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Flavins will see the light of day

Artist’s estate lifts ban on the posthumous production of unrealised fluorescent light sculptures

In 2010, the Hirshhorn bought the posthumously made untitled (to Helga and Carlo), which was conceived by Dan Flavin in 1974. Photo: © Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2013

The Dan Flavin Estate has quietly reversed its position on the production of posthumous versions of the artist’s fluorescent light sculptures.

Until 2007, the estate did not manufacture unrealised editions. “At the time, I thought that limiting the number of works in the world to what Dan sold during his lifetime, and had certificates for, actually simplified matters,” says Stephen Flavin, the artist’s son and executor of his estate, speaking publicly about the policy shift for the first time.

Flavin generally conceived his sculptures in editions of three or five, but would wait to create individual works until they had been sold to avoid unnecessary production and storage costs. Until the point of sale, his sculptures existed as drawings or exhibition copies. As a result, the artist left behind more than 1,000 unrealised sculptures when he died in 1996. If produced, these could be worth tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars.

Two major factors contributed to the decision to lift the restriction, according to Stephen Flavin. A retrospective that opened in 2004 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, reignited the public’s interest in the artist’s work, he says. Around the same time, the estate’s plan to create a museum dedicated to Flavin in New York State fell through because of funding difficulties. Without an institution devoted to Flavin, his son envisioned “all the work that would never be seen or exist in museum collections”, he says.

Since lifting the ban on posthumous editions, the estate has sold more than 20 of these works. Among them are installations at institutions such as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC (which bought, in 2010, untitled (to Helga and Carlo), conceived in 1974), the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and Glenstone, the private museum in Maryland owned by the industrialist Mitchell Rales. A set of works made by the estate is due to go on display at the Tate next year as part of its Artist Rooms project, according to Stephen Flavin.

It is unclear whether the new policy is in keeping with the artist’s wishes. During the 1980s, Flavin indicated that he was not interested in the idea of posthumous production. “I would like to leave a will and testament to declare everything void at my death, and it’s not unrealistic,” the artist said in an interview in 1982. One person who worked with Flavin at that time said he did not think the artist believed that the editions would ever be completed.

Others say that Flavin’s position was unclear. “As far as I know—and I spent a lot of time with him—he refused to discuss what would happen [after his death],” says Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who co-authored Flavin’s catalogue raisonné. The artist did not address posthumous editions in his will, Stephen Flavin says.

Experts are divided as to what effect this will have on the artist’s market. “I’m going to guess that if you own a 1960s mercury Flavin fixture, which is an artefact of the time with a perfect certificate, the market is going to decide it is more valuable,” Govan says.

Institutional buyers, however, are less likely to be concerned with a work’s resale value. “With artists like Flavin and Fred Sandback, the object itself isn’t what you are acquiring,” says Evelyn Hankins, a curator at the Hirshhorn. “The concept is what matters.”

Dan Flavin in 1966. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
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11 Jun 13
16:24 CET


Alternative title for this article: "Flavin Estate decides it would like to make millions of dollars".

10 Jun 13
15:41 CET


Just what the world needs: 1,000 or more fluorescent light fixtures by Dan Flavin.

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