An all-male line-up of big names that considers materiality, grandeur and transcendence: this is a provocative, refreshing move, almost a guilty pleasure, for a Frieze week opening.
Francesco Bonami curates a confrontation between two major postwar works created within two years on opposite sides of the Atlantic. "Cannone Semovente" (1965) is part of Pino Pascali's artillery of life-sized hyperrealist replicase of high-tech weapons made from scraps of wood – arms transformed into innocent, over-large toys, in an oeuvre centered on ideas of play as a critique of European political power games. Dan Flavin's fluorescent tubing " 'Monument' for V Tatlin" (1967) belongs to a series in which the minimalist evokes the never-built Utopian tower of Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, whose attempts to unite art and technology Flavin echoes in the entirely different milieu of the industrially booming US.
Pascali's work is a vision of destruction, Flavin's of light – but formally and conceptually the similarities between them are pronounced: each is a thrusting symmetrical form that invades the gallery space, each declares everyday materials as vehicles for unconventional expressions of the sublime.
You feel here the energy of the 1960s paradigm shift towards immersive sculptural installations, the use of found objects, towards art making new demands on the viewer.
In his light fixture compositions, Flavin sought out the poetic in everyday hardware while nonetheless looking back to the 19th-century American sublime – hanging at right angles to "Monument" is a sunrise landscape by John Frederick Kensett, Flavin's favourite Luminist painter.
Also on display is Anri Sala's video "Natural Mystic (Tomahawk #2)", a portrait of a person mimicking the noise of an artillery bomb: a response to Pascali's consideration of the relationship between war and play, make-believe and reality.
How Dead Artists Continue Producing Work
If Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. can release posthumous albums and Mark Morris can choreograph posthumous dances, then surely the estates of Constantin Brancusi and Dan Flavin can issue work long after the artists have passed away?
The estates themselves have already answered that question in the affirmative, but the making of work following an artist’s death is not without controversy. The question of whether and how to produce posthumous work is becoming increasingly salient as a cohort of esteemed artists reach their seventies, eighties, and even hundreds, and they and those around them look ahead for how best to preserve and enhance their legacies.
Loretta Wurtenberger, founding director of the Institute for Artists’ Estates and co-author of The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs, said the question of whether to produce work after the artist is gone is “one of the main topics” she discusses with living artists as they plan their estate and legacy. But for artists who have already passed away, she said, the decision should be made “not on copyright issues, not on market issues—it should only be based on what the artist wanted,” she said.
Sometimes, the artist has not specified. American conceptual artist Dan Flavin’s will, for example, said nothing about the hundreds of unfinished editions of his fluorescent light “propositions,” commercially available bulbs arranged according to a specific plan and accompanied by a signed certificate. By contrast, even if subsequent disputes have emerged about his plasters and bronzes, French sculptor Auguste Rodin was at least clear in his intentions, authorizing the executors of his estate to cast work from his molds both for public purchase and for the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Whatever the artist’s intention, as art advisor Megan Fox Kelly noted at April’s Art Business Conference in New York, an artist’s legacy and her or his posthumous market can no longer be separated.
“Protecting the artist’s market is an essential part of protecting the artist’s legacy,” Kelly said on a panel on protecting artists’ legacies.
"A path of support"
In the case of the Flavin estate, the decision on whether and how to fabricate works following the artist’s passing in 1996 fell to his son Stephen, a soft-spoken, bearded man of 54. At the time of the elder Flavin’s death, Stephen said, “things were rather chaotic,” and it seemed to him “the safest thing, the simplest thing” to ignore the estimated 1,000 to 1,700 works that had been left to him in the form of uncompleted editions (the artist usually worked in editions of three or five).
But after a decade or so—and, in particular, after a private funder for a Dan Flavin museum pulled out after the economic downturn of 2008—Stephen reconsidered his options. He realized he could sell some of those works (with “estate certificates” signed by Stephen, as opposed to “lifetime certificates” signed by Dan himself) to help cover the costs of such a project, as well as other projects such as transcribing and publishing his journals.
“It was necessary in my mind to find the path of support, and the unfulfilled editions were the way to go,” Stephen said.
The ambitions and hopes of artists’ foundations and heirs “are entirely tied up with the rate of sales, the price levels that an artist is achieving, what’s happening at auction, the placement of important works from their collection only in museum collections, what’s to happen with copyright, and how the foundation is going to manage that,” Fox Kelly noted at the Art Business Conference.
Stephen eventually chose to work with David Zwirner, which began representing the estate in September 2009, shortly after it produced a recreation of Dan Flavin’s influential 1964 Green Gallery show at Zwirner’s East 69th Street location. The show convinced Stephen that Zwirner really understood his father’s work and how it was meant to be staged—and, in a neat twist, David’s father, Rudolf, had been Dan’s European dealer, and David remembered meeting the artist as a child.
The reappearance of Flavin’s work on the market surprised New York dealer Paula Cooper (of her eponymous gallery) and Douglas Baxter, president of Pace Gallery. Both gallerists had worked with the artist in his lifetime, and regularly served on a panel convened by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service that values artwork in collections or held by an artist’s heirs to determine the amount of estate tax the government will levy. In separate interviews, each recalled a determination by the IRS that no further editions of Flavin’s work would be fabricated after his death. Stephen said there was no discussion of that in his negotiations with the IRS.
In any case, the unfinished editions—which a 2005 story in the New York Times estimated were worth as much as $70 million—were not included as part of the estate at the time of Flavin’s death, Stephen said. This meant he did not have to pay the 55 percent estate tax on whatever their value would have been at the time (it could have been much less than the Times’s estimate, given that flooding the market in order to pay a hefty tax bill would have lowered the value of each work). There have been about 30 works with estate certificates sold since Dan’s passing, he estimates.
The market impact
In her 2016 book on artist estates, Wurtenberger writes that “most posthumous editions will sell for about 30 percent less than originals.”
Kristine Bell, a senior partner at David Zwirner who curated a recent show of Flavin’s work at the gallery’s West 20th Street location in New York, said there is no price difference for Flavin’s work from before and after his death, though lifetime works came with a certificate signed by the artist that were often decorated with a little drawing, while posthumous works come with a certificate signed by his son. The estate is also conservative about how many works it releases onto the market. Bell said she usually has eight to ten Flavin works in her inventory at any given time, a well-rounded representation of Flavin’s practice from the 1960s through the ’90s. Approximately once a year, she requests additional works, and Stephen will tell her if they’re available.
Bell said prices in the show ranged from $750,000 to $5 million for a mix of works: some consigned by the estate, some consigned from private collections, and others loaned from private collections and an institution.
Wurtenberger notes that, for artists who produced very little work while they were alive, the difference between lifetime and posthumous works can far exceed the 30 percent average. Lifetime works by photographer Diane Arbus, for example, begin at $25,000 and can reach over $1 million, Wurtenberger writes, citing Frish Brandt, executive director of the San Francisco-based Fraenkel Gallery, which has long represented Arbus. By contrast, Arbus works printed after her death by photographer Neil Selkirk range from $5,000 to $100,000.
Pace Gallery’s Baxter said that, while a large influx of posthumous work onto the market could dampen prices, there is also “a kind of misconception that the less work there is by an artist, the more valuable it becomes.”
“If you think about the most famous artists in the art world, Andy Warhol, Picasso, Calder…they’re big artists because of the volume of their production,” Baxter said.
Constantin Brancusi, another artist for whom there is an active market for posthumous work, has a wide gap in prices for those works versus works made in his lifetime. The vast majority of his lifetime works are in private collections and museums, so getting one’s hands on an original is increasingly challenging. In 2017, Brancusi’s "La muse endormie" (1913) sold at Christie’s for $57 million, and in May, "La jeune fille sophistiquée" (conceived in 1928 and cast in 1932) sold for $71 million. By contrast, Paul Kasmin Gallery, which represents the artist’s estate, sells posthumous bronzes for prices in the single-digit millions. One, "Torse de jeune homme" (conceived in 1924 and cast in 2017), was recently available at Paul Kasmin’s booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong for an asking price of $4.5 million.
Constantin Brancusi, another artist for whom there is an active market for posthumous work, has a wide gap in prices for those works versus works made in his lifetime. The vast majority of his lifetime works are in private collections and museums, so getting one’s hands on an original is increasingly challenging. In 2017, Brancusi’s La muse endormie (1913) sold at Christie’s for $57 million, and in May, La jeune fille sophistiquée (conceived in 1928 and cast in 1932) sold for $71 million. By contrast, Paul Kasmin Gallery, which represents the artist’s estate, sells posthumous bronzes for prices in the single-digit millions. One, Torse de jeune homme (conceived in 1924 and cast in 2017), was recently available at Paul Kasmin’s booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong for an asking price of $4.5 million.
“As is the case with lifetime and posthumous bronzes by Rodin and Giacometti, or vintage and posthumous prints by Mapplethorpe, there is always a distinction in market value between the two,” said Eric Gleason, a director at Paul Kasmin Gallery.
That lower price point, though, can be a boon for institutions with limited resources. Museums such as the Musée d’Arte Moderne de la Ville in Paris; the Museum of Modern Art in Shiga, Japan; and the Alte Nationalgalerie and Staatliche Museen in Berlin all have Brancusis in their collections now, thanks to the availability of posthumous works. Those acquisitions, in turn, give Brancusi’s work a wider audience, helping to cement his legacy.
Baxter cautioned that having both lifetime and posthumous works in the market could cause confusion in the secondary market, if a collector with a posthumous work is unclear or “forgets” to mention the year it was cast when reselling it.
“Art collectors famously actually forget these details,” Baxter said. “And certain art collectors also have willful disregard for the facts.”
Wurtenberger, though, said museums are increasingly upfront about the posthumous work in their collections.
“The whole transparency issue has really changed,” she said. “Twenty or twenty-five years ago, when you saw a sculpture, you only saw on a plaque [a mention of] when it was produced, not when it was cast. Now you have ‘1978/2005.’ There has developed a much higher sensitivity and a higher transparency.”
What of “the hand” or “patina”?
Brancusi left behind a selection of plaster molds for casting his bronze sculptures, which are still executed at Susse Fondeur, one of the many foundries he used in his lifetime and the only remaining foundry in France with expertise in sand-casting, a process that uses sand to create the molds, Gleason said.
Despite that continuity, some consider the notion of posthumous bronzes inimical to how Brancusi worked, and therefore closer to a reproduction than an original artwork.
“Brancusi worked on each sculpture, even in an edition,” said Elizabeth Szancer, an art advisor and the curator of the Ronald S. Lauder Collection. Lauder, a cosmetics magnate and president of the World Jewish Congress, is one of the few Americans to collect Brancusi in-depth. “He tweaked it with each task of producing the sculpture…so the artists’ hand played a very large role in the result,” she said, adding she did not think Lauder would consider a posthumously produced work of the same artistic value (“much more mechanical,” she said) as a lifetime one, of which there are only around 220, according to Gleason.
For conceptual artists such as Flavin, whose work was itself a response to the fetishization of the hand of the individual artist, that question is moot. Instead, collectors be might concerned over whether the lamps in their works were “originals”—say, green lamps from the stockpile of 600 he accumulated in his lifetime from the Sylvania company, or those retained by people who worked with him earlier in his career, such as Paula Cooper, whose stash of bulbs is mentioned in a 2013 New Yorker story.
Bell said there is a supply of lamps “still being produced in the exact same fashion” in the palette Flavin used in his lifetime. Replacement lamps can be bought through Zwirner’s website for $11 to $70 per piece. “Old fixtures should be replaced anyhow,” Bell said. “If you own a fixture that dates from ’68 or ’69, they look terrible. They’re all banged up. You should replace them; there’s no fetishizing of the fixture.”
Last year at Frieze Masters in London, David Zwirner’s booth included Flavin’s first fluorescent sculpture: the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) (1963), a single neon tube in golden yellow, placed at a 45-degree angle to the floor. The gold color, said Bell, refers to Byzantine icons, who are often haloed in gold in paintings and mosaics.
“It proposed an endlessness,” said Bell. “It had an infinite potential to go on forever.” In that sense, it was emblematic of the careers of the two artists themselves.
What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week: Dan Flavin
No matter what you think of the work of the American Minimalist Dan Flavin, a pristine exhibition of early efforts titled "in daylight or cool white," is worth seeing. His signature fluorescent-tube sculptures are rarely as impeccably selected or installed as they are here. The gallery’s spaces seem made for them, meaning that the show illustrates both Minimal art’s utter dependency on but also its glorification of the "white cube," Brian O’Doherty’s well-known term for the unblemished exhibition space that became an increasingly essential framing device for so much art after 1960. Zwirner, which represents the estate of the artist, who was born in 1933 and died in 1996, fully complies with Flavin’s demanding installation protocols: The outlets and cords for these plug-in pieces must be completely invisible.
The total unity of the space, the sculptures and the light they emit (there is no other lighting in the show) is, as intended, a bit awe-inspiring. The exhibition is also indirectly dispiriting, since probably no American museum can give Flavin’s work the space and care, as here, to make it so convincing to the neophyte.
The 10 pieces on view date from 1963 to ’72; as the show’s title implies, all use one or both of the most generic shades General Electric produces: the warmish Daylight and the relatively clinical Cool White. The lack of color underscores how shocking these works once were.
Without disguising themselves as hardware store items, the tubes argue, in different arrangements, for their effect as art. They also indicate how carefully Flavin used their every aspect—the fluorescent tubes, their spreading glow and their white enamel base elements (which face outward or in, making the light more mysterious), as well available architecture, especially corners, which three of the works occupy. In "untitled (to Cy Twombly) 2" of 1972, a tube of Cool White and one of Daylight, cross each other and a corner evoking Russian Constructivism. The show culminates in a gallery that contains three works from a series of "monuments" dedicated to Vladimir Tatlin, one of the most prominent Constructivists. The display feels at once like a chapel and an Art Deco dance floor. Doing the best with the least so overtly and seductively, Flavin is the most magical and emblematic of the Minimalists.
Dan Flavin Lights Up Dia Beacon With Stunning Subterranean Installation
Historic works from the Dia Art Foundation‘s collection are back in the spotlight at Dia Beacon, which unveiled new permanent installations of work by Walter De Maria, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Nauman on May 7 during its annual spring benefit.
The new installation marks the US debut of De Maria’s "360º I Ching/64 Sculptures," a large-scale work Dia commissioned in 1981. The piece fills the long corridor of Dia Beacon’s De Maria galleries with 576 white lacquer rods on a bright red carpet.
The arrangement, which explores every possible combination of broken and unbroken lines, is inspired by the "I Ching," an ancient Chinese book of philosophy and divination.
The first of Dia’s basement galleries has been given over to Flavin’s 1973 work, "Untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection)," an early barrier piece that forms a fluorescent green fence dividing the space, and is named after Dia Art Foundation founder Heiner Friedrich.
The work debuted in 1973 at Kunsthalle Köln, but was not shown again until 2001. It appeared in “Dan Flavin: A Retrospective,” a travelling 2004–07 exhibition organized by Dia. The work was put on display at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne before returning to the US for the current presentation, its first at Dia Beacon.
Here, the rows of columns that break up the architectural space glow in otherworldly fashion. Overwhelmed by the green light, your eyes compensate by slowly adjusting to a narrow wedge of daylight seeping in from nearby windows. In the adjoining Nauman gallery, the space has been reconfigured into a somewhat-claustrophobic maze to show "Left or Standing, Standing or Left Standing" (1971), on view for the first time in over a decade. Dia is also revisiting the 2001 work, "Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)," Nauman’s multi-screen projection of video footage of creatures running about his empty studio at night.
The works from all three artists nicely complement the other works on view, from John Chamberlain‘s “Combines” to Michael Heizer‘s imposingly dangerous North, East, South, West voids, as well as last spring’s Robert Irwin show, "Excursus: Homage to the Square³," on view through 2017.
Minimalist Master of Light Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin’s work consists of few materials—color, light, and space. What he managed to do with these seemingly simple elements has amounted to an important and lasting legacy that changed the course of 20th century art.
A native New Yorker, he initially intended to become a priest until he left his religious studies and joined the US Air force. While serving in Korea between 1954 and 1955, Flavin began to study art as part of an extended course run by the University of Maryland.
On returning to New York in 1956, Flavin enrolled at the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts under German Expressionist painter Albert Urban, before studying art history at the New School for Social Research and drawing and painting at Columbia University.
Flavin’s first works were paintings inspired by the Abstract Expressionist movement. There was a spirit of fun and experimentation at the start of the 60s, and artists were keen to push the boundaries of painting as far as they could go. By 1959, Flavin was making works out of found objects, mostly used drink cans.
In 1961, the young artist was working as a mail room clerk in the Guggenheim Museum, where he met and befriended fellow artist Sol LeWitt, critic and curator Lucy Lippard, and minimalist painter Robert Ryman. It was also in this year that he began experimenting with fluorescent lighting.
Flavin’s Icons series, created in 1961, consisted of shallow boxes with fluorescent bulbs that were attached to their sides or along their edge.
These light works came out of a Minimalist ideology. Flavin used factory-made colored, fluorescent light fittings, and gradually developed his work into full-scale, site-specific installations—creating a completely new artistic language in the process. All the while Frank Stella literally pushed the boundaries of painting through shaped canvases, Flavin was taking color out of the confines of the canvas and into our corporeal space.
“Though the installation must look very stable, it’s easily understood with a slight confounding paradox, as the lamps operate out of the corners and with the corners,” said Flavin when talking about his work in the documentary American Art in the 1960s.
As the same work could be installed differently according to its location, the inherently site-specific nature of Flavin’s works became apparent as a key element to this new approach to art-making.
"Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963)" is considered to be Flavin’s earliest “mature” work. Dedicated to Constantin Brâncuși, the piece consisted of a single diagonal yellow fluorescent bulb.
Flavin used a deliberately limited color palette—red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultraviolet, and four different whites. The colors weren’t custom-made, but rather factory defaults. Each color in an individual installation is interchangeable, meaning that works can be installed in various ways depending on the space, over time.
“I think that I’m one of those people who, for better or for worse, really believes in some of the simplest materials being the best to think through,” he told Tiffany Bell in 1982. “It’s probably an old view and it may go […]. One sees the ups and downs of contemporary painting, where old anxieties come through the brush again. You say to yourself, well, who gives a damn.”
Experimenting with light, color, and space throughout the 1960s, Flavin began to reject working in the studio altogether, preferring to install in the actual gallery space where the work would be seen—a logical and practical move. He would initially produce drawings, using them for reference to make finished work once they had been purchased, and would supply the buyer with a certificate which could be used to redeem any future repairs.
Flavin’s career began to explode. He completed his first installation, Greens Crossing Greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) in the Netherlands in 1966, then in 1968 he outlined an entire space in ultra violet light for Documenta 4 in Kassel. Just three years later in 1971, he bathed the circular, open interior of the Guggenheim Museum in light.
Throughout the 1970s, Flavin completed many installations for the Dia Art Foundation—a relationship which not only spawned the Dan Flavin Institute in Bridgehampton, NY, but also the “Dan Flavin: A Retrospective” exhibit which toured the world and was shown in spaces such as the Hayward Gallery in London, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris, and LACMA in Los Angeles.
Falvin’s lasting influence can be seen in the work of contemporaries such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell, who went on to outlive him. Flavin died of complications due to diabetes in 1996, at the age of 63.
Today, visitors to Dia:Beacon in upstate New York can contemplate a permanent installation of Flavin’s work, installed along the building’s long hallway. Through his work, his legacy shines on.
New Dan Flavin Exhibit 'Corners, Barriers and Corridors' is as Beautiful as it is Conceptual
For a minimalist artist, I've always found the work of Dan Flavin to be rather maximal. While the work does ultimately boil down to geometry and theories of space and placement, he uses hooks that deceive even the most lament of art observers into a state of transfixion. It is that wonderful deceitfulness that is on display at the massive new Dan Flavin exhibit at David Zwirner Gallery, "Corners, Barriers, and Corridors."
From 1963 to 1996, Flavin utilized fluorescent lamps to create his self-described "situations" of light and color. Flavin's work was always highly conceptual, or at least as conceptual as the other so-proclaimed "minimalist artists" of his time period. But I feel like his work may have been easier to digest than many of his peers for the minimalism skeptical. His work is very beautiful, profoundly so. Though it's hard to argue his work offers anything in the way of the transcendental, the delicate balance of colors, lights, and shapes is very satisfying to the eye upon any glance. As someone who isn't overly enthused with minimalist artists (or, uneducated about them), Flavin's work has always elicited a real jolt of enthusiasm into the aesthetically sensitive aspects of my brain. The new David Zwirner show was particularly beautiful.
The show, that opens to the public today, used "corners, barriers and corridors in fluorescent light from Dan Flavin" (which was presented by the artist at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1973) as its jumping off point. There are three main installations set up within the exhibition, each representing a corner, barrier, or corridor and all offer a look at how Flavin sought to redefine space with his light configurations and used three forms of space as his conceptual antagonist.
The corridor in pink and yellow, "untitled (to Barry, Mike, Chuck and Leonard"), is probably the best example in the exhibition of Flavin's mastery in the altering of perceptions toward space. While the corridor technically blocks one off from crossing one side of the corridor to the next, it acts as a trigger to your brain that makes you want to walk towards it. Physically, it makes the opposite of the room inaccessible, but mentally it makes the room appear as not only as if you can walk through it, but you should. Flavin's work had an emotional level to it that is like other minimalists, very hard to define, but so thoroughly existent all the same. It makes it very hard to decide what you feel about his work. It makes the viewer confuse senses for emotions.
Dan Flavin's Altering Light
There are few things in the real world that Dan Flavin’s light environments correspond to. Viewing a Flavin sculpture is about experiencing electric color inhabit its surroundings. This fluorescent-borne light washes blank walls with glowing, gradient hues, appearing painted. Usually enclosed by emptied geometries of interior space, the nuances of this light depend on the configurations of its enclosures to create atmosphere, and the architecture employed is oftentimes shaped with these effects in mind.
The Dan Flavin Art Institute is hidden away in Bridgehampton, Long Island, in an inconspicuous house whose street address is unlisted on the Dia Foundation’s website; it was designed by the artist in 1983 in a building previously used as firehouse and church. The upstairs and its connecting stairway house nine of Flavin’s sculptures (ranging from 1963 to 1981), permanently installed in stables of adjoined freestanding walls. Enclosed mostly by the partitioned structures, the emanating light of the work exceeds these boundaries, intermixing with each individual piece as well as the exterior light, which is tinted by translucent violet shades installed inside the outer windows.
Generally, Flavin’s work is exhibited in rooms without windows or bearing an indirect relationship to its outside surroundings. Through the institute’s shades, however, the noonday Long Island sky becomes extraordinarily strange and altered. I couldn’t exactly compare this experience to any regularly occurring conditions in the landscape, which prompted questions such as why did Flavin choose the color purple? My first thought was because this was the most synthetic or least likely color to tint or augment the landscape. Then again, maybe it only appeared this way during the early afternoon light when I visited.
I had it all wrong. Flavin was less concerned about the exterior view than he was with reducing the intensity of the light entering the space. These subdued parallelograms of blanched purple fall on the floor and divided walls, collapsing the inside and outside space. The slivers of exterior light appear unusual yet incorporated with Flavin’s fluorescent pieces. The works, when viewed counterclockwise and in chronological order, are experienced as both individual subdivisions and combined atmospheres of color that become more refined the longer your eyes adjust. For example, in “untitled (to Robert, Joe and Michael)” (1975–81), horizontally arranged rows of opposite facing pink and yellow tubes wedged in between two walls appear radically altered when viewed from either side. As the pink faces forward and the yellow turned away, the yellow coolly fades to green, spilling into emerald from the nearby “untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg)” (1972–73). Viewed from the opposite side, the frontward yellow and backward facing pink mix with the purple from the window shades. (Another factor here is the eyes’ tendency to see colors in complementary pairs, so hues appear warmer or cooler according to what they are placed next to.)
These mutated incidents of color and light evoked the fear and imaginings of a cold war nuclear disaster during my childhood. I will never forget the television movie "The Day After (1983)," which graphically depicted nuclear exchanges between the United States and Soviet Union. In a disturbing scene lasting over five minutes, a Soviet nuclear mushroom cloud irradiated a rural Kansas landscape and, in slow flashes, zapped figures into skeletons. When Flavin’s units are quarantined as the only light sources in an interior they feel infectious and sallow—as if radioactive—where the fluorescent tubes might be mistaken for plutonium rods, conjuring a dreamy nuclear fall out horizon. (To be completely honest, these tubes and their colors also recall light sabers from "Star Wars," despite the fact that Flavin’s sculptures existed first and are experienced in the flesh rather than via film.) Beyond sci-fi possibilities, these illuminations call to mind the electric pinkish haze that accumulates over Times Square in the night and is visible for over 40 blocks south.
My intention is not solely to romanticize the technological sublime here: while at the same time these sculptures feel artificial, they are also hallucinatory distillations of natural conditions, such as the light-bathed, retinal experience of dusk, dawn, and stormy weather. These fluorescent hues may appear as CMYK gradients, yet all fluorescents exist somewhere in the real world, such as in a garden or the sea; the ambient atmosphere of Flavin’s sculptures feels similar to the light under the surface of water that applies a uniform, turquoise glaze to all it touches. (It is also known that Flavin greatly admired Monet’s water lilies and wrote a letter to MoMA in the 1950s asking for a piece of the original pair of paintings destroyed in a fire.) These experiences are emotionally charged and arouse a meditative and extrasensory state of awareness. The quality of light in our daily lives goes mostly unnoticed; only during those in-between states of dawn and dusk do we boldly experience the immersive effects of the medium. Although these sculptures evoked, in one of their first reviews, references to biologically luminescent glowworms, their seeping ambiances were largely ignored, with attention given, rather, to the modularity and arrangements of the object, a rampant strategy of artists such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt at the time.
When Flavin’s 1964 Green Gallery exhibition was restaged in 2008 by Zwirner & Wirth, Holland Cotter wrote that the sculptures appeared “both old and new, like Space Age antiques.” While these objects are simply the vessels for the artist’s electric color to emerge, they become obsolescent in a world of compact fluorescents and light-emitting diodes. Flavin’s work has aged into larger, more expansive institutional environments, where fluorescents often still provide core lighting. Yet, one cannot ignore the material thing of the fixture, for, just like the Times Square haze, Flavin’s world ceases to exist the moment it is unplugged from an electric current.
Everything Is Illuminated
The artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996) is so closely identified with his signature medium, the fluorescent light sculpture, that a show of his drawings is bound to surprise. And it’s particularly exciting to find in “Dan Flavin: Drawing,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, that Flavin was not only a devoted draftsman but also a freewheeling polymath on paper.
Drawing was “my holy compulsion,” he said, and he drew constantly throughout his career, filling six-ring notebooks with sketches of people and landscapes and studies for sculptures and installations. He made more “finished” drawings, too, including early Abstract Expressionist watercolors and later documents of his light installations.
The Morgan’s show has a little bit of everything, including a revealing glimpse of drawings from Flavin’s personal collection, which encompasses Hokusai, Mondrian and the Hudson River School. It will completely change the way you see his art — an effect that can be measured by putting the exhibition’s two light installations, “Untitled (to the Real Dan Hill)” and “Untitled (in Honor of Harold Joachim),” to the before-and-after test.
The idea of a Minimalist with a regular drawing practice isn’t, in itself, news. But Flavin’s jumpy, impassioned mark-making has little in common with the grids and serial notations of an Agnes Martin or a Sol LeWitt. And the connection between his drawings and sculptures is much less obvious than it is in, say, Richard Serra’s oeuvre (as seen in a recent survey of Mr. Serra’s thick smears of oil stick on paper).
Organized by Isabelle Dervaux, the Morgan’s curator of modern and contemporary drawings, “Dan Flavin: Drawing” emphasizes the many different, sometimes contradictory, uses to which Flavin put pencil and paper. His drawings could be rambling, confessional diaries or coolheaded inventories, trial runs or elegant summations.
The earliest works here, mainly Abstract Expressionist watercolors sometimes annotated with snippets of poetry, display a youthful romanticism that verges on the embarrassing. But they reveal some formative influences, besides the obvious de Kooning: Cézanne and Brancusi, who appear in quick, muscular pencil portraits, and James Joyce, whose poetry collection “Chamber Music” is the subject of a pen-and-ink and watercolor series.
Here, too, is a hallmark of Flavin’s mature work: the formal dedication. In “To Those Who Suffer in the Congo” (1961), he addresses victims of political upheaval; in “Apollinaire Wounded (to Ward Jackson)” he name-checks both a French Surrealist poet and a contemporary acquaintance.
These are, mostly, finished works. But the show’s next section finds Flavin in brainstorming mode, fine-tuning his first set of light sculptures (the “Icons”). Inspired by Malevich, who called his own art “the icon of my time,” these pieces consist of painted wooden squares with attached lamps. The related sketches show Flavin thinking through every detail, from construction to installation.
Especially fascinating are the many ideas from this period (1961-63) that, for one reason or another, were never realized; some promising, like an architectural piece dedicated to the filmmaker Antonioni, others laughable (a rocking chair outfitted with a seatbelt). By 1963 he had hit on the light installations, made from commercially available fluorescent tubes, that would come to define his career. And his drawings evolved to suit the stark simplicity of these works, with simple lines of colored pencil on black or gray paper standing in for the electrified tubes.
In notebook pages from 1967, some of Flavin’s best-known works, the “Monuments for V. Tatlin,” appear as cuneiformlike clusters of parallel marks. Other famous pieces, dedicated to Alexander Calder and Donald Judd, turn up in meticulous drawings on graph paper. (Flavin called these “final finished diagrams,” and outsourced the actual drafting to his wife, son and assistants.)
Here it’s tempting to assume that Flavin abandoned traditional drawing for more conceptual processes. But that simply wasn’t the case, as a group of landscape and portrait sketches from the 1960s through the 1990s reveals. All along, he continued to draw from life — “for intense leisure, for refreshing returns to observation and reorientation in form,” he wrote.
In a confident and impetuous hand, he captured Hudson River traffic and Hamptons beachcombers, often working in series and with an eye to changing weather conditions. (“You are an Impressionist a hundred years too late,” the art critic Bruce Glaser told him.) A group of astonishingly responsive pencil drawings from 1960 place a small tugboat at the center of a pinwheeling cloud mass. Later charcoal-and-pastel works, from the 1980s, are animated by the strong diagonal of a heeling sailboat. (These also recall one of Flavin’s earliest light installations, a single tube set at a 45-degree angle from the floor.)
It’s clear from some of these works that Flavin felt a kinship with the artists of the Hudson River School. And as can be seen in the show’s final gallery, he collected their drawings in depth. They featured prominently in his never-realized plan for a Dan Flavin Art Institute in Garrison, N.Y., where drawings by Aaron Draper Shattuck, John Frederick Kensett and others were to have been displayed close to his light installations.
He also admired the lively but economical lines of Hokusai and Hiroshige, to judge from the selections on view. And he seems to have identified with Mondrian’s habit of mapping out paintings on cigarette wrappers, purchasing a couple of these slight sketches.
There’s as much of Flavin’s hand, so to speak, in his collection as there is in his own drawings. And in everything, there is a deeply satisfying commitment to the ritual of working on paper. In 1962, recording an afternoon of drawing near his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he wrote: “With a dashing pencil I have such a rousing sense of freedom. The drawing grows out rapidly and I follow it to the final touch. I know that this work requires much feeling and knowing all at once but I am not conscious of it. I know that I am on top of my pencil — (probably all I need to know).”
The Morgan Will Show Another Side of Flavin
Dan Flavin will be forever known for creating installations out of fluorescent lights. Some were simple: a single tube placed diagonally along a wall. Others were elaborate: constructions that transformed a room.
And while Flavin, who died in 1996, was often credited with melding Minimalism and architecture in a way no one had before him, there was a whole other side to him that few knew existed. He was an avid draftsman, sketching throughout his life. Early on there were Abstract Expressionist watercolors. He also created portraits and landscapes and, as would be expected, drawings as studies for his light installations.
Flavin collected drawings too, including works by Hudson River School artists like John Frederick Kensett, Jasper Francis Cropsey and Sanford Robinson Gifford, along with examples of works on paper by early-19th-century Japanese artists like Hokusai and 20th-century European masters like Mondrian and George Grosz. Flavin also exchanged works with Minimalist colleagues like Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt.
Isabelle Dervaux, the curator of modern and contemporary drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, has gathered these works together for the first time in “Dan Flavin: Drawing,” an exhibition that will be at the Morgan from Feb. 17 through July 1. The show will include more than 100 drawings by Flavin, along with examples of works on paper that he collected.
“It’s an evocation of his world,” said William M. Griswold, the Morgan’s director, in a telephone interview. “It’s totally unexpected; there is everything from gestural studies from the 1950s and ’60s to pastels of sailboats on the Hudson River.”
Ms. Dervaux said she conceived of the show in 2004 when she saw the Flavin retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. “They had a room of different types of drawings that I wasn’t aware existed,” she said.
An investigation turned up a wealth of drawings never seen by the public.
“He made different types of drawings, but very few were made to be sold,” Ms. Dervaux said. “He mostly made them for himself.”
Living in Wainscott and Garrison, both New York hamlets near the water, Flavin often drew the surrounding landscape, whether it was the Hudson Valley or the waters off Long Island. He also made small portraits and kept about 20 volumes of journals. Only one journal, dated 1962-63, has been examined, Ms. Dervaux said. In it he writes repeatedly about sketching.
“He liked all kinds of things,” Ms. Dervaux said. “American glass, Stickley furniture, Native American crafts and various kinds of pottery.”
“For a Minimalist,” she added, “he lived in a cluttered environment.”
PUBLIC ART IS COMING TO THE CAPITAL
Washington may be known for its outstanding museums, but when it comes to public art the capital has been lagging behind other American cities. Now Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities are introducing 5x5, a program that will put temporary public art installations throughout Washington. Five curators have each received $100,000 to create 25 projects. Each curator has selected five artists or artistic collaborative groups to work with. The installations are timed to coincide with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, March 20 to April 27, when more than a million people from around the world descend on the capital. Projects can be of various durations as long as they do not exceed four months.
“We’re trying to get people off the Federal Mall and into the community,” said Lionell Thomas, executive director of the DC Commission. “This is an opportunity to stimulate cultural exchange, which the Cherry Blossom Festival was originally meant to do.”
Though details of the projects are sketchy, Amy Lipton, one of the curators, said all five artists she had chosen were from New York, and each creates installations that concern the environment. “Years ago artists were dealing more with every other social and political issue,” Ms. Lipton said, “but now there are more artists addressing subjects like climate change and habitat.” One such artist, Natalie Jeremijenko, is installing a tree made of rubber tubing that will cross a busy intersection between Connecticut Avenue and Q Street. The Malaysian-born artist Tattfoo Tan is making a giant labyrinth out of weeds in Yards Park, a new waterfront space on the Anacostia River just south of Capitol Hill. “It’s his comment on immigration,” Ms. Lipton said. “Weeds are plants that nobody wants and come from somewhere else. Yet they add diversity.”
Molly Donovan, a curator at the National Gallery of Art who served on the panel that chose the project’s curators, said she hoped that this initiative would encourage other public art around the city. “It’s long overdue,” she said.
TURRELL BRIGHTENS SARASOTA
At the Venice Biennale last summer crowds lined up to see James Turrell’s light installation. Mr. Turrell’s artworks are showing up in unexpected places around the United States, where they are also popular draws.
For the winter solstice on Thursday, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota opened the only one of Mr. Turrell’s Skyspace works to be exhibited in Florida, and it is his largest.
With exteriors that often resemble concrete bunkers, Mr. Turrell’s Skyspaces are chapel-like domed structures where visitors can sit quietly and experience a magically changing environment of light and space, carefully created by concealed computer-programmed LED and incandescent lights that gently bathe the walls in color.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., which opened last month, features a Skyspace by Mr. Turrell that is nestled in the campus landscape along one of its many walking trails.
At the Ringling, the Skyspace is in a courtyard and measures more than 3,000 square feet.
“This project has been in the works for 10 years,” said Matthew McLendon, the Ringling’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art. “We’re hoping it will bring new audiences to the museum. It’s a place that gives us permission to sit and perhaps contemplate outside of ourselves, and we don’t get to do that much in this Twitter, Facebook, 21st-century existence.”