Doha’s QM Gallery – Al Riwaq is currently hosting an exhibition of the American artists Dan Flavin (1933–1996) and Donald Judd (1928–1994), two of the founders of the Minimalist Movement. It will be the largest exhibition of the artists outside of the United States and the first to show these two contemporaries side by side in 20 years.
The exhibition features Flavin and Judd’s work in the MENA region and collaborates with LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Curiously, the exhibit will not be shown at LACMA and was curated exclusively for this space in Qatar.
Qatar Museums and their American counterparts couldn’t ask for a better cultural exchange between the two countries of which this exhibition is a part. The idea that two American ‘Minimalist artists’ work could find a home in the Gulf might have seemed outlandish at one point, but it is now an example of how countries can draw on the other’s strength culturally. Qatar is positioning itself as a central hub in the Arab and Muslim world and this exhibition proves how it can achieve that goal.
As you walk in and pass the entry hall, you are confronted by an initial artwork, which could almost be missed if it weren’t for the metallic thread preventing the public from getting too close. This “square of cold rolled steel” (Donald Judd, Untitled, 1971, loaned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) sits low to the ground. It is perforated by tiny holes, which, when you look more closely, create larger circles within the structure as the light goes through them.
It is not difficult to see why the space at QM Gallery-Al Riwaq is a curator’s dream for installing artwork by the two artists. Located on the same grounds as the Qatar Museum of Islamic Art, the interior of the building itself is unlike any I have seen due to the sheer size of the spaces. As most of the buildings housing art in Qatar are examples of incredibly innovative architecture, the exterior and interior of QM-Al Riwaq are pared back and reflective of the trend of the ‘white cube’ ( a Western perspective). But this is a vast gallery with a ceiling higher than you imagine and voluminous rooms that can hold their own against larger pieces while allowing ample space for the artworks to breathe. And what better than a neutral room to showcase the work of the founders of Minimalism?
As you walk past the initial entry area comprising both Judd and Flavin’s works, you are invited into the first room of Flavin’s neon “situations”, as he liked to call them. Further on, in the three central galleries, after the Flavin portion of the exhibition, the three main rooms explore the meeting of the minds of these two pioneers. On the other side of that axis, we step into a decidedly less colourful but by no means a less inspiring section of Judd’s installations.
For the first time in twenty years, Flavin and Judd are in conversation together again. And what a conversation it is. Though at first glance, they are entirely different artists, with one favouring the use of colour and light and the other using ‘brute’ everyday materials and sober tones, the overlapping ideas of the two are brought to the forefront here in the Gallery.
This is most successfully achieved in the vital room where Flavin’s square neon structures are opposite Judd’s square metallic structures. Flavin is against the wall, standing almost ominously in the centre of the room, lined up and staring squarely at Flavin. Here, we are privy to what must have been an actual meeting of the minds of these two artists. As these two installations commune, a human quality emanates from these square shapes, almost as if we are observing a debate between Judd and Flavin, as they must have had many times throughout their friendship. We were told that the running joke in this exhibition is that this room is the only time anyone will see Judd in colour, as the light of Flavin’s neons reflects onto and off Judd’s piece.
Both artists can be categorised together by their use of commonly found materials and simple shapes but also by their rejection throughout their lives of the term Minimalism. This exhibition is all the more interesting because placing them together in Qatar, a country with a heavy emphasis on design, art, and education, mirrors the idea that we can only progress and create thanks to the knowledge of our forefathers. Given the immense influence of Judd and Flavin on disciplines from art, design and architecture, a country so innovative in these domains is a perfect match.
Dan Flavin, untitled, 1970, blue and red fluorescent light, Modular units, each made of two 8-foot (244 cm) vertical fixtures and two 8-foot (244 cm) horizontal fixtures: length variable, Edition of 3, Qatar Museums Collection See Top Photo
Perhaps an overlooked aspect that struck me from this show is the meditative and ethereal quality of some of these works. In Flavin’s solo rooms, notably one of which is a corridor of blue and red square-shaped ‘Situations’, the neons cast a blue/purple light over the whole room. One could stand for hours meditating on mixing these two coloured lights. Flavin had ideas about spirituality and imitating the placement of idols with his neon ‘Situations’. Given these multilayered ideas for, at first, simple artworks, perhaps minimalism is, in some ways, too reductive a term for an artist of his calibre. With these intentions, he joins the tradition of an artist like Mark Rothko in inviting us to seek something in the artwork beyond the simple forms we are initially confronted with.
In a Muslim country where figurative work is not entirely accepted, and much of the culture is informed concerning religion, it is interesting to see how the Qatar art and design scene will draw inspiration from an exhibition like this.
In one of the strongest pieces in the Judd rooms much like Flavin’s light corridor, a simple concept can lead to more profound observation, understanding, and elevation of art. Six plywood squares sit against the wall. They are in proximity to each other but are not touching. The use of easily accessible materials that could be found in most hardware stores is a critical component of Flavin’s work. The seemingly perfect square installations feel almost playful due to their size. One wants to be able to walk around or in them. But this playfulness is tempered by the severity of the shape and the imposing size of the work. Judd is pushing minimalism to its limits here, and successfully so. With these particular works, the simplicity is an invitation to see the beauty of the Plywood, the details in the patterns left by the knots in the trees, and the way the light plays inside these hollow squares. Like Flavin, these sculptures bring us into a contemplative state and place us in a respectful frame of mind.
The awe in this exhibition is felt throughout Doha’s museums, from the National Museum, shaped like a massive desert rose, to the stunning Museum of Islamic art designed by I M Pai. Innovation, set against a genuine pride in history and tradition. The past means that Qatar can go forward confidently in its quest to expand its role as a true hub for culture. Even the placement of QM-Al Riwaq next to the Museum of Islamic Art shows the willingness to create a dialogue between the past and the present in an authentic fashion, which is genuine in a way that is rarely felt nowadays. Qatar’s willingness to look to its traditions and other areas of the world to inform its way forward, as in the Flavin/Judd collaboration, makes it a unique and exciting destination for all art and design lovers.
DAN FLAVIN / DONALD JUDD: Curated by Michael Govan and Jennifer King and organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in collaboration with Qatar Museums, the exhibition features works spanning the 1960s through the 1990s, drawn from the collection of Qatar Museums as well as other institutions, private collections, the Dan Flavin Estate and the Judd Foundation.
Words/Photos: Leila Lebreton Top Photo: Dan Flavin untitled, 1970 Qatar Museums Collection Photo: Leila Lebreton © Artlyst 2023
DAN FLAVIN / DONALD JUDD: DOHA QM Gallery – Al Riwaq Until 24 February 2024