“Dan Graham: Beyond, Whitney Museum of American Art” Art Monthly
#330 October 2009

Part cinema verite and part surveillance, the popular appeal of television reality shows rests on their ability to encourage their viewing audiences to identify with regular people, while maintaining the detached voyeurism implicit in watching others sacrificing themselves for the sake of one’s own entertainment. Alternating seamlessly between developing a bond with average people in the heat of competition, and the joy of rubber necking after so many of them crash, reality TV thrives in a society which condemns anonymity while making sport of those who manage to breach it. The early 70’s television documentary An American Family was the first truly popular reality show, revealing collapsing distinctions between public and private in a culture perpetually offered the spectacle of itself through the expanding networks of media and commodity culture. As camera crews followed the upper middle class Loud family for one year, the pressures of constant surveillance were said to have exacerbated routine familial tension into hyper drama fit for TV viewing.

In a piece that alluded to the indivisible nature of American television and family life, Dan Graham, whose first U.S. retrospective is currently at the Whitney Museum, placed a large screen television on the front lawn of a typical suburban house allowing the passerby to view what was being watched inside. In the middle of a family argument during one of the artist’s visits, Graham switched to a wrestling match on TV, projecting the inner family “dynamic” onto the street outside. Possessing an acute understanding of the interplay between behaviorism and perception, as well as an interest in language, media, youth culture, and architecture, the Whitney exhibition offers an opportunity for American audiences to experience aspects of his work that go beyond the limited categories of conceptual art, post-minimalism, etc. that he has long been associated with.

Exploring the limits of self-consciousness and its representation, the mid-seventies video and performances were highly charged experiments in the “splitting” of the self via its reflections and representations. In Performer/ Audience/ Mirror (1977) Graham adopted the no nonsense cadence of a sportscaster as he gave a “play by play” account of his activity in the space between an audience and wall sized mirror. Shifting from banal descriptions of his movements reflected in the mirror to the audience’s responses, and then back again, the artist presented the dilemma of the socially constructed self as a moment-to- moment process requiring constant focus. Negotiating between the social self and its representation via a running monologue which noted simple gestures and shifts in posture, the body is revealed as a somewhat cumbersome site of exchange between private experience and public expectation, alluding to the latent schizophrenia present in everyday experience.

Like Performer/ Audience/ Mirror the model Alteration to a Suburban House (1978/92) presents experience as split or divided, but here through the division of a conventional suburban tract home with a mirrored partition wall. Running parallel to the front wall of the house, which has been removed in favor of a glass curtain wall, the proposed transformation aggressively reshapes the uniform building types of the suburbs. Inserting materials associated with the steel and glass reflectivity of the modern city (something akin to Walter Benjamin’s idea of the city as dream-like display), the front of the house becomes a display area via the transformation of the façade into a shop window. Reflecting Venturi’s acknowledgment of the advertising’s influence on architectural form, the mirrored wall also functions as a billboard, projecting the family’s activities out onto the street.

As this hypothetical family assimilates the projection of its activities into the public realm, so the viewer of Dan Graham’s freestanding pavilions is confronted by the ambivalence of being both the perceiver and the perceived. Beginning in the late 70’s, the pavilions assimilated Graham’s diverse interests in architecture, perceptual phenomenon, and the communalism inherent in rock music and popular culture. Usually situated in public parks and private gardens, they incorporate the two-way mirror glass found in corporate skyscrapers, altering the monolithic scale and reflective opacity of these buildings to arrive at a pared down structure analogous to Laugier’s rustic hut. Incorporating the physical presence of the spectator into a layered perceptual experience, the pavilions trace movements of the individual as they negotiate the complex relationship between transparency and reflection, inside and outside. Like the all-encompassing spectacle of the contemporary city on a more contained and intimate scale, the experience shifts from one of surveillance, to being on display, to a fleeting sense of privacy in the midst of a group.

When encountered in a museum, the communal nature of this work is not in its displacement of conventional exhibition experience in favor of the “relaxed gatherings” favored by many artists who claim Graham as an influence, but in encouraging social interaction through perceptual phenomenon rooted in conditions outside the museum context. Combining skeptical inquiry with playful perceptual experimentation, Graham’s work negotiates between the largely hermetic culture of contemporary art and the general interests of a larger public, while maintaining a subtlety noticeably absent from the visual spectacles increasingly employed as a means of expanding the audience for art.

The four and a half decades of work in Graham’s (belated) U.S. retrospective seem extremely relevant in a culture fixated by media spectacle and the voluntary surveillance of “social media.” Simultaneously prescient and of the moment, this retrospective finally offers a comprehensive look at an artist whose pervasive influence has often exceeded the visibility of his work, presenting an opportunity for a more thorough understanding of a career that, until now, has likely been better understood abroad than at home.