"Dan Graham: Beyond"
Who's afraid of Conceptual art? You won't be after taking in this retrospective.
Tue Jul 7 2009
Performer/Audience/Mirror; Photographs: Courtesy of the artist
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Years ago, I was privy to a tour of the inner workings of one of America’s great shelter magazines, to whose pages thousands thronged for tips on home decorating. As we entered the storeroom carrying shelves of photo-shoot items, I remarked that the stash of props seemed remarkably small. Our guide informed us matter-of-factly that experts have calculated that collective visual memory is about two years, after which it’s safe to pull out the same pot holder in a different context and call it the latest in kitchen fashion, with no one the wiser. The only other time I’ve felt as shocked by pathetically short institutional memory is in the art world’s neglect of the work of Dan Graham.
Many bemoan Graham’s art as being dry or esoteric. While it can be dense, wandering through this Whitney survey of Graham’s oeuvre helps to clarify it immensely. The more you see of his output, especially in video and photography, the more groundless the complaints against its supposed aridity become. Graham first emerged as an artist in 1960s, and much of his approach remains rooted in the same sort of predilection for cultural transgression that marked the social upheavals of that decade. But what’s kept his art relevant and a potential inspiration for scores of young artists today is the emphasis Graham places on the role of the viewer: He values the public’s interaction with his work as much as and even more than he values the language of art.
Graham wandered into the artist’s life through a side door. He started as a writer, a critic more interested in popular music than in the Conceptualism dominating the art world at the time. When lack of money forced him to move back in with his parents in New Jersey, he started to take photographs of the tract homes he’d pass on his daily train ride. And so was born his first piece, Homes for America, published in Arts Magazine in 1966, though Graham had originally attempted to get Esquire to run it. Consisting of both a series of images and a text that drew connections between the repetitive forms found in the suburban housing and those of Minimalism, the piece became seminal for a number of reasons, most importantly because it looked outside the art world for clues to what was happening inside of it. Homes for America migrated between high and low culture at a time when the strictures of Minimal Art made the gallery space sacrosanct.
Graham’s art is marked by the metaphorical, and sometimes literal, crossing of boundaries, whether physical boundaries or the boundaries of perception that determine a point of view. The 1970 film Roll captures the artist in two separate projections, turning his body about in a pile of leaves in Central Park—one reel is shot in foreshortened angle, the other taken from directly overhead. The two clips are shown on opposite walls, ultimately demonstrating how subjectivity defines perspective, a leitmotif that surfaces again and again in his work.
Graham’s more recent pieces consist of architectural pavilions, often installed outdoors, featuring a combination of glass and mirrored partitions that create spatial confusion while delighting spectators. These works seem simple in many ways, but they also represent a marriage of his various ideas. It’s also difficult to experience these pieces and accuse Graham of being esoteric; I saw several children in succession gyrate gleefully before the rounded reflective curves of Girls Make-Up Room. One suspects that he considered this as valid a reaction as any. This is underscored by Graham’s avid solicitation of viewer response, as evidenced in Three Linked Cubes/Interior Design for Space Showing Videos, which includes monitors showing videos of the public interacting with his other sculptures.
Rather than feeling daunted by Graham’s work, we should see in its peripatetic nature the generosity of spirit that has always informed this artist’s creative approach. Through decades of experimentation, Graham has both figuratively and concretely challenged our notions of reality and the structures that govern our perceptions of it. And if nothing else, this show proves he had a lot of fun along the way.