Lately, Dan Graham seems to be everywhere. A frequent reference point for artists today, he has been a key figure in the art of the past 30 years, and is by all accounts central to the history of Conceptual art. Yet he has remained elusive. While a few of his works have become landmarks—notably the photo-essay “Homes for America” (1966-67) and his video Rock My Religion (1982-84)—the arc of his career and the range of his production are not broadly familiar to American art audiences.
The reasons are fairly clear: much of Graham’s work has taken the form of text- and photo-based magazine pieces, performances, architectural models and slide shows, which do not lend themselves to major museum exhibitions (or success in the market). A reluctant Conceptualist who last year told Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth that art was merely his “passionate hobby” and that in fact he is “not a professional artist,”1 he has tended toward work that is disposable and temporal and belongs to popular culture as much as the art world. He has also been engaged from the start with the punk, hardcore and avant-rock movements. In short, unlike fellow pioneers of idea-based work, Graham has declined a consistently object-oriented practice. (There is the further obstacle that a significant portion of his collectible output is in European private collections, alongside that of other like-minded, difficult-to-categorize artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, who himself showed early interest in Graham’s work.) The deeply informative “Dan Graham: Beyond,”co-curated by Bennett Simpson of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Chrissie Iles of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, is the first comprehensive retrospective of his work organized by American museums.
Graham’s involvement in the art world began with the John Daniels Gallery, on East 64th Street in Manhattan, which he co-founded (with David Herbert) and directed for its six-month life starting in late 1964. Offering an alternative to the Pop art that dominated New York galleries, it showed work that favored new materials and new approaches to abstraction. Among its notable shows was “Plastics,” which included work by Robert Watts, Robert Smithson, Donald Judd and Arman, among others; and Sol LeWitt’s first solo exhibition. A solo show of Smithson’s work that Graham planned was never realized because of the gallery’s demise.2
When the gallery closed, Graham turned to magazines as primary venues, writing art and music criticism and creating breakthrough text pieces, of which “Dan Graham: Beyond”includes several examples. Figurative (1965; published March 1968) is a cash-register receipt printed in Harper’s Bazaar, which the editor memorably placed between ads for Tampax and for a padded, torpedo-shaped bra (“If nature didn’t, Warner’s will”); Schema (1965) is an arbitrary rubric for a fixed-length publication, specifying numbers of adjectives, adverbs and infinitives, type of paper stock, and so on; and Detumescence (1966; published in the New York Review of Sex, Aug. 15, 1969) presents a decidedly clinical (and rather hilarious) account of male postcoital experience. Graham’s involvement with the art scene as writer and gallerist, which in current parlance might be called “relational,” and his forbearance, in the ’60s, from making art objects, now seem to foretell the range of “post-studio” developments that would emerge in later years. But at the time, Graham was simply “not sure he was ‘an artist,’” as Lucy Lippard later recalled.3 (Nor, for that matter, was he sure he was an art dealer. “My gallery failed, it was a total failure, we sold nothing,” he has said.4) Working in the fluid zone between art and non-art that was touted—if not fully inhabited—by such Conceptualists as LeWitt and Mel Bochner, Graham staked his radicalism, as Philippe Vergne sees it, on his refusal to accept the “bloodless” categories of high and low art.5
By the end of the ’60s, Graham had become deeply interested in the ideologies manifest in the built environment, issues with which he remains engaged; his main concern has been how suburbanization, and the equally antiseptic curtain-wall office buildings that rose en massein urban America in the postwar years, radically changed the social landscape. The focus on speculatively built suburban tract housing makes this retrospective particularly timely, coinciding as it does with an economic depression linked to flimsy bets on the residential real estate market.
After the Daniels Gallery failed, Graham, “evading creditors,” had moved back to his parents’ home in suburban New Jersey.6 He took pictures of recently built, look-alike residences in his home state and on Staten Island, and read, among other things, an article by Judd on the city plan of Kansas City. The result was his iconic project “Homes for America,”first realized as a slide show included in the 1966 exhibition “Projected Art” at the Finch College Museum of Art in New York. Shortly thereafter, the piece appeared as a photo-essay in Arts magazine, titled “Homes for America: Early 20th Century Possessable House to the Quasi-Discrete Cell of ’66.”7Later described by Graham as a “fake think piece” on postwar suburban developments, the epochal work, a quietly devastating exercise in deadpan, begins with the foreboding claim that “Large scale ‘tract’ housing ‘developments’ constitute the new city.” The essay implicitly ties the “quasi-discrete cells” of tract housing to the factory-fabricated modular forms common to Minimalism, linking the serial logic of the art and residential architecture of the ’60s.8
Graham’s essay dwells on the era’s depersonalized home, which no longer reflected individual tastes and needs but was built “to be thrown away.” He finds humor in the names given to houses in one Florida development—“The Sonata,” “The Concerto,” “The Ballet,” “The Rhapsody” and so on—while also acknowledging the earnest aspirations they convey. But, he concluded, “contingencies such as mass production technologies and land use economics make the final decisions.” While disposable housing driven by corporate interests was, and remains, a troubling phenomenon, Graham’s approach is not, on the surface anyway, a simple indictment; “Homes for America,” he recently said, was “a celebration of the poetry of the suburbs.”9
Who lived in these homes? The nuclear families contained in suburbia’s interchangeable units were just as much an object of scrutiny for Graham as were the dwellings themselves. That these happy families consisted of kids listening to rock music in their bedrooms while their mothers were popping pills in theirs is the assumption behind Graham’s mordant unpublished magazine piece Side Effects/Common Drugs (1966), which charts the collateral damage (“anorexia,” “blurring of vision,” “decreased libido,” etc.) of what the Rolling Stones memorably called “mother’s little helpers.”
Graham’s fascination with the cloistered social environment of tract housing is evident in his architectural model Alteration to a Suburban House (1978/1992). It proposes replacing the siding of a single-story “ranch” style home with glass; a mirror would bisect the house lengthwise. (There seems to be a clear debt here to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting of 1974, and a nod to Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House.) Residents of Graham’s altered house would be on display—an implicit judgment, perhaps, against the closed-off “quasi-discrete cell” for its concealment of troubling family dynamics. Mirrors like the one in this piece crop up frequently in Graham’s structures, both built and hypothetical, placing inhabitants within visual fields made continuous, by reflection, with their surroundings. The house is turned inside out in a different way by Video Projection Outside Home (1978), in which a monumental television on the front lawn of a suburban residence broadcasts what’s on the tube inside. (A model is included in the current retrospective; the project was realized at a private home in Santa Barbara in 1996.)