Infinite Jest: A Conversation With Dan Graham


Dan Graham is less known for his humor than for his pieces Homes For America and Rock My Religion, both which depart from clichéd notions of America. Graham’s first retrospective, Dan Graham: Beyond, is now on view at MOCA in Los Angeles, as is his solo exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery. Here, the artist speaks about his concurrent shows, along with his use of deadpan and love of printed matter.

PM: How does the show on view a MOCA (which will travel to the Whitney) differ from your recent gallery show at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York? How do the two overlap?

DG: The retrospective is all older work: video, printed matter, and photographs which come from American situations, while the Goodman work comes mostly from Europe. On view in New York there is a stage set that I made for Japanther, and also a piece that I made for the Sonic Youth exhibition, which is an extension of that piece. It uses two sides — two sides are perforated metal; on one side the perforated metal is very small holes, the other side it is very big holes, so it is like disco and psychedelic together. And then there are models of all the new pieces that I did in Europe along with videos that I took of the finished pavilions.

PM: The work then is relatively split. Do you think this type of work dovetails at a certain point? Perhaps with the pavilion that you made for the DIA, which is the only one you’ve recently made in this region.

DG: There is a lot of resistance to my work in New York. For my piece at the DIA, Thurston Moore wanted to perform and Laurie Anderson wanted to perform. I was trying to change the DIA into something populist. I wanted it to be an outdoor ICA. I referenced that in the coffee bar video tech — I referenced the videos that the artists made in the seventies, because people have forgotten the things that the Kitchen represented. So I had all these 1970s videos and performances by artists, and a coffee bar to acquaint people with the 70s. And it was trying to be a 1970s alternative space because I wanted performances to take place and to use it as a corporate atrium.

PM: I think that the viewership of both the art audience and of music audience is something that is specific to New York.

DG: We had that in the 70s. In the clubs, where Richard Prince had his own group and so did Robert Longo, and the venues in New York. Maybe this is what you think New York should have been — everything was in tiny alternative spaces where people performed in rock groups. There was Mudd Club and Tier Three, but that was very much in the past. So that was harkening back to the great period in the seventies, when New York was a place that had that community feeling, I think you are talking about community feeling.

PM: You bring up a good point about rock and roll, which has influenced a great deal of your work, even before your video Rock My Religion.

DG: From the early conceptual period, people only know Homes For America — and they get it all wrong. It’s actually humorous and comes more from rock and roll. The cliché at the time was the song by the Beatles, Nowhere Man or Mr. Pleasant by the Kinks. That piece is a fake think piece — it’s a parody of a magazine piece. Esquire published an articles by sociologist about how sterile the suburbs were with photographs by well known photographers.

PM: The parody is ubiquitous throughout your work from the ‘60’s. I recently saw a piece from that time period called Proposal for An Art Magazine. It was included in a group show curated by Nicolas Guagnini at Andrew Roth. THe piece was a proposal for a series of interview sto be conducted between three artists. The resulting structure would lay bare the social systems involved between artists and art magazines.

DG: Let’s look it up. PROPOSAL FOR AN ART MAGAZINE: Three artists all working in the same genre all familiar with each other. “Dan Graham, a known art critic, is commissioned by the magazine to produce an article. I interview each artist and completely [integrate their comments]. I ask each of them to comment on the work of the other two artists. The first artist comments about the second and third artist, the second about the first and third, and the third about the first and second artist’s work. The resulting structures the only socio-psychological framework…”

PM: The self-closing triad, the reality that is behind the appearance of any article in the art magazine or art criticism.” Who influenced your love for printed matter?

DG: I have the same love for printed matter, and I got that from Roy Lichtenstein. Roy said he wanted to destroy painting by putting cheap printed matter on painting to destroy value. In the end it became valuable.

PM: When you actually insert the conceptual pieces into the journal, how do you change the currency of the magazine, and what is the effect in inserting a type of intellectual currency?

DG: Well let’s look at a piece that did get published. The reason I did this receipt is that — normally a magazine tries to arouse your desire to buy something, and getting you involved in wanting to buy something and fulfill your desires. Here, I inserted a receipt which doesn’t add up to anything. I am looking into the whole advertising system of magazines.

PM: It is inserted between an advertisement for Tampax and one for Warner’s brassiere, in Harper’s Bazaar. How did you manage that?

DG: Well, Robert Smithson had a gay friend who was the poetry editor for Harper’s Bazaar, who got this published as poetry. Everyone wanted to be a writer: [Dan] Flavin wanted to be [James] Joyce, [Donald] Judd has his own style which is like A. J. Ayer, we all wanted to be artist-writers.

PM: Your humor is mostly deadpan.

DG: I was in Belgium and the person who liked my work was Marcel Broodthaers.

PM: Perhaps the interest in an American humor links you to many of the artists of Cal Arts, like Jim Shaw or John Miller.

DG: Yes, we’re interested in clichés. I’m upper middle class, but I grew up in a working class community and I know the Catholic working class — so I am fascinated by Italian American culture

PM: The deadpan derives from this blunt, awkward pairing — the way you insert it into your arguments.

DG: On Kawara, to whom my work is closest, had humor like [Samuel] Becket. It’s existentialist humor. Deadpan humor, things that pretend to be dumb like Sol Le Witt’s grids, which were actually highly intelligent, is a humor of dumbness.

PM: How does this then translate to your pavilion works?

DG: Well my Star of David pavilion in Austria, that’s kind of Jewish humor, and the Yin Yang pavilion, you might not like this but it is an attack on New Age. It is basically a parody of of new age artists like Bill Viola.

PM: You use of “play” as a motif is often is read in conjunction to the pavilions.

DG: I think that comes from the 60s idea of [Herbert] Marcuse that things should be reduced to polymorphous perverse sexuality of children and playfulness.

PM: I though of it more in terms of the Situationist strategy. [Guy] Debord once said, “no games In the labyrinth.” Perhaps that could be an influence.

DG: I am not a big fan of Guy Debord, because I think he was uptight and against art. The people who did it with architecture and art, like Constance, were more influential. Debord was paralyzed — he thought this would be the end of everything, and he preferred film, which is a very narrow medium. I prefer urbanism, and Constance, as he was an architect.

PM: But the work that you are doing, with the Star of David is not merely humorist. Can you explain its derivation?

DG: The Star of David I took because Austrian’s are in denial of the Nazi past. In the castle’s moat is a Star of David — you can walk on water. I looked at Arnulf Rainer’s paintings, which are about blood on the cross, so I though of a water pavilion which would be a Star of David. The collector is a leading architecture theorist, he says it’s a Masonic symobol and doesn’t realize that it is a Star of David. Some of the young Austrians have identified it.

PM: In effect, you confront the Austrians with the past, and simultaneously you reference the position of Christianity via the parable of Jesus walking on water.

DG: The conscious thing was that I wanted to do the piece because a friend of mine suggested that I do a piece there. I thought I could relate to the old Austrian Jewish humorist, Billy Roger. But I think that more and more, the Jewish style of comedy becomes important. Who is a comedian who isn’t Jewish? Jay Leno is Catholic.

PM: David Letterman is Protestant.

DG: Speaking of humor in art, have you seen my Rodney Graham [piece]?

Installation view at Marian Goodman Gallery, from left to right; Dan Graham. Two V’s, 2009; Half Cylinder Perforated Steel Triangular Enclosure, 2008; Two Half-Cylinders Off-Aligned, 2000; One Straight-Line Crossed by One Curved Line, 2007-08; On monitor: Two V’s & 2 Half Cylinders Off-Aligned & One Straight Line Crossed by One Curved Line. Image courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.