A Sort of Romanticism: Remembering Dan Flavin
By Jay Belloli
In 1971, when the new Walker Art Center opened, Dan was commissioned to do a large piece. Martin Friedman was the director then, he was legendary, and his reputation was well deserved. He commissioned works from Flavin, Irwin, Rauschenberg, Rockne Krebs, and a lot of other really wonderful artists for the opening exhibition. Dan basically designed a tunnel and on the ceiling of the tunnel was a pattern of fluorescent lights, and it was dedicated to Richard and Betty Koschalek. Richard was a curator there, and it was my first job as an assistant curator, so my first encounter with Flavin was fairly brief. I had dinner with Dan and Richard.
The real connection started in my fourth job, when Richard Koschalek had his first directorial assignment. That was with what was then the Fort Worth Art Museum [now the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth], and Richard had worked with Flavin, was close to Flavin, and wanted to do a major exhibition. That was turned over to me, and it became a two-part exhibition. The first part was installations. The entire museum at that time was turned over to Flavin installations, which was wonderful.
So there was a dinner at the country club that Richard belonged to, and Flavin was at the dinner, and somehow we just clicked. I still remember that we both were fans of The Wizard of Oz and so we were walking out of the dining room after finishing dinner, basically skipping down the entrance to the country club singing "Follow the Yellow Brick Road." That was really the bonding. at the dinner and particularly after that.\'a0 I worked very closely with him on both of those shows.
To do the planning for the exhibition, Richard sent me to Long Island, where Flavin had a summer house in Bridgehampton. in those years he was living in a house on the Hudson at Garrison, and then he'd go out to Bridgehampton. We spent at least several days hanging out together, but I was not good at getting Flavin to work, and Richard was not very pleased. But what happened was that I went around with Flavin in the Hamptons; we were basically running around looking at antique shops.
Hudson River School
What was happening at the time, which was so interesting. besides my so-called work on the show was as follows: Flavin was at that point working with the Dia Foundation, which was then really pretty much run by one of the de Menil daughters, probably Philippa. Those were the early days of the foundation and I think Heiner Friedrich, being a big dealer from Germany, got involved with the de Menil family and was probably involved in the foundation as well. [Editor's note: Philippa de Menil and Heiner Friedrich founded the Dia Art Foundation in 1974. ]
They had promised Flavin his own museum in Brideghampton, which exists in an old church. One of the discussions involved, obviously, a selection of Flavin's installations, but Flavin felt particularly close to the issue of the landscape. I don't remember why any more, but he had been given the authority to buy nineteenth-century Hudson River School landscape drawings. And so my memory of being at the house in Garrison, his main residence up the Hudson River, was that at the time he had been buying some beautiful John Kensett landscape drawings, which are incredibly elegant, just simple lines expressing the edges of features in the landscape.
But what became clear from my going there was that he was collecting other things. there would be early twentieth-century drawings, there would be American glass, because Flavin collected a lot of American antique glass. It also became clear how wide-ranging his interests were, from the Hudson River School to American glass to early modernism. He and his best friend, Michael Venezia, a painter who I came to know and exhibit, were absolutely passionate about Mondrian, and I think there may have been a small early Mondrian drawing in Flavin's home.
Drawing in Restaurants
Flavin drew a lot. A lot of the drawings Dan made were in little, three-ring binders that you could even put in the breast pocket of your jacket. A lot of the drawings he did were really quite small, because he was thinking about ideas for installations, or he'd like to do a portrait of somebody over dinner or lunch at various times. He'd get interested in doing someone's portrait, and I have one he did of me at an Italian restaurant in New York. He would do that often. these were of dealers, or other artists, or pretty women, or other people he really liked. But, again, it was in a little book which would have ideas for pieces as well as these small portrait drawings.
The drawing he did of me was done in an evening when Flavin and I and Mike and his wife were all at dinner together. It was particularly rowdy that evening, we were singing in the restaurant, and in the drawing my mouth is open a little bit as I sang. But Dan loved good food and good wine, and so going out for lunches and dinners was what Flavin really loved.
When he was out at Bridgehampton during the summer, he would sit on the Long Island beach and draw the sailboats. And so the connection I described, of his love for the Hudson River School and for landscape, really became a part of his work. And I seem to remember that in his notebooks. when I was allowed to see them there might be some sketches of architecture. There were more things in the sketchbooks than drawings for possible installations.
My memory is that he was very particular about what pencils or what pens he used. A lot of years have passed, so we can't trust this memory completely, but I seem to recall that he had one of those plastic sleeves in his pocket for pens and pencils. I remember that his pens and pencils were either very expensive, or they were very carefully chosen. Because he was incredibly precise.
One of the things that I find really interesting is that all the fluorescent pieces carried some emotional charge for Flavin, because they were all dedicated, every single one of them. As far as I know, every fluorescent installation. every piece he ever did was dedicated to somebody, and there was personal connection to what you would think would be just simple, fluorescent pieces. And yet Flavin always did this, and I think that was really part of who he was in terms of his connection to people, both affectionate and in some cases mixed.
His early paintings on paper that I remember from the fifties. which were, not surprisingly, abstract expressionist works had actual parts of poems in them or texts by Dan. My guess is Irish poets, not surprising given Flavin's heritage. But there was a sort of romanticism there, it was who he was, and I don't think it ever completely went away. You can see it in the drawings of the sailboats, and the prints, and the dedications, in terms of the pieces. The portraits were not hard-edge portraits, they were very expressive portraits that he sketched. Flavin's portrait etching of me in the LACMA collection was printed by artist Laurence Scholder in the art department print studio at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and as I remember Dan created it with a few quick lines. This personal and expressive part of him was still there, however much he was associated with minimalist art, appropriately so. There was something else that was going on in Flavin's art besides the rigor of his fluorescent installations.
Jay Belloli, 1975, by Dan Flavin.
Among LACMA's works by Dan Flavin there is a 1975 etching of Jay Belloli. A curator for thirty-seven years and today director of gallery programs for the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Belloli first met the artist in the early seventies, and their paths would continue to cross throughout the years. Belloli recently spoke with LACMA's Diana Folsom about his longstanding friendship with Flavin; this account, in Belloli's words is drawn from that conversation.