Exhibitions   26 February 2013

Review: Dan Flavin and Donald Judd at David Zwirner Gallery

Installation view, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, David Zwirner, New York, 2013.
Photo by Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART © 2013 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

On February 15th the David Zwirner Gallery opened its new building on West 20th Street with Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. This exhibition pairs Flavin’s the European Couples (1966-71) with a modular, untitled aluminum sculpture made by Judd in 1991.  The early careers of these artists, contemporaries and good friends, took place in the industrial bohemia that was once located in New York City’s SoHo district.  There, artists grappled with the physical limitations of studios that had been converted from light industrial spaces. Many began to move their work into the streets and on rooftops, replacing the “spatter-and-daub” marks of Abstract Expressionism with Minimalism, a reductive style of large installations that focused on the deconstruction of barriers. 

Both Judd and Flavin studied art history at Columbia University in 1957, the year before Mies van der Rohe completed the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York City.  Twenty years earlier Bauhaus artist Werner Drewes taught painting at Columbia before continuing at Washington University, Saint Louis in 1946. In 1936 Drewes, along with Josef Albers, co-founded the American Abstract Artists group.  Eclipsed during the height of Abstract Expressionism, the group later involved contemporaries of Judd and Flavin such as Sol Le Witt, Robert Ryman and Robert Smithson.  Through its influence modularity, surface, landscape and autonomy became significant metaphors for a younger generation of artists.

By the end of 1960, Systems Theory functioned as a lens to view postwar society, and the aesthetic conversations in art schools continued to focus on painterly expressionism as well as Bauhaus philosophy.  Donald Judd expanded the reach of Minimalist art further through the venue of art criticism, arguing strongly against Michael Fried’s assertion that Minimalism was theatre. One of Judd’s conclusions was that art should directly engage its surroundings, whether an interior space or a landscape.  The sculptures featured in Dan Flavin and Donald Judd reveal the tension that each sculpture exerts upon an interior space, with the repetitive exchange of geometric right angles ricocheting throughout the exhibition, suggesting more rather than less. 

Part of Flavin’s the European Couples was previously exhibited at Dia in 1995.  The David Zwirner Gallery brings each component of this work together throughout three rooms, complemented by a related suite of drawings.  While corners within the exhibition space serve as sites for these 8-foot square light sculptures, the overall theme of “couples” is amplified when Flavin’s work frames the merger of two juxtaposing walls before the surfaces gradually subside beneath bright light. Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss (1908) is strongly referenced throughout as architectural walls merge together at 90-degrees, similar to the horizontal connection seen in Brancusi’s two square-shaped figures. 

Untitled (to Katharina and Christoph) for instance, appears in the left corner of the first room, resonating shades of green, while Untitled (to Karen and Walther) emits blue from a corner directly opposite.  Shades of red and pink diffuse throughout juxtaposing corners before the piece unfolds with a yellow-lit sculpture that is followed by four more in white.  Flavin’s use of light relinquishes the perception of line in favor of spatial sensation. Judd’s hollow cubes, set within an adjacent room, release themselves from perceived limitations as small circular and cubic beams placed inside each component creates an illusion of moving space.   Both sculptors echoed the anti-war atmosphere of the late 60s that continued well throughout the 20th century, with Donald Judd’s essay Never Again War from 1991 that was first published in German.

The gallery’s new building by Selldorf Architects, featuring a stoic concrete exterior that appears flush with the windows, along with a clean-boxed interior, harkens back to mid-century buildings constructed in Bauhaus or International Styles, providing a perfect foil for art that is focused on redefining spatial impressions. Dan Flavin and Donald Judd revives a dialogue rich with historic context, evoking a time when both artists sought to navigate past the confusion of Abstract Expressionism’s decline, placing their art within a larger continuum.


Jill Conner is the New York Editor of Whitehot Magazine and an AICA-USA board member

untitled (to Christina and Bruno), 1966-71 yellow fluorescent light 8 ft. (244 cm) square across a corner
Photo by Stephan Wyckoff © 2013 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

David Zwirner, New York
537 West 20th Street
Photo by Jason Schmidt

Headquartered in New York, AICA-USA's membership comprises over 400 critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States.