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Wikipedia About Dan Graham

Born in Urbana, Illinois in 1942, Dan Graham grew up in New Jersey. In 1964 he began directing the John Daniels Gallery in New York, where he put on Sol LeWitt’s first one-man show, and in groups shows, exhibited works of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson. Like these artists, Graham considered himself a writer-artist, publishing essays and reviews on rock music, Eisenhower’s paintings, and Dean Martin’s television show. His earliest work dealt with the magazine page, predating but often associated with Conceptual art. His work often focuses on cultural phenomena, and incorporates photography, video, performance, glass and mirror structures. He has exhibited and realized commissions all around the world, including participation at numerous international group exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale (1976, 2003, 2004 and 2005) and documenta V, VI, VII, IX and X (1972, 1977, 1982, 1992 and 1997). Major retrospectives of his oeuvre have been staged in Europe (2001–02) and in the U.S. (2009), showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Dan Graham lives and works in New York. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Dan Graham, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

It is difficult to imagine the state of art, music, architecture, or criticism in the United States without the influence of Dan Graham. As an art dealer, a filmmaker, a performer, a photographer, an art critic, a music producer, a writer, a poet, and the author of a rock opera, Graham is a different kind of artist—one whose ultimate goal is to explore and expose the relationships between the different disciplines that constitute the mechanism of perception in a cultural system. Deeply influenced by the writings of anthropologist Margaret Mead and by psychoanalysis and ideological criticism inherited from the Frankfurt School via Herbert Marcuse, he has over the years produced a body of work that can be seen as an essay on the condition of human life in a postmodern, postindustrial era. Whether his artistic interventions take place in a gallery, between the pages of a magazine, on a stage, in a movie theater, on television, or on the streets, Graham continues to deconstruct, clarify, and expose the nature and condition of an individual’s status and behavior within a public sphere dominated by the logic and integrated spectacle of corporate capital and politics.

In 1964, Graham opened the John Daniels Gallery in Manhattan with friends.1 He organized exhibitions of work by artists with whom he shared intellectual and aesthetic affinities, such as Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson. Financial challenges overshadowed the artistic program, and the gallery closed in 1965. Graham escaped his creditors by moving to New Jersey. There he began a photographic series that is still developing as a matrix of his concerns and his oeuvre. Using a cheap Kodak camera, he photographed the housing environment of New Jersey. His goal was to create images that anyone could produce. First shown as a slide projection, the work, titled Homes for America, is a series of images outlining a typology of all possible variations on decorative motifs or materials.2 Through the photographs, Graham draws a critical parallel between the housing industry and the seriality inherited from the aesthetic of Minimal Art. In December 1966, Homes for America was published in Arts Magazine, accompanied by an article written by the artist.3 The original design by Graham included a text about the nature of suburban housing developments, illustrated by photographs stressing their mass-produced and serial quality. In the pages of the magazine, Homes for America was not a mere reproduction of an artwork; it was an artwork informed and distributed by the means of information itself, by the medium of the magazine as a public space. It was not art about the media (like Pop Art) but art as media, art as information. Graham used information as an aesthetic and the media as a vernacular form appropriate to the nature of his discourse. The quotidian and serial nature of the magazine was the perfect conduit for a critique of the seriality of Minimal Art through an analysis of vernacular suburban architecture.

Embedded in Graham’s work is the use of mirrors and glass as critical tools as well as an ongoing fascination with the suburbs as a homogenizing location of social climbing. This is at the heart of Alteration to a Suburban House (1978/1992). The work seems to be a direct extension of Graham’s 1977 action Performance/Audience Mirror in which the artist stood between a large mirror and the audience. He first described himself facing the group, then turned and described himself in front of the mirror, facing the image of a public observing a performer in the unfathomable depth of its own reflected image. Alteration is an architectural model of a suburban street in which one house faces two others. The dwelling’s normally solid facade has been replaced by a glass wall; in the back, parallel to the wall, a mirror divides the public living areas from the private. The glass wall opens the living area to the public gaze, like a shop window or a living billboard advertising a very specific lifestyle and decor. The mirror reflects not only the inside of the house, but its immediate surroundings: the neighboring houses, passersby, and cars are projected into the private environment of the living area, where voyeurism and surveillance merge. Alteration does not comment only on vernacular architectural codes. Just as Homes for America implies a critical take on Minimalism and Pop Art strategies, this series of models presents the glass wall as the icon of “noble” modernist architecture as developed by Mies van der Rohe, among others. To the Arcadian reconciliation of nature and culture made possible by the glass, Graham adds here a third party: the contextual complexity of the urban space, as outlined in architect Robert Venturi’s 1966 essay Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Venturi challenged the orthodoxy of modernism by championing an architecture that promoted richness and ambiguity over unity and clarity, contradiction and redundancy over harmony and simplicity, answering van der Rohe’s “less is more” with his equally famous “less is bore.” Not allying himself with either of these theoretical models, Graham combines both in order to understand where and why each of them might have failed their users.

Drawing on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the “mirror stage” giving rise during childhood to the mental representation of the subject, Graham started in the 1980s to build architectural pavilions informed by his former investigations into modernist, vernacular, and corporate architecture as well as his experimentation with audience behavior. The sculptures Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth (1994–1996) and New Space for Showing Videos (1995) belong to this generation of works. These two pieces, conceived on comparable premises, address the institutional context of a sculpture garden and an art center. Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth, installed outdoors in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and informed by Graham’s interest in Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque gardens, embodies the modernist marriage of architecture and nature in a maze where the glass walls not only reflect nature, but are nature themselves (arborvitae). The maze is less architectural than perceptual, in which artifice and nature are confounded. New Space for Showing Videos is an indoor environment, made of alternating standard and two-way mirrors, that carve out spatially the concept of seeing and being seen, a strategy familiar to corporate surveillance architecture. In this maze of bays are video monitors and casual seating that create a convivial social atmosphere in which watching and being watched are confused. The space reinforces the idea of a social contract on which was born the very notion of the public museum.

Media and popular culture have been other systems of signs and ritual ripe for scrutiny within Graham’s own “comparative anthropology.” The video documentary Rock My Religion (1982–1984) applies to rock music what curator Jean-François Chevrier has called a “montage of dissimilar historical moments” to define Graham’s practices.4 In Rock My Religion, the artist drafts a history that begins with the Shakers and their practices of self-denial and ecstatic communal trances and ends with the emergence of rock music as the religion of the teenage consumer in the isolated suburban context of the 1950s. He identifies rock’s sexual and ideological context in postwar America as a form of cathartic and secular religion.

Pedagogical, spectacular, and playful all at once, Graham’s work has always attempted to expose the mechanism of alienation by analyzing the impact of social codes—propagated by the media or architecture—on the individuation process. Less a dog-matic criticism than an incitement to remain alert, his practice is, as critic Thierry de Duve wrote, a “stocking of utopia.”5

  1. The gallery’s other partners were John Van Esen and Robert Tera.

  2. As a slide show, Homes for America was shown in 1966 in the exhibition Projected Art at the Finch College Museum of Art, New York.

  3. Unfortunately, the article was inadvertently illustrated with an image of a wooden house in Boston taken by photographer Walker Evans. Graham’s intended illustrations appear in a lithographed edition of the original design for Homes for America realized between February 19 and May 20, 1971, at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. The lithograph is in the Walker’s collection.

  4. Jean-François Chevrier, “Dual Reading,” in Jean-François Chevrier, ed., Walker Evans and Dan Graham, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), 16.

  5. Thierry de Duve, “Dan Graham et la critique de l’autonomie artistique (Dan Graham and the Critique of Artistic Autonomy),” in Christine van Assche and Gloria Moure, eds., Dan Graham, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 2001), 49–67.

Vergne, Philippe. “Dan Graham.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


biography Dan Graham, Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures Walker Art Center, 2000

A conceptual artist, architect, photographer, performer, video artist, and critic, Dan Graham began in the 1960s to reflect on the artistic system, focusing particularly on the mechanism of perception offered by works in different contexts. Since the early 1970s the ideology that underpins social phenomena such as rock music and architecture has been at the center of his work. Inquisitorial ads in newspapers, revealing contributions to magazines, antirational architectural works, and exterior and interior pavilions than combine formal simplicity with visual complexity are some of the many means through which Graham has explored his theories. His video work Rock My Religion (1982-1984) explores how rock music as an art form parallels the development of the Shaker religion in America, especially its emphasis on ecstatic spirituality and trance experience. Three Linked Cubes/Interior Design for a Space Showing Videos (1986) consists of a series of rectangular bays with alternating two-way mirrors or transparent glass. Video monitors and speakers have been placed inside to allow separate programs for audiences divided into different groups. The work is at once a piece of architecture and a work of optical art; the mix of reflective and transparent surfaces allows viewers to see both the videos and their own and others’ reactions to the videos as the exhibition space becomes a social space. Borders between private and public, separate and collective, inside and outside are all questioned within this structure. Graham’s video viewing structures were included in documenta X and the Whitney Biennial, both in 1997.

Dan Graham biography from Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures, Walker Art Center, 2000.