Behind the highly constructed, conceptual, and diagrammatic lines of Dan Flavin’s celebrated neon light compositions lies a surprisingly brooding and lyrical hand, practiced in many mediums and styles but seemingly ambivalent about a fixed artistic identity, forever foraying onto the territory of other artists in a fastidious meander through method and manner. As if suffering from the complications of dissociative identity disorder, Flavin’s hand transitions freely between impressionistic flare, minimalist orthogonality, and expressionist haze, changing between styles and mediums without any notice of the linear, forward progression of time.
The variety of work in the “Dan Flavin: Drawing” exhibition curated by Isabelle Dervaux at the Morgan Library and Museum aptly captures the range and inconsistency of Flavin’s madness, managing to hit upon a number of major personality shifts of Flavin’s hand across his sixty-three years of life (1933-1996). The work provides insight into the dauntingly diverse mind of a stylistic chameleon. The artist who drew the precise, orthogonal grid of “In Honor of Harold Joachim in Pink, Yellow, Blue, and Green Fluorescent Light” (1977) on graph paper should not have his drawings hung in the same room an artist who draws expressionistic blue flurries—“Blue Trees in the Wind” (1957)—so the reality that these doodles are produced by the same hand becomes all the more troubling. Likewise, Flavin’s series of “Sails” pastel sketches speak of another entirely distinct sensibility; the pieces become so abstract they are almost unreadable. In Flavin’s “Lithograph of the proposed fountain in memory of Pablo Picasso” (1974), these disparate styles seem to converge, creating a composition that is both messy and minimalist with an undeniable buzz as if you can feel Flavin’s scribbling.
In contrast to the varied work of Flavin, Renzo Piano’s addition to the Morgan Library demonstrates an upright consistency with his larger body of work; like in Paris’ Centre Pompidou, San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles’ Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and countless other Renzo Piano Building Workshop projects, all spaces submit to a dominant, public piazza space that brings people out from their private quarters into the building equivalent of an urban space—a loud, vibrant, and connective area that creates a place to socialize and host events that serve the building’s variety of inhabitants unilaterally.
In the case of the Morgan Library, this architectural move is especially effective in subverting the fortified nature of the original spaces, which were originally designed as well secured library and living spaces for the laudable financier Pierpont Morgan, a man so famous that he made news whenever he left his front door. As a result, Morgan saw to it that a series of tunnels and secret passageways allowed him access from his home to his library without every stepping out on the street. Piano’s addition is a response to that connectedness. While the new atrium piazza space allows visitors to never leave the building when transitioning between historically detached spaces, the intermediary space becomes entirely public, hosting a restaurant and small installations from the Library’s collection.
Between the atrium of Renzo Piano, the traditional architecture of the original library, the collection of antiquated manuscripts, the random assortment of ancient artifacts, and the miscellaneous memorabilia of twentieth century popular culture, the Morgan Library and Museum becomes almost as varied and contradictory as the drawings of Dan Flavin. Unresolved on a consistent theme between its works or its role in society as a whole, the Morgan samples a little bit of everything, attracting a range of visitors from intellectual to oblivious. This indecisiveness is refreshing. For Flavin, the ability to appreciate a variety of styles helped him relate to the world beyond his particular school of artists and relayed a great passion for the act of creation itself. Likewise, the Morgan celebrates the maker—be it an author, composer, artist, filmmaker, or common man—a receptive salutation to man’s many and varied skill-sets.