On the occasion of Rodney Graham's exhibition of new work at 303 Gallery, Dan Graham locates the artist's interests in Nineteenth Century panorama painting, stylized mid-century West Coast modernism, and—most surprisingly—the colors of Van Gogh.
DAN GRAHAM: I found your art interesting as a collector and as a teacher for many years. I find that it's growing as you get older. That's not true of many artists, whose work usually falls into a trademark and gets worse. You base your work on the nineteenth century. I love Thomas Eakins enormously. And Jeff Wall doesn't realize that the first panoramas were done by Frederic Church, who's a real hero of mine. But you're also concerned with the real Wild West, right?
RODNEY GRAHAM: Well, there's a piece in the show, Dance!!!!! (2008, pictured left courtesy 303 Gallery), dealing with that trope. It goes back to one of the oldest tropes in Western cinema, even back to the Great Train Robbery, the scene of someone being forced to dance at gunpoint.
DAN: But that's kind of slapstick, Vaudeville, right?
RODNEY: That's true. I'm interested in using those moments of cinema as reference points.
DAN: You were just a stiff, but now you've become a dancer. Does that relate to Tracey Emin's first video, Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995), which I remember you referencing in the past? In that work there were cartoons, and you were able to push the screen, and she'd dance.
RODNEY: Maybe, that's true. I just shot another dance piece called Dancing Hermit, in which a hermit is dancing in the backyard behind his hut for two young people who come to visit him, as if he's a wizard or something. He's doing a sun dance, very ecstatic. But rock 'n roll did help me loosen up, get in touch with my inner songwriter, and it opened up possibilities for me to, as you say, loosen up.
DAN: Is there any actor that you particularly identify with?
RODNEY: I like Sean Penn. I like what he's doing in Haiti. That guy is really awesome. Did you see him on CNN? He's amazing actually. But in terms of an actor, I don't know, I can't think...
DAN: There's a great Canadian actor, the son of the great Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, who was in one of my favorite films by Nicholas Roeg, Don't Look Now.
RODNEY: That's a fantastic film.
DAN: His son is very famous now. You remind me of him.
RODNEY: He's in 24, that post–9/11 thriller, right?
DAN: But Donald Sutherland was very sensitive. I guess you're not assensitive as he was.
RODNEY: No. My performances generally are quite stiff, but I'm trying to loosen up with the new dance-based works.
INSTALLATION VIEW OF THE GIFTED AMATEUR, NOVEMBER 10TH, 1962, 2007. COURTESY 303 GALLERY.
DAN: What I loved about the last show at 303 Gallery, The Gifted Amateur, Nov 10th, 1962, was the idea of Morris Louis painting in his living room, which your recorded in a photograph of a man painting in a home, and in several paintings. It was very much about suburbia, and America in the Fifties. I really think that relates to Jeff Wall, and your interest in my work on suburbia. And then Jules Olitski would come by as a friend, and Clement Greenberg. It's like television. But I think you want to get away from these big video projections in galleries, because they don't really fit the gallery situation.
RODNEY: Well, that's true. The whole idea of darkening a gallery for a projection...
DAN: It doesn't really make sense. And also you're into fairly commercial painting even though it's quite clichéd. In my lectures I always mention that work and say that I'm a gifted amateur also. I don't believe in professionals.
RODNEY: Yes, you've inspired me in that way.
DAN: It's also tracing back to the idea of the glass house, which Jeff Wall mentioned in [his 1982 essay] "Dan Graham's Kammerspiel." Although [West Coast modernist architect] Richard Neutra is more controversial, because he did all these elegant houses that are kind of rip-offs. He wasn't as brilliant as [Rudolph] Schindler, who actually was his friend at one time. It's about the idle rich of these Neutra houses. (LEFT: RODNEY GRAHAM, INVERTED DRIP PAINTING #20, 2008)
RODNEY: I built a set for that house, which was based on a very specific photograph of a Neutra by Julius Shulman. It's based on one of those, in a slightly hybrid, West Vancouver way.
DAN: But you know he basically ripped himself off, it's the same thing for everybody. It was like high style. I think the great architect was [John] Lautner, whose houses were used in a lot of film sets, and then became fodder again for rip-offs. But of course, West Coast living also comes from a magazine ideal.
RODNEY: Actually, I got some inspiration from an article in an old Western living magazine about Jack Shadbolt's house in West Vancouver. There's still a beautiful example of that vernacular, artist-built modernist homes from the 1950s, in West Vancouver, owned by the painter Gordon Smith.
DAN: It's also the introduction of glass into elegant, high style living. Glass was originally a Bauhaus idea. My favorite architect, Johannes Duiker, in his 1934 Cineac in Amsterdam, used glass so you could see the projection apparatus from the street, to open everything up to public preview.
RODNEY: So your Cinema piece (1981), a plan for a projection in the ground floor of a building, was based on that?
DAN: Before Cinema, I actually hadn't seen the Duiker work. I was postulating. The Cineac is on a busy street, on a corner, and my work was proposed for a corner situation. It's a fantasy. I don't think it could ever happen, although everybody has been wanting to make it happen. But by the time Neutra was doing International Style architecture, it was basically elegant living houses. Of course, Philip Johnson was just ripping off the Farnsworth (1951, Plano, Illinois) of Mies Van Der Rohe, but Mies was very into that. You know, the Farnsworth house was actually done for a very rich woman doctor, who had a big crush on Mies. She thought she would have an affair with him, it didn't happen. It went over budget so she sued him. It was unrequited love, and it was too expensive. [LAUGHS] But what I like is the fact is the painted work from your last show was a commercial version of Morris Louis. It's like paint-by-numbers a little bit.
LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER WITH LIGHTHOUSE MODEL, 1955 (2010). COURTESY 303 GALLERY
RODNEY: Well I was looking for a painting format or formula. I also was fascinated by the fact that if you look in Morris Louis' big monograph, it reproduces all the drip paintings that he made in his last years before he died, and there were hundreds. He was working day and night to produce. He never made studies; it's not the kind of thing you can do a study for. I'm talking about the "unfurls," the last ones. So I like the idea of just manic proliferation.
DAN: It was mass production for the Clement Greenberg clientele. I saw one of the new pieces, Lighthouse Keeper With Lighthouse Model, 19955 (2010). The color is getting very, very Van Gogh-like.
RODNEY: You thought it was sick-making?
RODNEY: I didn't mean it to be that way. But it is the color of a lighthouse keeper, that institutional turquoise green. I wanted to make a variant of the Gifted Amateur piece, about making art in a very constrained way, because Morris Louis used to work in a 9-by-12-foot kitchen nook. In this case, this lighthouse keeper is making his model in a very small enclosure.
DAN: Again it's historical, you're going back to the idea of the studio, which Daniel Buren put to rest in his early essays when he wrote against the institution of artist and the studio, because he said that was "establishment practice." But Buren was very reductive. Historically, there's always going to be a studio. What about your "potato light box?" It's kind of pathetic isn't it? I loved it. It's a still life?
RODNEY: Yeah, it was part of the back-story for a film called Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong. Did you ever see that film?
DAN: No. The only time I see your work is at art fairs.
RODNEY: [LAUGHS]. It was performed in 2006 as part of a Noise Festival, and Mike Kelley, we threw the potatoes at the gong. But yeah, I made that piece as part of the work of a hypothetical artist, based on the drummer from Pink Floyd throwing vegetables, who'd worked with potatoes at a certain point in his career. But I thought it was kind of pathetic and absurd to block the door, to barricade yourself in the studio with potatoes.
DAN: Do you think the artist's creativity was blocked?
RODNEY: [LAUGHS] Could be, yeah.
DAN: It's a metaphor for the fear of every artist and writer.
RODNEY: Yeah I never thought of that. That's true.
WORK BY RODNEY GRAHAM OPENS MAY 22, 6–8 PM. 303 GALLERY IS LOCATED AT 547 WEST 21 STREET, NEW YORK.