“Restless, Yet Precise, Dan Graham Whitney Retrospective”

The Architect’s Newspaper
#14 September 9 2009

Transforming an industrial rooftop in Chelsea into a park-like space from which to contemplate the city, Dan Graham’s Rooftop Urban Park Project (1991-2004) at the Dia center was a great example of the artist’s overlapping interests in the city plan, the intra-subjectivity of the individual and the group, and theme park vernacular (the “boardwalk” platform made reference to the Chelsea Piers via Coney Island), anticipating the High Line by almost 20 years. But where the High Line betrays the interdependence of leisure and commerce as it connects the dots of Chelsea’s rampant gentrification, Graham’s Rooftop Project combined amusement with perceptual experimentation, provoking viewers’ self awareness in a manner largely absent from the public-space-as-entertainment experience of the contemporary city. Generally more visible in Europe than America, the artist is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Encompassing four decades of work that includes text pieces, performance, film and video, music, architectural models and pavilions, this exhibition offers a chance for a broader understanding of the associative nature of Graham’s art, as well as its significance within the context of architecture.

Graham’s interest in architecture can be traced to Donald Judd’s article on the city plan of Kansas City as well as the novels of Michel Butor, who addressed the disorientating nature of the modern urban environment. Originally produced as a slide show and then as a magazine layout, Homes for America simultaneously engaged the built environment and mass media, combining minimalist influenced photographs of the repetitive box-like uniformity of suburban construction, with a rejection of the art gallery in favor of periodicals. The gap between the physicality of space represented in the Judd-like photographs and the less tangible form of “disposable” art would lead to investigations of the body and its perceptual double where performance, mirrors, video, and film would identify schisms between the physical and mediated self, as well as the effect of the body’s representation on one’s self-consciousness. These “experiments” would have significant implications in work that addressed the psychologically charged context of urban settings as well as the “partitioned” reality of suburban environments, where public and private space are more clearly delineated.

Two related pieces in the Whitney exhibition address the objectifying nature of the social gaze and the tension between public and private experience. In Public Space/ Two Audiences, a room bisected by glass with a mirrored wall on one end sets up both an interaction and isolation of viewers on either side of the glass, whose mirrored reflections and view of each other replace the conventional art object. Changing the scale while introducing the suburban context, the model Alteration to a Suburban House proposed removing the front wall of a typical suburban tract home and replacing it with a glass curtain wall, while (in the manner of Matta Clark) “splitting” the house down the center with a mirror which runs parallel to the façade. The house was divided into private and public spheres, with the mirror in the front reflecting the street and houses opposite, while acting like a billboard (in the manner of Venturi), which broadcast the commingling of public street and private interior. Creating a jarring hybrid between Mies’ glass house and the suburban vernacular, this piece loosened hierarchies of “high” architecture and middle class housing, a schism that continues to provoke debate as to what may be considered “architecture.”

Beginning in the early eighties, Graham’s perceptual investigations were joined with the context of the city plan via freestanding two-way mirror pavilions, modeled after the essentialist architecture of Laugier’s rustic hut. Adopting the seemingly inflexible 1980’s corporate vernacular of mirrored glass office towers and transforming it into reflective/transparent media (two-way mirror), the visual overlay of the individual/group’s reflections in the pavilions immerse the spectator in a complex set of perceptual phenomena which parallels the highly stimulating experience of the contemporary city. Often located in urban parks outside the city center, the pavilions’ chosen context alluded to the historical function of Arcadian gardens (described in Graham’s 1983 article “Corporate Arcadias”), which was, in part, a response to the rapidly decaying urban infrastructure of late 70’s/ early 80’s America. Not limited solely to a “critique”, but remaining both informed by and antithetical to its origins, the pavilions reshape corporate modernism via a shift in scale and an alteration of the mirrored skyscrapers’ mute, reflective exteriors into a playful disorientation of the viewer’s expectations.

Largely intended for outdoor sites, the pavilions seem at home on the fourth floor of the Breuer-designed Whitney; the openings in Triangular Solid With Circular Inserts (Variation E) resonate particularly well with the large window on the museum’s east wall. Presented as a cohesive installation, the four decades of work here seem to exist “all at once”, a broad field of proposals and experiential works that are both restless and precise. In a gesture more often made when presenting artists from the remote past, a slide projection of Dan Graham’s diverse influences, from pop artists (Claus Oldenberg) to minimalists (Sol Lewitt, Dan Flavin) to architects (Mies, Venturi), has been included as part of the exhibition. As an indication of Graham’s appreciation for historical memory, hybrid forms, and the connection of cultural ideas and figures that transcend individual careers, these acknowledgements reveal a unique perspective in an era that often tends to overlook precedents in favor of imitation and historical pastiche.

The catalogue for the show includes a number of informative texts (critic Beatriz Colomina on the pavilions) and interviews, but because the articles tend to divide the artist’s broad approach into separate interests, the most comprehensive contribution is the Manga Dan Graham Story by Fumihiro Nonomura and Ken Tanimoto. Conveying a direct, unpretentious informality and humor (mirroring the artist’s own), the comic strip presents a concise chronology of Graham’s achievements as an artist, one who remains enormously influential while ignoring the limiting categories that the demands of a career often dictate.

"Dan Graham: Beyond," June 25-Oct. 11, 2009, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028