Dan Graham’s Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth has been on permanent display in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden since 1996. Visiting the Walker on a sunny morning last August, the artist and a few curators strolled down to look at the work. They were delighted to find a couple with their two toddlers running around the “pavilion,” captivated by the effect of the mirrors and glass through which they could see each other, and in which they could also see their own reflections. Walker Garden technician Noah Wilson happened by and was asked what kind of ongoing upkeep the piece required. His response: “Mainly washing off 10,000 thumbprints and kisses at the end of each day.”
Clearly, Two-way Mirror is one of the most popular works in the Garden. With a sensibility that generously engages its public, it is also complex in terms of form and concept. It is this quality that led critics to celebrate the democratic nature of Graham’s work. This retrospective, the artist’s first in the United States, is long overdue for an American whose work of the past 40 years has included a variety of architectural pavilions as well as conceptual art, performance art, video experiments, and collaborations with a host of musicians. With a practice ranging across so many fields, Graham purposely eschews the kind of signature style (and thus the name recognition) cultivated by many contemporary artists. His refusal to keep to the polite distinctions among artistic disciplines is precisely what led the Walker to collect a significant number of his works over several decades.
The exhibition Dan Graham: Beyond showcases the artist’s unique relationship with the cultural fabric—not just with museums and art-historical traditions, but with popular culture, youth culture, and his fellow artists. It is difficult to overestimate Graham’s influence on the latter, much of which is the result of years spent conversing tirelessly with a diverse network of people, making sense of how they work, and connecting their interests. To know Graham’s art is to observe its intersections at multiple points across a culture. With representative work from every aspect of the artist’s career, the show permits just such a survey, showing how his remarkable body of work coheres into a unique and still-evolving vision.
Of the artist’s earlier conceptual projects on display, Homes for America (1966 –1967) is perhaps the best known. Published as a twopage spread in Arts Magazine, it features photos by Graham of suburban tract homes, with texts by the artist and excerpts from realestate brochures. The work made structural parallels between serialization and the use of prefabricated materials that underpinned both suburbia and Minimalism. It was also part of a wider movement at the time to take art out of the gallery, to embrace the immaterial and ephemeral, and circumvent the commodity status of art objects. Graham liked the fact that magazines could infiltrate the architecture of the home in ways conventional artworks couldn’t, ending up on a coffee table, in the garage, or even the bathroom.
Also on view are videos documenting Graham’s early performances. Works such as Lax/Relax (1969) and Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975) employed various combinations of mirrors, prerecorded sounds, or live video recordings to create striking perceptual encounters—hypnotic feedback loops between artist and audience. The installation Public Space/Two Audiences (1976), originally created for the 1976 Venice Biennale, consists of a white rectangular space with a wall-size mirror at one end divided in two by a soundproof glass wall. This simple setup is deeply surprising for visitors who enter either “room”: the distinction between mirror and glass is not immediately apparent. The “viewer” becomes both performer and audience, with Graham now removed from the equation. The artist felt that this piece, though popular, reasserted the dominance of the rarified “white cube” synonymous with modern art galleries. In subsequent works, he replaced the white walls with glass, mirrors, and other industrial materials, creating his first “pavilions.” These works demanded an audience to activate them, and insisted on making their surroundings—whether a garden, corporate lobby, or urban rooftop—an implicit part of the experience. For Graham, they were as much architecture as art in the way they implicated the built world around them.
Graham’s interest in music has been a constant in his long career, leading to collaborations with Glen Branca, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and others. In 2006, the Walker presented his multimedia puppet-theater rock opera, Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty (2004), which satirized late-’60s hippie culture and featured live accompaniment by post-punk band Japanther. The exhibition includes two of Graham’s best-known music-based videos: Minor Threat (1983), documenting an incredibly intense gig by the eponymous hardcore punk band at CBGB on the Bowery in New York City; and Rock My Religion (1982 –1984), which was described by critic Diedrich Diederichsen as “one of the most important texts on the theory of rock music,” and connects the ecstatic rituals of 19th-century Shaker circle dances to the proto-religious dynamic in rock and punk performances by Henri Rollins, Patti Smith, and others. Graham has specialized in introducing models that draw attention to everyday perception and experience through formally complex devices. On his journey as an artist, he invites viewers, however briefly, to join him on his quest.