The old art-world adage—“There is nothing an artist should fear more than a retrospective”—may be a good one, but it is usually not one borne out by the evidence. While artists can be justifiably nervous about the conclusive nature of such exhibitions, with their working lives summed up in one go by curators who can bring together work, some of which the artist might rather wish to forget, the very term “retrospective” exudes a reassuring glow of importance.
For some artists, however, a retrospective can be a life-saver, an essential means of bringing a neglected œuvre to light and an opportunity to correct misconceptions about the life and the work. The current retrospective of the work of American Minimalist artist Dan Flavin—which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and now moves to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (27 February-5 June) and then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (there are ongoing discussions about bringing the show to London, with the Hayward Gallery a favoured candidate for the venue)—is an intriguing case in point. The Flavin show is the first retrospective of the artist’s work in his native US, a fact that seems all the more surprising considering his established and growing reputation as a pioneering figure in late 20th-century art. It has generally been well received, and not just for the quality of the exhibition display.
Flavin, who died in 1996 aged 63, left a body of work, the extent of which was only known to a few people, namely those who had worked with him and a small group of admiring experts, chief among them Michael Govan, president and director of the Dia Art Foundation, and Tiffany Bell, curator and a close working colleague of the artist. Both have written substantial and illuminating essays in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Illuminating is of course the key word: Flavin’s art took the form of variously coloured fluorescent light tubes and fittings arranged and assembled in seemingly simple ways against plain walls. As such, his work broke new ground in terms of the appropriation of ready-made materials (all the light bulbs and fittings were standard items bought off the shelf) and represented an innovation in the development of installation art itself.
The problem has been that while his work enjoyed some success in the 1960s and 70s, it was not, perhaps, until the 1990s that, following a somewhat fallow period of outside interest during the 1980s, people began to wonder how many pieces Flavin had made and where they were. Flavin’s death made these critical enquiries more urgent, and there quickly followed a renewed interest in his work from collectors and consequently the art market in general.
The sale at Christie’s, New York, last November of untitled (“monument” for V. Tatlin), a work produced between 1964-65 for $735,500, a sum far above the $400-600,000 estimate and an auction record for the artist, raises the intriguing question of how much the retrospective in Washington, DC, which had opened a month before the auction, played a part in raising Flavin’s profile and his prices. “There is a correlation”, says Fernando Mignoni, head of the Contemporary Art department at Christie’s, London. “Retrospectives can have a positive or negative effect, but in this case I think the catalogue raisonné produced with the exhibition has had more effect on prices than the actual show itself. It shows that there isn’t that much work available”, he said. This statement is backed up by Tiffany Bell and Steve Morse, Flavin’s former assistant and now the acknowledged expert at installing and maintaining the artist’s work, who confirmed that a key decision taken by the artist’s estate after his death was that no further pieces would be produced, even though the artist was working on designs for new pieces before he died. This decision has gone a long way to reassure current and potential collectors of his work that truckloads of lights are not going to find their way onto the market. “As one of the most influential artists of his generation, the retrospective is the first time people, including contemporary artists, have got to see the range of work available”, says Harry Blain, director of Haunch of Venison gallery, London, which is concurrently showing an exhibition of several early works by Flavin (12 February-16 March). “It enables the market to add value to the works because before it wasn’t possible for the wider audience to see where the works are located or what they’re like. The catalogue allows collectors to see the quantity of what is available, which is a lot less than people might have first thought, and this knowledge translates into price. Although these were growing beforehand, there’s now a more aggressive pursuit of Flavin’s work. People recognise that there might not be opportunity for them to buy work at these current values again. His work still costs less than that of his peers”, he adds, referring to Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Cy Twombly, whose work pierced the $1 million barrier at auction some time ago. Mr Blain says that Flavin works are privately selling for more than $1 million a piece and says he personally knows of one, a large installation piece, which was sold for that figure within the last six months. His gallery show includes work ranging in price from $100,000 to just under $1 million.
“There’s the retrospective hype and then there’s the reality of the retrospective”, says Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department. “The market intensifies when a retrospective is announced. It justifies higher interest. If the retrospective is a success, the market will continue to be strong.” However, some retrospectives can, he says, be damaging to an artist’s market position. “Robert Rauschenberg is one of the most fertile minds of our time, but the retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1998-99 revealed how much work he’s produced in the latter part of his career. He really needs a catalogue raisonné. Gerhard Richter, by contrast, likes the organised behaviour that a catalogue raisonné provides, but I think Rauschenberg doesn’t want to.”
Quite what Flavin would think of all of this, one can only guess. Although he made several assertions as to the ephemeral nature of his work (the lightbulbs should only last for around 21,000 light-hours) during his career, he also bought entire end-of-line lots of light bulbs and fittings before his death to ensure that his works, many of which are made in limited editions of three or five, could be maintained. It seems that for even a Minimalist famed for his apparent insouciance towards history and the notion of the monument, the longevity of the work remained important.
“Dan Flavin: a retrospective”, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 27 February-5 June; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1 July-30 October
“Dan Flavin: works from the 1960s”, Haunch of Venison, London, 12 February-16 March