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Untitled (To Pat and Bob Rohm)
1969
$231,000
at Christie's
May 1990
Art Market Guide 2001
by Richard Polsky


Past issues of the Art Market Guide have listed Dan Flavin as a "Sell." The rap was that, although the work is significant, the intensity of the light emitted by Flavin's fluorescent tubes (the same tubes used in offices for overhead lighting) is difficult to live with in a domestic setting. On the other hand, in an institutional setting, the work is dynamic.

From a historical viewpoint, Dan Flavin is an important artist. His use of electric current to create a work of art was highly innovative and rather controversial when he began working in the 1960s. In fact, Leo Castelli's decision to show him in 1967 (the artist was originally with the Jill Kornblee Gallery) helped convince his director, Ivan Karp, to resign from the gallery.

Regardless, Flavin has always found plenty of dealers to show his work. That's never been a problem. The problem has been finding collectors willing to live with the work, a problem that's slowly improving. The work is also selling more regularly at auction and at stronger prices, typically in the $100,000-$200,000 range for works from the seminal 1960s.

Flavin's sculpture is at its absolute best in an institutional setting or seen in a place like the Chinati Foundation compound in Marfa, Tx. The intensity of the work's glow, as well as how it bathes the wall in "painted" light, necessitates the need for lots of surrounding space. If you hang a Flavin in your home, you had better be prepared to hang it in its own room. A Flavin sculpture dominates every space in which it's installed as well as any other work of art within close proximity.

It would be helpful if Flavins looked good with their lights turned off. But unfortunately, they look like what they are; dull fluorescent tubes. Oddly enough, his most underrated works, the circular fluorescent tubes, are interesting forms and look good when they're not activated. However, for some reason, they're not popular with collectors.

A collector should consider buying a Flavin on the basis of his being one of only four major Minimalist sculptors (along with Joel Shapiro, Donald Judd and Carl Andre) -- and by far the least expensive one.

Another factor in the Flavin market is that there seems to be less price differentiation then there should be between the classic works from the 1960s and later post-1970s sculptures. Nor is the dominant issue necessarily size or color. The success of a work at auction is usually based on one or more collectors wanting a piece (simply because they like it), rather than a conscious decision by collectors to pursue a piece because it was from the artist's best period.

As someone who evaluates the financial side of an artist's production, it's gratifying to come around to elevating my recommendation of that artist. I have always respected the originality of Dan Flavin's work, but was perhaps too committed to championing work based primarily on how it looked at home.

Obviously, there are some works (such as those by Richard Serra) that are best seen in institutions, large gallery spaces or outdoors. But when works by these artists are shown to their best advantage, they simply electrify the viewer. Dan Flavin is one of those artists.


RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.

 
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