During a walk through the recently opened Dan Graham survey at the Whitney Museum, the artist distanced himself from the dead-serious legacy of conceptual art with which he’s long been associated and which, over time, has been transformed from skeptical inquiry into archival commodity.
"Before there was conceptual art I did the magazine pages," he said, referring to his legendary art gestures, like his 1965 reproduction of a supermarket register tape in the pages of a fashion magazine, which he called Figurative. "In fact I always disliked conceptual art, because my work is about anarchistic humor."
A fan of Mel Brooks and Martin Short, Graham is a devotee of punk rock (he played a key role in the formation of the band Sonic Youth) and country music, and an avid follower of pop culture and sports (he’s a Mets fan). With the possible exception of his pavilions, however, Graham’s art production has pretty much eluded the commodity-friendly consistency that is so often summoned to develop an artist brand.
Referring to his tendency to combine his diverse interests to arrive at something new, he claimed, "Everything I do is a hybrid. . . . Basically I get bored with what I’m doing and also I don’t want to do trademark work."
The work he’s arguably best known for has probably been the most misunderstood. Homes for America (1966-67), a series of photographs of cookie-cutter suburban houses, began as a slide show that emphasized the similarities between the repetitive, Fordist system of post-war suburban housing developments and the serial approach of Minimalists like Steve Reich and Donald Judd.
Refashioned as an artwork intended for publication in a magazine, the series was meant as a parody of "think pieces you might find in Esquire Magazine with good photos" as well as a rejection of the limits of the art gallery’s "white cube" format in favor of the ubiquity and disposable nature of monthly periodicals. Graham takes pains to distance himself from what he claims is the subsequent misreading of the piece as "sociological critique."
Public Space / Two Audiences, which was originally produced for the 1976 Venice Biennale (and anticipated his later pavilion works), famously divided an audience into two parts with a glass partition, so that each group viewed the other as well as its own reflection. As in his earlier video performances, Graham was contrasting the two perspectives -- subject and object -- and noting the pivotal if unexamined role of spectatorship in international group shows.
"The Venice Biennale is like a big showcase, every country has its own pavilion," Graham said. "Here the spectators are in a showcase situation, but instead of seeing an object, they’re seeing themselves perceiving." As we approach Public Space / Two Audiences in its installation at the Whitney, Graham suggests, with characteristic deadpan humor, that we "try it out, I think it still works, let’s try it out."
After entering the space -- a small room bisected by a glass wall, with two doors -- we see a few people on the other side of the partition, though we can’t hear them. We can see our reflections in the mirrored back wall opposite, which seem to mingle with the actual people on the other side of the glass. Enclosed in the same space but unable to communicate, the experience is an odd combination of intimacy and detachment. Viewers are united by their communal objectification as they perceive and become the artwork.
Placed near the exhibition’s entrance, which serves as an approximation of a museum lobby where, according to Graham, one might experience "chance romantic encounters," is a heart-shaped, two-way mirror glass structure called the Heart Pavilion (1991). Initially appearing cool and detached, with the anamorphic distortions in its mirrored surface and the reflective overlays of its transparent walls the pavilion offers an unsettling alternative to the corporate office facades that it so much resembles.
First developed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Graham’s pavilions refashion the cold, detached authority of corporate skyscrapers by altering their scale and repurposing their mirrored surface, engaging the viewer in a series of perceptual experiences that might range from detached voyeur to entranced narcissist, with various stages in between.
In Graham’s work, systems of enclosure, dissemination and mediation bump up against the dilemma of the constructed self, which is not directed towards a "message" but instead confronted by its many options. The divided, late capitalist self faces its own splits and divisions, which then merge with those of others; we’re connected through our shared fragmentation. As the artist puts it, "To quote Jeff Koons, ‘my work is about fun’. But I don’t want it to be ‘easy fun’. I think some of this fun is difficult."
"Dan Graham: Beyond," June 25-Oct. 11, 2009, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
PETER SCOTT is an artist, curator, and writer based in Brooklyn.