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  • Provenance

    Gagosian Gallery, London

  • Exhibited

    Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Garden, Inverleith House, Dan Colen: The Illusion of Life, 12 October - 24 November 2013

  • Catalogue Essay

    The brilliantly chromatic Die by the Sword (2013) marks the apex of the artist’s personal and spiritual transformation from l'enfant terrible to master painter of the twenty-first century. Differentiating itself from the rest of Colen’s work by colour saturation alone, the many fragile flowers spread across its surface echo Colen’s own testimony about his new direction and purpose in painting. Spanning more than ten feet wide, Colen’s work springs forth not only in its breathtaking chromatic variation, but also in the loving tactility of its medium. Colen’s unfamiliarity with the medium was itself a test of himself as a technician, allowing the flowers themselves to produce their own shape after their application without being crushed by the violent pressure of his hands.

    Dyed in a variety of colours, Colen’s flowers create a sea of beauty, one where the smooth transition from hue to hue almost makes for an iridescent surface, where multiple chromatic layers give an impression of immense depth. Starting at the far left of the picture, Colen’s deep purple hues above interact with a background of bright crimson and pink upon his bleached Belgian linen palette. Below, violet shifts to blue, finding elements of both burnt orange and unexpected pangs of yellow along the way. Both above and below, the intensity of the deeper colours fades away into a more delicate mixture of chromatic harmony as we travel toward the right side of the picture.

    As we arrive towards the centre of the spanning canvas, suddenly Colen’s surface bursts forth with brightness, saturated with electric yellow flowers sitting atop a fiery bed of various warm colours. As intense as it is transfixing, the centre of Colen’s picture is a visual feast, inviting the observer to look closer at Colen’s creation, just to be sure he hasn’t surreptitiously added a layer of bright paint to trick us. But Colen’s flowers are alone in their magnificence, burning brightly as we move below and to the right. Having exhausted their conflagration, the sea of flowers is once again calm at the far right of the picture, dipping back into the former shades of purple and azure that we came to admire so greatly on the left.

    Die by the Sword, an unequivocally gorgeous work by Dan Colen, demonstrates the span of this artist’s emotional reach; though Colen burst onto the scene a mere ten years ago, wreaking havoc in New York’s social scene and befriending a new generation of les enfants terribles that included Ryan McGinley and the late Dash Snow, he has already crossed through many phases of a distinguished career, publicly mapping his personal progression from party animal provocateur to controlled creator. It is as if Colen has lived three decades in the span of one, acquiring and translating his wisdom onto a series of canvases using a variety of mediums in collage format. Here, in Die by the Sword, Colen embarks upon a project as bright in joy as it is neck-deep in mortal meditation; a canvas unlike any other.

    Die by the Sword, was first shown at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden in Colen’s 2013 show Dan Colen: The Illusion of Life. Colen sat down with Steven Cox to discuss his show in personal, even intimate terms, illuminating the wide variety of mediums he chose to work with in his paintings. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the show are the titles of the works themselves, employing clichés and intentionally dissatisfying phraseology to provide a portrait of life, where satisfaction is an often elusive spectre. Colen himself testifies: ‘In terms of the titles, I think of them as autobiographical for sure. Cliché can be used just for comedy, but you can exploit real potential in a cliché if you have an active and sincere relationship to it. So maybe, juxtaposed with the content of the paintings, the titles seem ironic at first, but I hope the paintings and their titles also draw some additional truth out of each other. I hope that feelings, intentions or themes don’t pop up without the presence of their antitheses.’ (Dan Colen, in interview with Steven Cox, Dust Magazine, 10 December, 2013).

    Colen’s triumph in allowing the flowers in Die by the Sword to provide their own physical expression is a result of his self-restraint. The flowers themselves, as with all of Colen’s mediums, have a certain potential that need not be adulterated by overenthusiastic application or manipulation. In this way, the colours that Colen has lent his petals resonates even more freely, allowing themselves to expand fully before the viewer as they would in the fields in which they grow. Even in death, the flowers reach a state of perpetual beauty.

    But the visual aspect of Die by the Sword is only one facet of its importance as a work of brilliance. Though Colen may be perceived as a pure visual artist, even one that delights most in the construction of his surfaces and the materials that he uses therein, that is a far cry from his larger artistic project: ‘I think the gardens and the building itself helped isolate for me how much these paintings are about ghosts. I was thinking about isolating senses – feelings without a body in mind, sounds, smells, and touches, the sound of dancing shoes or bodiless tears falling into an empty guitar case, a spinning bottle, a zombie clown, and a chair with no one in it, and a ghost of a couch. I think the physicality and life of the gardens focused me on the ghosts of the dead flowers.’(Ibid.)

    The invisible perfume of the flowers, along with the scents arising from his many other works in The Illusion of Life, speak to the necessity of the intangible in Colen’s work. The tactile component is only half of the larger work, while the fragrance dances beyond the canvas and into the minds of the many spectators. In this way, the present lot is a conjurer of spirits, where, amongst the lush and living gardens of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, the former lives of every petal tiptoe lightly between the garish aromas of those petals still in bloom.

    This is a process of immersing the viewer not only in visual stimuli, but also in the context of his environment. Indeed, Colen’s veritable chromatic assault functions in a similar vein to the work of Mark Rothko, whom Colen has sought to emulate in his all-encompassing artistic environments: ‘I’m trying to create space in a much more convincing way. I want the viewer to feel like they can leap into the paintings, and although the picture created by the flowers is essentially abstract, I want the viewer to be able to imagine what it would feel like to be immersed in that environment, to be bathed in it, like (even if in the smallest way) how I feel in front of a Rothko.’(Ibid.)

    But we would be remiss not to recognise the echoes of other painters in Colen’s piece, namely those to whom he draws comparisons for their composition and chromatic density. Colen’s actual flowers bear an uncanny resemblance to the painted ones of Claude Monet, his seminal triptych Water Lilies, 1914-1926 finding commonality with Die by the Sword in their deep hues, impressionistically dispersed across the surface of the horizontal painting. Elsewhere we find the footprints of Joan Mitchell, especially in her garden abstractions, as in The Lake, 1981. And, between those two, Colen finds himself both a rebel against and a practitioner within the great canon of floral still-lifes.

    But the greatest power of Die by the Sword is not in its simple chromatic intensity or the breadth of its scale, but in the elegiac symbolism that it holds for the passing of a friend. Colen’s personal and professional changes following the death of Dash Snow find a poignant culmination in his flower petals, funereal in both their fragility and their associations of remembrance: ‘I’m making paintings that are specifically about the fragility of a moment, about trying to pin down the energy from that moment and asking questions about what happens to that energy over time and what it reflects back on the viewer. What these flower paintings are now might not be what they are in ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred years, but hopefully the change will be absorbed into the paintings in a way that deepens their meaning instead of diminishing it. Hopefully the art in the paintings is stable even if the material changes. Everything deteriorates, and sometimes in preservation we actually lose something important. Trying to keep a dry flower petal from coming off a canvas is not a bad idea, but maybe it’s interesting to also consider just stepping back and allowing the change.’(Ibid.)

    Colen is open to the spirit of change, for, while youth may have its bursting spectrum of light just as the flowers do theirs, so age follows with the dissolution of his precious medium. But, ever the optimist, Colen asserts that, though materials may slough away eventually, the ‘art’ itself will remain. This presence of soul despite the absence of a vessel is what makes Colen’s picture his most personal and most spiritual. Indeed, the flowers upon the surface of Die by the Sword convey this ghostly presence already—devoid of life, yet steady in their radiance.

  • Artist Biography

    Dan Colen

    American • 1979

    American artist Dan Colen has spent most of his career asking himself questions about the editorial decisions artists have to make when creating a scene from scratch on canvas. In his early work, Colen painted mundane interiors punctuated with fantastical elements. This manifested as part of a growing curiosity in the ethereal or divine intervention.

    Colen subsequently stepped away from paint as material and started using found objects as mediums with which to paint. Among these, Colen has used chewing gum, street trash, confetti, feathers, flowers and dirt. This methodology allows Colen to abandon control and create in a more free-form, subconscious manner.

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Die by the Sword

2013
flowers on bleached Belgian linen
149 x 322.2 cm (58 5/8 x 126 7/8 in.)

Estimate
£200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £362,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2014 7pm