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“He must be Irish,” noted Emer Ferguson about New Yorker Dan Flavin, “because it says here he spent three hours drawing in the rain.”

My friend Emer and I, on the other hand, spent three hours last week in a New York museum, studying the drawings, notes, and ideas of the “Minimalist monk”* during our biannual visit to the Morgan Library, Pierpont Morgan’s monument to books, papers and great works of art.

Experiencing a Dan Flavin installation in a former military bunker, Marfa, Texas, 2010
  • George Rodrigue
  • Experiencing a Dan Flavin installation in a former military bunker, Marfa, Texas, 2010

Familiar with his fluorescent light bulb installations, I approached the exhibition, “Dan Flavin: Drawing,” the first of its kind, with a sense of curiosity. Flavin’s fame centers on rooms transformed by his decisions: the size, color, and placement of one or more of the most ordinary, industrial and, within our homes or workplaces, irritating utilitarian objects.

I expected large plans and proposals. Instead I found the tiniest possible renderings, many written on notepaper no larger than three inches in length. In addition, most of Flavin’s drawings include notes, such as alternate green and yellow five times on west wall, near impossible to study without a magnifying glass. In essence, when it came to drawing, the great Minimalist, when he wasn’t transforming former military bunkers in Marfa, Texas into expansive, curiously lit rooms-without-meaning (related story here), rejected Minimalism in favor of ‘mini.’

Dan Flavin (1933-1996) proposals for (in memory of Sandy Calder), 1977. Graphite pencil and colored pencil on graph paper. 17x21 7/8 inches. Collection of Stephen Flavin. Copyright Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Photographed by Graham S. Haber, 2011
  • Dan Flavin (1933-1996) 'proposals for (in memory of 'Sandy' Calder), 1977. Graphite pencil and colored pencil on graph paper. 17x21 7/8 inches. Collection of Stephen Flavin. Copyright Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

He scribbled messages with sketches, plans for museum installations and public spaces such as train stations and office buildings, and scrawled demands, such as this note to Richard Koshalek, then director of the Walker Museum and currently director of the Hirshhorn :

“Raise the damn ceiling, Richard, or else you are cramping my style. Love, Flav.”

Flavin (1933-1996) admired from the beginning artists such as Barnett Newman and Piet Mondrian. He collected their drawings (also on view), quick sketches on cocktail napkins and cigarette packages.

“Mondrian,” wrote Flavin, “knew that his essential discoveries should extend far beyond the limited space of his canvas but he had no way to move out (neither have I yet) … I am trying in my way to understand the great research of this man.”

Imagine what he could have done had he had a computer, I thought to myself, as I studied the repeating perfect lines and patterns within his plans. Reading further, I learned that many of his larger drawings were not rendered by Flavin at all. Obviously it was not important that he actually execute them, only that he conceive the idea.

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 17x21 7/8 inches. Drawing done by Helene Geary Collection of Stephen Flavin. Copyright 2012 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • 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 17x21 7/8 inches. Drawing done by Helene Geary Collection of Stephen Flavin. Copyright 2012 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There were exceptions, of course, notably Flavin’s pocketsize notebooks and his free-form (sans ruler) sailboats and landscapes, as though recalling Ireland, a clear interest for this lifelong New Yorker, who collected nineteenth century drawings of the Irish coast.

Flavin_sails-1986.jpg
  • Dan Flavin (1933-1996). 'sails,' 1986. Pastel. 11x14 inches. Collection of Stephen Flavin. Copyright 2012 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Yet it was the light bulb that seduced Flavin repeatedly, making him famous as a Minimalist, despite that school’s taboo: suggestion of meaning. Perhaps this referenced his confounded past, specifically the death of his twin brother in 1962, and an Irish Catholic father who pushed him (without success) towards the priesthood.

For it was the Irish American artist himself who described his first sculpture, a single fluorescent bulb leaning in a corner, as…

“…the diagonal of personal ecstasy.”*

Wendy Rodrigue

-Also this week, “The Human in the Painting,” an art discussion with George Rodrigue for “Musings of an Artist’s Wife"

Sources: All quotes from The Morgan Library exhibition, except those marked with (*), referencing Robert Rosenblum. “Dan Flavin: Name in Lights.” 1997. On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum. 1999. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York

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