain little known. Curated by Isabelle Dervaux, this elegant, concise yet comprehensive exhibitionit reveals that Flavin cherished drawing, embracing it as a daily practice. This first drawing retrospective comprises over one hundred sheets from each phase of Flavin’s career. By also presenting drawings by others artists from the artist’s personal collection, this excellent show allows the audience to recognize the extent Flavin to which found inspiration in both the act of drawing and in viewing examples by contemporaries and predecessors.
Flavin equally valued literal and abstract depictions of a subject. Over the years, his stylistically eclectic drawings ranged from abstract expressionist watercolors completed in the 1950s to pastel renditions of sailboats made in the 1980s. Some of his more traditional drawings date from the 1960s and 1970s. Usually made outdoors from observation, these depict the Hudson River landscape or the Long Island shoreline, places where he lived or spent much time.Realistically capturing the scenery with its waterscapes, rock and tree formations, they prove Flavin a fine draftsman. Though their inherent vocabulary differs strongly from his abstract sculptures, these drawings reflect the artist’s ongoing quest, through attention to detail, to establish a distinct sense of atmosphere based on nuanced observations of light and shade.
And yet, compared to his sculptures, which remain groundbreaking in their transformation of industrial materials into installations that contemplate notions of transcendence, most of Flavin’s drawings are surprisingly conservative, particularly in their use of materials. There are no experimentations with collage, for example. In fact, in many of Flavin’s drawings, his radicalism seems replaced with an affinity for classicism.
Flavin’s traditionalism in drawing might spring from insecurity. He was self-taught and never received a traditional art education. His sketches from nature and portraits tell of his passion for the act of drawing, but they also indicate a need to prove his skill. He had a deep appreciation for artists who could capture transcendental ideas through the mere use of line and light. Though he achieved the same in sculpture, his works on paper lack such higher aspirations. Instead, many of his drawings were products of an ongoing note taking. He usually carried a notebook and ballpoint pen to be able to jot down thoughts quickly and wherever he was at the time. These sketches do not embody finished renditions of original ideas, but rather appear as extensions of thought, often including written notes, numbers and dates.
Some of Flavin’s most accomplished works on paper refer to his sculptures. In these, fluorescent tubes are depicted as colored lines on plain grounds or else use words to designate color. They are characterized by a unique delineation of space through a minimal use of line and occasional color accents. They differ from Flavin’s “final finished diagrams”, which he began in 1971 as visual records of each installation. These records, made with colored pencil on graph paper, are distinctly less inspired and less immediate. In fact, later many of them were not done by him, but by his first his wife Sonja and their son Stephen, following his instructions.
Flavin’s personal collection illustrates how much he appreciated skill and draftsmanship in drawing. Above all, he found it in Japanese drawings, as well as nineteenth-century American landscape drawings. His interest in the latter began during the 1960s after he moved to Cold Spring, in the Hudson River valley, and continued through the late 1970s when he acquired a large number of works by Hudson River school artists on behalf of the Dia Art Foundation for the purpose of displaying them at a planned but unrealized Dan Flavin Art Institute in Garrison, New York. Flavin also collected 20th-century drawings: there are stunning examples by Piet Mondrian, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt in the exhibition.
Flavin became famous for works that did not reveal his hand: using factory-made fluorescent tubes, his sculptures were assembled by electricians. This exhibition, however, gathers works that show direct mark making and document the artist’s thought process when observing a subject, providing unprecedented insight into Flavin’s creative inspiration. For all that he is considered a minimalist, an abstractionist and even a conceptualist, in this not-to-be-missed display we encounter a different, private side of the artist, a man who was moved by romanticism and aspired to develop craftsmanship.