Profile: Dan Graham 10.08.11

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During my interview with Dan Graham, I notice that he scratches the back of his head, a lot. Usually before he is about to answer one of my questions. He then looks at me and rattles off such an impressive array of facts and historical figures that I begin to suspect there is a little lever on the back of his head, something he can manoeuvre to boost his memory skills. Take, for example, his response to my question about what he thinks of New York's rapidly changing architectural landscape:

"New York has never had good architecture. I think the best building in New York is [Pier] Luigi Nervi's bus station. He was much more important than Buckminster Fuller. He was an engineer from Italy and I think his work is far more interesting than Fuller. We also have a work of architecture that has a moral function, the Ford Foundation building by Kevin Roche, that has a lot of ideas from [Eero] Saarinen. The idea of the atrium comes from Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building, so people who work on different floors can see each other. And the reflecting pool in the centre actually uses rainwater, so it was the first ecologically oriented building in New York."

This sort of articulate answer, packed with information, even revelations (Nervi more important than Buckminster Fuller?), is basically standard issue for Graham. Not that the 69-year-old artist's brilliance was ever in doubt. His apartment in Nolita, which is also his studio, is split down the middle by a long row of open bookshelves packed with books and records, evidence of his cultural omnivorousness. His work is the focus of a new book by the academic press October Files, and was the subject of a wildly successful 2009 exhibition, Dan Graham: Beyond, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Whitney Museum in New York.

To get a sense of the incredible range of Graham's practice, you need only look at the prominent figures who consider him an important model: aside from countless artists and writers, he has influenced architects including SANAA and Herzog & de Meuron, who have used reflective glass in direct reference to Graham's work, and was a mentor to Sonic Youth member and rock goddess Kim Gordon. As a youth, instead of going to college he opened the John Daniels Gallery in New York, where he showed artists such as Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin. In his writing he 
has covered Dean Martin, punk rock at its nascence, and compared 18th-century gardens to amusement parks and corporate atriums. He made a hugely influential video in 1984, titled Rock My Religion, which juxtaposes Shaker circle dances with hardcore mosh pits. But the body of work that may be Graham's most lasting legacy – certainly it is his only object-based body of work – is his pavilions.


credit Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

There are over 50 of Graham's pavilions now scattered throughout the world. They are installed in a variety of locations, including the rugged, remote mountains of the Lofoten Islands in Norway, a piazza in Como, Italy, and a public garden in Porto, Portugal. There is a pavilion for skateboarders (which Gordon helped design) and another for children (co-designed with Jeff Wall). There is a pavilion in the shape of a heart, and another shaped like a yin/yang symbol. There is a pavilion titled Girls' Make-Up Room. With their appearance of physical lightness, reflective glass surfaces, and elliptical shapes, they often recall the evanescent bubble in which Glinda the good witch floated around Oz. In her essay for the catalogue for Dan Graham: Beyond, architectural historian Beatriz Colomina writes that the word pavilion comes from papillon, or butterfly, because the open flaps of a large tent look like wings. With their otherworldly elegance, Graham's pavilions can seem like a small fleet of spaceships that are quietly invading the planet.

Don't worry, they come in peace. While today the pavilions are often talked about in terms of their relationship to the landscape, or their encouragement of social interaction (the one outside Kunst-Werke, in Berlin, is used as a cafe), they grew out of a provocative and seminal work Graham made for the 1976 Venice Biennale, titled Public Space/Two Audiences. A pane of thick glass divided a room, on one side of which was a mirror. When visitors entered the room, they could see people standing on the other side of the glass, as well as themselves reflected in the mirror. They were not only perceiving other spectators, as Graham puts it, but they were also perceiving themselves perceiving. It is worth considering this work in its original setting, surrounded by international pavilions that featured objects, but with Graham turning the focus onto the viewers.

He then wondered what would happen if he turned the wall into a window, and pointedly decided to remove his work from the tyranny of the white cube by siting it outdoors. The transition immediately put the pavilions in dialogue 
with architecture, first by expanding on his interest in suburban tract housing, which he discussed in his Homes for America article of 1966–67 (the picture windows of ranch houses are an oft-cited reference point), and later, as he developed the pavilions, becoming a critique of corporate buildings. In the 1970s, according to Graham, Jimmy Carter was challenging the corporation to use energy properly. "So what the corporation did was it showed itself reflecting the sky," Graham explains. "It was also the beginning of surveillance because when you look at them you just see a reflection of yourself, and the sky."

Yet now, ironically, the pavilions influence architects who build corporate buildings, prompting Graham to say that architects who study his work have "forgotten the programme, and just take the form". SANAA's glass pavilion at 
the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, for example, borrows Graham's layers of curved glass, but for use as a showcase rather than disorienting the viewer or challenging traditional viewer-artwork relationships.

Graham, who is generous and readily agrees to interviews, tends to be asked the same questions again and again, to which he gently gives the same replies. So I nod somewhat dutifully when he tells me that the pavilions are linked to Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, which is mentioned in every major article on them. But I am caught completely off guard when he says that two other important influences are Swedish pop artist and sculptor Claes Oldenburg and French pointillist Georges Seurat. "The idea of a public entertainment situation is important, and this is why I like Seurat, because he shows the spectators inside the circus," Graham says, referring to the 1891 painting, The Circus, and leading me to wonder whether Graham's use of perforated metal is a reference to pointillism. But no: "When I place these pavilions outdoors, they often become about the psychedelic expansion of time. As you move around, you get a distortion of yourself and your body relative to the outdoor landscape. And of course, if you use perforated metal, the moiré patterns are reflecting on top of each other, so it becomes almost like 
a Fillmore East light show."

Oldenburg, I realise later, makes perfect sense, given Graham's dry sense of humour – in the 1970s, Graham became known for performances such as Performer/Audience/Mirror, in which he described himself and the audience while standing in front of a mirror. By the end, the audience was in stitches. Still, thinking of the ethereal pavilions as funny is a bit like imagining Greta Garbo doing a Laurel & Hardy routine. Nevertheless, the humour is there. The Yin/Yang Pavilion at MIT parodies video artists Bill Viola's interest in Zen Buddhism, and the general rise of new age religions in the 1990s, while the Heart Pavilion refers in part to its origins in the Midwest, where it was first shown in the lobby at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Yet there are other reasons for the Hallmark card emblem: "I realised that one of the most important spaces in the museum was the lobby," Graham says, "because it was the romantic pick-up place."


credit Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York



Clayton Cubitt



Claire Barliant

quotes story

New York has never had good architecture. I think the best building in New York is Pier Luigi Nervi's bus station

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