An Artist Whose Autobiography Was Drawing

Dan Flavin at the Morgan Library & Museum

Dan Flavin, Paul Cézanne, 1959, charcoal, 87⁄8" x 12". Morgan Library & Museum.


This enlightening show was devoted not only to Dan Flavin’s drawings themselves, but also to the artist’s lifelong engagement with the act of drawing. Curator Isabelle Dervaux compiled a fascinating retrospective of Flavin’s career through drawing, which was rather like seeing the reverse side of a tapestry. She also gave clues to his personality and inspirations by including some 50 works from his own collection, ranging from Hudson River School landscapes to Japanese drawings, and works by Mondrian and Donald Judd.

Flavin is, famously, a sculptor in light and color. But seeing him, as it were, in this other light revealed him as more than simply a brilliant innovator in sculpture, it showed him as an artist whose autobiography was drawing.

Flavin constantly jotted down his impressions. His range of subjects was vast, but one recurring theme suggests that drawing was a species of magic. He paid continual homage to artists he admired, moving with them through art history, from representation to abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, and, eventually, Minimalism. But instead of imitating the style of his models, he turned artists into art, thereby taking possession of them, translating them into his own artistic idiom. Three instances stood out, showing the cool Minimalist hankering after the melodrama of the past.

In the ’50s, having read Roger Fry’s book on Cézanne, Flavin appropriated the artist by reconfiguring the cover picture of him from the U.S. edition. Then, in 1960, he went further, with Vincent-at-Auvers, a watercolor-and-carbon-ink composition mounted on a Japanese folding sketchbook. Van Gogh, whose words Flavin quotes about how artistic creation pushes him to the brink of madness, appears as the crushed tin can on the cover; the can emulates the bandage wrapped around the artist’s head after his self-mutilation. A parallel composition is Apollinaire Wounded (to Ward Jackson), 1959–60. Here Flavin took his cue from the famous photo of Apollinaire, his head bandaged after receiving a shrapnel wound in WWI. Van Gogh sacrificing himself to his art; Apollinaire reminding us that the artist lives in the real world: for Flavin, these are appropriations of the heroic artistic life.

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