Here’s a good art-world quiz question, one that could stump many an astute insider: What do Sol LeWitt, Sonic Youth, Dean Martin, Mel Brooks, Merle Haggard, Hudson River School painting and mid-century New Jersey tract housing have in common?
The answer, Dan Graham — a Zelig of so many creative circles over the past four decades it is dizzying to keep track — who sat recently sipping an iced tea and eavesdropping on conversations at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where a retrospective of his work opened on June 25, finally adding him to the ranks of conceptual art’s thorny 1960s pioneers to receive a full-blown American career survey.
Among his conceptual peers, those who set out to wrest art from the realm of objects and move it more fully into one of ideas, Graham, 67, is someone whose work does not come easily to mind even for an informed artgoing public. In part this is because his restless intellect has never allowed him to settle into anything resembling a signature style or to be easily categorized. (Most attempts at categorization are parried by Graham himself with a professorial annoyance and fencer’s agility, and he dislikes being called a conceptual artist and says he is not a professional one in any sense, calling art his “passionate hobby.”)
If the world had nothing else for which to thank him, it might be enough that during a brief stint as a dealer he gave LeWitt his first solo gallery show, along with presenting early work by Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. Or for the part Graham played later in the formation of Sonic Youth — he helped Kim Gordon, one of the group’s founders, land her first New York apartment in his Lower East Side building and cast her in an all-girl “band” for a 1980s performance piece, jump-starting her music career. When Graham, rumpled and white-bearded with a kind of Mr Natural aura, shows up at cutting-edge rock concerts these days, well-read 20-somethings tend to mill around him admiringly.
But it is the way his artistic DNA has seeped into the work of younger artists over such a prolonged period that underscores his importance. Chrissie Iles, a curator at the Whitney who organized the show with Bennett Simpson, a curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, said that prominent artists as well-distributed over the years as Tony Oursler (video artist, born 1957), Rirkrit Tiravanija (known for the shows in which he cooks for gallery visitors, born 1961) and Wade Guyton (who “paints” with printers, born 1972) all showed strong traces of Graham’s influence. Their work looks and feels almost nothing like his, or like one another’s, a remarkable testament to the way Graham’s fascination with perception and with the conventions of art and mass-produced culture have become part of the contemporary art landscape.
Because so much of his work — from early pop-culture writing to performances with video cameras to his well known mirrored pavilions — is about what Simpson called “the way one experiences the space of the self,” it has also seemed more prescient as each new iteration of the Web alters the calculus of media, society and individuality.
“The pieces make sense, in a way, even more than they did 10 years ago,” Iles said, “when they had a completely different kind of reading because we hadn’t gotten to this stage yet, the stage of Twitter and Facebook and Flickr.”
After the Upper East Side gallery he co-owned went under in 1965, Graham, a despondent 23-year-old with mounting debts and no driver’s license, took the train to New Jersey to move back in with his parents. But on the way, gazing out at the consecutive forms and colors of tract housing from the train window, he conceived the first work that made a name for him as an artist, one that has since become a touchstone of conceptualism.
Called Homes for America, it is a series of amateur-seeming snapshots of suburban architecture, published in 1966 in Arts magazine after Esquire turned it down. The blandly colored pictures tweak Minimalism — the houses look like Judd boxes — and send up the sorts of erudite essays then being published in magazines like Esquire that probed the standardizing soul of suburbia. (Another piece he tried to get published around this time, called Detumescence, was a simple one-page explanation he had solicited from a medical specialist, describing what happens to the male body and psyche in the moments after orgasm.)
“I never made money in art,” said Graham, who for much of his professional life lived in a small US$450-a-month apartment on the Lower East Side and was not represented by a gallery. “I was never successful. Artists and musicians knew about me, but I think the work was always too early.”
His fortunes have improved in recent years; he lives alone in a nicer apartment in NoLita and is represented by a prominent gallery, Marian Goodman, though he says the work still doesn’t sell well, and he speaks disparagingly of “superstars,” including a few represented by his own gallery, like Pierre Huyghe and Tino Sehgal, making it clear that he is not counted among them.
Given the feverish nature of his interests it comes as little surprise that talking to Graham is less like a conversation than like being swept into a tsunami of language, with gale-force allusions. Over iced tea and later over lunch at the Whitney, where he was helping oversee the show’s installation, he pinballed from science fiction and Philip K. Dick to Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School (he said that most of his work is heavily influenced by a similar concern with light) to bisexuality. (“I think it helps to have bisexual tendencies,” said Graham, who is straight. “I wish I was bisexual.”)
‘HARD TO LOVE’
Though many critics through the years have complained that Graham’s work can be hard to love and too dryly pedagogical, he said he sees himself as a Jewish comedian working firmly in the tradition of Jewish comedy greats like Mel Brooks and Andy Kaufman, whom he considers to be great conceptual artists.
“Anarchistic humor is very important to my work,” he said, calling Homes for America a piece of “pure deadpan humor — it’s a fake think piece.” Works in which the humor is more readily apparent have included one that placed large-screen televisions on people’s front lawns so that passers-by could see what the inhabitants were watching that moment on the television inside the house. Another work proposed altering a suburban house so that it would have a glass front and a mirror bisecting the interior: Anyone walking by would be able to see not only the inhabitants but themselves and the street reflected inside the house, making a funhouse out of distinctions between private and public space.
His glass pavilions have been placed indoors and outdoors in locations as remote as the Arctic Circle in Norway. And while they might look like curvaceous updates on Minimalist sculpture or like perceptual exercises — you can look through the glass, but it is often mirrored enough so that you look at yourself too in the landscape — he said he wants people to think of them as existing “somewhere between architecture and television.” He notes that children and the elderly tend to understand them intuitively.
“All my intellectual ideas come from popular culture,” he said, at one point protesting: “I’m not deconstructing it. I’m celebrating it.”
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