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New York Museum Exhibitions: Dan Flavin's Drawings at The Morgan

Several museum exhibitions have opened in New York City over the past couple of weeks, including blockbuster retrospectives of Cindy Sherman and John Chamberlain, but a smaller and more focused exhibit of the drawings of Dan Flavin at the Morgan Library & Museum yields the most surprises. While the big shows at MoMA and Guggenheim provide a great deal of interest, those galleries are filled with works we expect to see. Not so with the Flavin exhibit. While most will know the artist for his fluorescent sculpture, his works on paper expand our understanding. Drawings have a way of revealing the artist in an intimate way, as if we are looking over their shoulder while they look around and think about the world.

Dan Flavin (1933-1996)
blue trees in wind, 1957
Grease pencil on ledger paper
7 7/8 x 10 1/2 inches (20 x 26.7 cm)
Collection of Stephen Flavin
© 2012 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photography: Graham S. Haber, 2011


Organized by Isabelle Dervaux, Acquavella Curator, Modern and Contemporary Drawings, the Flavin exhibit presents phases of the artist's life as well as a selection from his own art collection. The earliest works reveal several important influences, all of them more or less at play throughout his life - meteorology, Willem de Kooning, Roman Catholicism, and the love of language. Trained as an Air Force meteorologist, Flavin possessed a keen talent in drawing the weather conditions. This can be seen in a 1957 drawing titled blue trees in wind (above) and in his series on the subject of sails in the 1980s. His watercolors and drawings of the late 1950s show an affinity for a de Kooning-style expressionism. In a series of seven drawings, Flavin matched broad gestural lines and watercolor washes with the text of James Joyce.

The catholicism of Flavin, who studied briefly to become a priest, may best be represented with the small "c," as his interests in art, history, and literature were varied and vast. He studied the works of Brancusi, Van Gogh, Titian, Vladimir Tatlin, and obvious when you think about it - Mondrian. He read James Joyce and Guillaume Apollinaire. He was concerned about social and political causes, represented in the exhibition by a 1961 watercolor titled to those who suffer in the Congo and by a 1972 notebook drawing dedicated to the presidential candidate George McGovern, among others.

But there is, too, the matter of that light.

Dan Flavin (1933-1996)
untitled (to the real Dan Hill) 1a, 1978
pink, yellow, green, and blue fluorescent light
8 ft. (244 cm) high, leaning
© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo by Billy Jim, New York
Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

The Morgan exhibition documents Flavin's journey into that light, including the first tentative drawings for a series of icons, realized as painted wooden boxes with lamps attached. Some of the drawings are small notebook sketches while others are larger and more realized. From 1963 on, Flavin worked on his signature fluorescent light installations, using drawings to document and reflect his ideas. Beginning in the 1970s, the artist kept an inventory of documentations of his light installations, drawings on graph paper with colored pencil and executed by the artist's assistants.

Dan Flavin (1933-1996)
in honor of Harold Joachim in pink, yellow, blue and green fluorescent light 8’ high and wide, 1984
Pen and ink and colored pencil on graph paper
17 x 21 7/8 inches (43.2 x 55.6 cm) Drawing done by Helene Geary
Collection of Stephen Flavin
© 2012 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photography: Graham S. Haber, 2011


Surely, the big surprise of the Flavin exhibition rests with the landscapes. He sketched views of the Hudson River and the beaches of Long Island, sometimes documenting the weather conditions, using tools of graphite or pastel to draw in traditional sketchbooks. They are in the tradition of field or nature journals. His studies of sails show an economy of line that is nevertheless expressionistic and perhaps influenced by an appreciation for the brushstrokes of Hiroshige and Hokusai. The Morgan exhibition includes several Japanese drawings that Flavin collected, along with works of the Hudson River School and by Flavin contemporaries - Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt. These works from his own art collection help expand our understanding of his commitments, intellectual curiosity, and artistic practices.

Dan Flavin (1933-1996)
sails, 1986
Pastel
11 x 14 inches (35.6 x 28 cm)
Collection of Stephen Flavin
© 2012 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photography: Graham S. Haber, 2011

The exhibition includes two fluorescent light installations, certainly even more revealing in the context of the drawings. At the entrance of the exhibition is untitled (to the real Dan Hill) 1a, 1978, a vertical corner work with pink, yellow, green and blue light. The most stunning is the single eight-foot-square work occupying the museum's ground floor Thaw Gallery, untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977. Here, the pink, yellow, green and blue lights are thrilling in their intersections, communicating something almost mystical to the viewer in the surrounding space. While Flavin distinguished his icons from the Byzantine version, arguing that his own "bring a limited light," a visit to the Thaw Gallery to see the glow of this Flavin masterpiece is akin to a religious experience.


Dan Flavin: Drawing
February 17—July 1, 2012
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016-3405
212.685.0008
www.themorgan.org

Images courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum.

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