Repository 46: The Lighter Side of Dan Flavin: A Dashing Pencil and Paper Artist

A friend just forwarded me a web site list of the top 50 most iconic works in the past 5 years. Much to my sadness, but to be expected, not one of the 50 works had an artist’s hand involved – not a drawing, not a painting – all 50 works were indeed thoughtful and thought through gestures, just not of the intimate, handmade quality.

Later this afternoon, I found a review of a show held over a year ago at the Morgan Library & Museum titled “Dan Flavin: Drawing”. This exhibit was a complete gem – an intimate unveiling of an otherwise iconic artist, whose work one could confirm as cool and minimal. The drawings in the exhibit were anything but that – they revealed Flavin as a dedicated sketcher whose works ranged from the sappy romantic flavor, to the excited Ab-Ex inspired, to homages of art historical figures and precise construction and installation drawings. His work also touched on the political, as one of the works shown was titled “To Those Who Suffer in the Congo” (1961).

In 1962 in his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Flavin wrote after an afternoon of drawing:

“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).”

All along, he continued to draw from life — “for intense leisure, for refreshing returns to observation and reorientation in form,” he wrote.

Also worthy to note was Flavin’s reverence for art’s forebears and appreciation for his peers. Many of his sketches were designs for unpublished homages to artists, he drew pictures of Paul Cézanne, sketches in memory of ‘Sandy’ Calder, portraits of friends such as Claes Oldenburg and Donald Judd, dedications to Barnett Newman and dealer Ivan Karp.

The exhibit and Flavin’s drawing practice should provide sufficient evidence to students of art and professional artists alike that visual artists really should draw – the drawing, while maybe it isn’t the “produce”, the practice of it keeps artists grounded in order that they can take bigger and more innovative risks whether their art is video, performance, social engagement, blah or blah. Draw first, then do what you will.

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Dan Flavin, blue trees in the wind, 1957

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Dan Flavin, a carefully rendered and detailed sketch toward a lithograph of the proposed fountain in memory of Pablo Picasso, 1974

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