Morgan Library’s Show of Dan Flavin’s Drawings Casts Light on the Artist’s Quirks

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Dan Flavin, "eight 'monuments' for V. Tatlin" (1968). (Courtesy the Morgan Library)

At a preview Thursday morning for the Morgan Library’s exhibition, “Dan Flavin: Drawing,” the show’s curator Isabelle Dervaux, told a group of journalists, “I’m sure all of you are familiar with Dan Flavin’s light installations. We installed two to remind everyone this is the same Dan Flavin we are talking about.”

With some of the artist’s works on paper, it was hard to tell. The earliest drawings, kitty corner to one of the two light installations installed at the Morgan—Untitled (to the real Dan Hill) (1978)—were explorations into Abstract Expressionism, wispy watercolor shapes with no form and no real likeness to what would come later. (Of note, however, was his use of text from James Joyce’s Chamber Music in a piece named for that cycle of poems.)

Nearby, though, was the first hint of Flavin’s exploration of form and material as the work of art in and of itself: Apollinaire Wounded (to Wanda Jackson), which features a crushed tin can on a subtly painted canvas—the can’s shape reminded Flavin of the top of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s bandaged head in an old photograph.

Ms. Dervaux calls the progression of the show “a process of simplification.” He begins to cut out all the fat so that his landscape paintings are simple lines, offering only the suggestion of setting. His studies of people, which he made of strangers, compulsively in his six ring notebook, are best described in his own words: “figures spring and grope through pressed lines and tonal smears.”

As he began to work with light boxes, the drawings became more elaborate, like blueprints with measurements, angles, multiple options for placement. But as he shifted from light boxes to light itself as the art object, he also produced his best drawings, minimalist masterworks that are almost a match for his installations. Diagonal of May 25 1963 is just a white diagonal line floating in a black sheet of paper.

The show presents him as a serious drafter at times, but others he’s a guy with a sense of humor. In a glass case filled with ripped-out notebook pages is the text of a proposed telegram from 1971 to Richard Koshalek, then-curator of the Walker Art Center where Flavin was planning a show: “RAISE THE DAMNED CEILING RICHARD, OR ELSE YOU ARE CRAMPING MY STYLE. LOVE, FLAV.”