I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
The telecommunications explosion which threatens to maintain an open connection between every human being on the earth, coupled with global outbursts of secessionism with its companion desire for isolationism, seems an apt metaphor for the public work and solitary life of Dan Graham, an artist who for the last thirty years has been situating works within such insulated worlds as slick magazine, suburban home, corporate atrium, mall, coffee shop, public garden. And although he imports one world into the other it is not for the antagonistic purpose of designating dialectical oppositions but rather to establish spaces where we are able to see ourselves perceiving that world.
Mike Metz It’s been almost thirty years since you first put together a battery of works that were projects specifically for various slick publications. What was on your mind then? They’re so prophetic now.
Dan Graham They were published because I had contacts through art magazine publishing. People who had been doing art magazines moved on to other magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. I also did a series of advertisements in the New York Review of Sex, National Tattler … many of the advertisements were done gratis. The intention was to go for the slick magazine because that’s what was on everybody’s coffee table.
MMThis move into such a radically altered context as a focal point of your art predated so much work in terms of artists who were finding gallery space constricting.
DGWell, it began with my being an accidental director of this short-lived gallery, the John Daniels Gallery. One thing I learned at the gallery was that the basis for getting attention was having reproductions of the work written about in magazines. I realized how dependent the art world was on publicity and information. It also was the golden period of artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol. Lichtenstein interested me because he was taking things out of magazines, blowing them up on canvases, and showing them in galleries. Thus making a connection to the information system. I was also interested in the early works of Flavin which were more pop art than minimal. He used fluorescent lighting from hardware stores to make temporary installations. The work was never deemed for sale, it would be dismantled and go back to the hardware store afterwards. But this idea of devaluing things so that they would be common currency and common decoration was being undermined because even these temporary installations were being bought by collectors. I thought it would he much more interesting to short circuit all of these areas and put things directly into magazines. There was a period in pop art when you began to realize that New York was basically about advertising, printed matter and design.
MMThe critical difference in your work was the structure of information. What makes those early pieces seem prophetic is the fact that they are structures on which one sees the possibilities of specific information about the real world circumstances that was positive in intent.
DGMinimal art, which seemed to be abstract, took from suburban environments like hardware stores. The content was taken out, making things very abstract. In and around New York, you could see similar things as in a Godard film, housing projects, suburban life. Godard was also focusing on media as an information form. Mass circulation magazines. What I was trying to do with very minimal means was to simplify, reduce and to have work that could be done with no money. I saw information as a way of linking together both criticism, philosophical issues, the films of Godard and this installation art that was being done inside galleries. So it was a reduction of a kind of work that was tending toward reduction to begin with. People were attentive to information systems. It was vaguely in the air. Cybernetics was vaguely in the air.
MMThe early work Schema identifies the number of nouns, adverbs, adjectives; the area occupied by the text, the typeface, and so on in the magazine itself. The work is a media-generated text. Schema seems to be the first of many works that were mediations in that fashion.
DGWell, in the first pieces, each form usually illustrated a particular approach to media. In a material fashion for instance, it was the name of the typeface, the type of the paper, the depression of the typeface into the surface of the page. Schema was also a very early computer piece, because a computer can generate many different possibilities for a hypothetical future that either existed or didn’t exist. And there was a fictional element because even though the information was self-referring, it had to be interpreted. The idea was to build in as many different meanings as possible in a very simplified, available situation. While Lichtenstein and Flavin were big influences, I wanted to make a further reduction and make non-gallery art.
MMSort of an influence in the reverse. You were heading in exactly the opposite direction.
DGYes. As much as I admired the work, I saw contradictions in it. In the case of pop art, instead of taking things out of media, I decided to put them back into media. Instead of having a show that had a photograph and a critical piece of writing about the show to validate its meaning, the idea was to stage the entire thing directly in a magazine. In a way it was absolute and problematic because the work would never take on value. But they weren’t conceptual. They weren’t for a hypothetical art “in the mind,” they were about the “physicality” of printed matter. Which would be equivalent to the physicality that you had in reproductions. In other words, the reproduction has its own kind of physicality as well as non-physicality. And then you have the idea of a reproduction of a reproduction. And then you have the fact that this physicality would only have a short life. It would fade away as the magazines were discarded, and go back into time and place. But they were geared to that present time publication situation.
MMHomes for America moves into suburbia, with the diagraming, and schematizing of specific social circumstances. At the same time the perspective shifts from yourself to that of the suburban spectator.
DGHomes for America was done intuitively, but I was also interested in the relationship between serial music and minimal art. At the time, Esquire magazine was publishing sociological exposes like David Riesman’s, The Lonely Crowd. They used photographers in the school of Walker Evans, photographers who were showing vernacular workers’ housing, suburban housing, but usually from a humanistic negative viewpoint. I wanted to keep all of those meanings but empty out the pejorative expressionistic meanings. On the other hand, I didn’t want to go as far as minimal. I wanted to show that minimal was related to a real social situation that could be documented.
MMYou referred to the minimal pieces of the time. Those pieces were, if nothing else, hermetic. They were complete, in and of themselves. Whereas in Homes for America, or the article that appeared almost six months later called Information, I took to be a code or description for how to look at Homes for America. This was the reverse of the minimalist tendencies at the time. Even though there are certain visual similarities in the structure.
DGIf you put pop art together with minimal art together with Godard together with sociology together with serial music, you might come up with something like that. (laughter) I was not working out of an art history, or even a philosophical tradition. I was working with what everyone had in front of them.
MMThe Income Outflow piece. Where was that placed? Did you ever actually run that anywhere, and did anyone ever buy any stock?
DGMy initial interest was the fact that to raise money and begin the process, you had to start with an advertisement. After a while, I realized that the main focus of my work was the artist buying an advertisement in a magazine. In other words, Homes for America was both an art essay by a critic, and a work of art in the sense that a Godard film was both an essay, a narrative, and a quasi-documentary. Sociological. That was a very late piece, it was 1969. After 1969 I did not do anything else for magazines.
MMWas your first use of architectonic elements Body Press, the two people inside a mirrored cylinder?
DGI thought it would be more interesting to make the piece optical and interior, and also to be about the skin of the performers. So I constructed a large interior mural size cylinder, which was like a huge anamorphic lens surrounding two performers. The performers were a man and a woman, naked. And the cameras, instead of mapping out the surface of the area they walked outside, were actually mapping the surface of their bodies. So the cameras were pressed against their bodies. You would be able to see the camera and the spectator by the reflection on the surrounding cylinder mirror. The camera’s angle changed as it pressed against different parts of the body. You might see a lower part of the body on the anamorphic mirror, thus the camera would be filming itself and that part of the body that was next to it. Or it might be oriented somewhat upward, so you’d be seeing, reflected on the mirror, the eyes, the head of the camera person. The cameras were rotated and since they were more or less synchronous, when they were rotated, each camera would be filming the other camera and the other spectator. Then they were handed between the two performers and the exchange continues onto the body of the person they were handed to.
MMIt seems that here the two cameras in relation to the anamorphic mirrored cylinder, as lens, deflect meaning. The cylinder itself seems to be attacking the information. People see what’s going on, yet the film doesn’t seem to add up.
DGHere you see both the camera and the objects. Also, you have the fact that each of the performers is handling the cameras. So you become part of the camera, you identify with the camera that you can physically see. You also identify with the performer and their body. You can feel the body through the way in which the camera is pressed against it. You have a multiplicity of different viewpoints. Plus you have two people and two different cameras at the same time. And I think the complexity comes with the two people.
MMNor to mention the fact that they’re a man and a woman.
DGIt sets up a relationship whether you’re identifying voyeuristically with yourself or with a sexualized, heterosexual image outside of yourself. Or maybe putting the two on the same narcissistic optical level that Lacan’s mirror stage begins with.
MMBut there is that unequal footing of the nude female body and the nude male body and the difference between those gazes.
DGWe have very conventionalized, cliched ideas of both.
MMYes, exactly. And also the inability to truly read either due to the nature of the cylinder itself.
DGWell, I think the distortion varies. If you move very close to the image, extremely close, there’s very little distortion.
MMAnother type of distortion you have used is time distortions as recorded on video tape.
DGYou can get delays from between five seconds and nine seconds so that the image you’re seeing on the monitor from the playback machine is slightly delayed from the present time image. In other pieces, I used a delay of 24 hours. In Yesterday, Today, one space had a live camera with the monitor in a nearby space where you heard a 24-hour continuous audio tape of what had happened in the space with the live camera that you’re seeing on the monitor, 24 hours ago. All of this was a property of the very simple video technology available at that moment. All of it was in juxtaposition to the older film situation which showed past time, edited.
MMThe objects of the technology seem to be a governing element. I’m thinking of the first pavilion pieces, where in effect you end up with a formal architectural structure. What predicated this move?
DGIt had a lot of stages. There were video projects which took place within showcase windows that were between two glass office buildings and displayed picture windows of houses. So you have all the possibilities using real, urban and suburban architecture, consumer-oriented, showcase window architecture, office buildings—all of the elements that actually I later did with pavilions because the pavilions are mediating between traditional park/garden historical references to references of the city and urbanism. The change, if anything, was a change between making pieces that were camera obscuras which placed you almost inside the camera, and were referring to the optical system per se, to one’s showing the spectator, in terms of the perceptual process, as an audience, as a spectator, rather than as a work of art. The principles were the same, but these were the spectator in relation to materials commonly used in the city that had psychological and physiological properties.
MMTwo-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon, is your most visible piece here in New York. What did you see as the relationship between the two parts, the video salon and the two-way mirror?
DGHeiner Friedrich’s original idea was to take one of the spaces downstairs and have a self-enclosed, discrete space, not framed by the city and outside distractions and definitely a non-museum type of space. Something like a church. A meditational space for the ideal work of art. My idea, obviously, was the opposite. I needed a public social space, a space that would be quasi-functional. So one aspect of the piece is both a coffee bar and a video salon. Six curators were hired to buy a library archive of videos in the areas of cartoon animation, music, architecture, performance and artist performance which would be permanently installed as a library. The piece and the space around it were designed to be a kind of bar or lounge area, a space for openings and social gatherings, and a space for performances.
MMSo you really mean for the piece to be used.
DGWell, it’s part of the section of museums which are the most interesting architecturally: the bookshop, the coffee bar, social lounge area, romantic rendezvous area. It’s all to be a part of that.
MMA great Friday night pick up spot. I had heard that people were sleeping in Two Adjacent Pavilions during Documenta.
DGMy students would sleep inside the pavilions with their sleeping bags. I designed this pavilion to fit about five to ten people inside. So the dimensions are always human. In a park situation, people are often lying down, as well as standing up and looking around. There’s always a reflection in my work between the work as an object in itself and the idea of people seeing themselves as perceiving and being perceived.
MMThese pieces have the spectator at the center.
DGThey’re designed around the perception of the spectator and the idea of the public in relation to the private person. The relationship of the spectator to a private artwork in a museum or gallery as somehow the subject of the art, which was the case in minimal and conceptual art.
MMSo it’s moving the subject to the spectator and away from the object?
DGWell, my work became more involved with large public spaces, it shifted from one spectator to many spectators and not one public, but often two aspects of the same public.
MMTwo-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon, uses mirrored surface as a device to move the spectator away from the object. How long have you used this surface as a means of perception?
DGWe were speaking about the Body Press, which was the last of the double projections. That was related specifically to the body. But there’s also always a relationship in the double film pieces, between the outdoor surface of the body and the outdoor surface of the surrounding 360-degree environment, the two are mirroring each other. And the construction of the pieces has always involved a doubling or a mirror relationship. What was a structuralist procedure became first a physical device, and then performance. At that point, it seemed I could use video, including the video delay, in relationship to window glass and mirrors because video was a continuation of the renaissance perspective that was built into the mirror and the window, but extended it in many ways.
MMWith the window comes the notion of the “view in” and “view out”. One individual at a time, one family at a time, it seemed to be separating the family unit, or separating the individual home.
DGYou’re referring to one piece, Alteration of a Suburban House, where I’m extending the picture window, I’m making it larger. So the view you get works less as a voyeuristic piece and more as a piece where people on the outside see themselves in a so-called public space outside the so-called private space. It’s revealing the outside environment around the inside. What happens inside isn’t that important because it’s only the living. It’s often covered up, so it’s really a trap for people on the outside to reveal their own situation.
MMWhat kind of a house did you grow up in?
DGUntil age 13, a public, government housing project in a rural area on the edge of a New Jersey suburb—basically, army barracks. Most of the people were upper-lower class, but we were surrounded by the growth of middle class and upper-middle class suburbs. When I was 13, my family moved only a few miles away to a very upper-middle-class suburb.
MMDo you always envision a picture window in a suburban house?
DGA picture window, that was definitely the name of the game. Two styles were rampant. We had a Cape Cod, but the other style was the ranch house. I guess picture windows were important in Holland and American suburbs after the war. So I was simply extending that convention. It’s also, in terms of architecture, related to Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which derived from Farnesworth House. On the other hand, the composition of many of the Venturi houses was derived from the composition of the adjacent house or the one across the street. So, the facade of the house has been destroyed, but what you see in the mirror are people outside, people on the inside, and the houses across the street. I’m doing the same thing, I’m imploding it all onto one surface. The surface of the mirror behind and also the semi-surface of the glass window in front.
MMIn a curious way, the two-way mirror is quite aggressive. What led to this?
DGThey come out of work that came before. The first time I used two-way mirror glass was in a very simple video installation, and it attracted itself to me because this material had been used in psychological laboratories and was also used for surveillance. It was replacing, in many of the urban contexts, let’s say Toronto or Los Angeles, the sheer glass of the International style office building. The illusion of openness that the International style glass office building wanted to maintain was falling apart. The inner core of the city was becoming more dangerous, people were moving out of the city. The two-way mirror glass gave a certain amount of security in that people couldn’t look in during the day, but people inside could look out. And the opposite at night. Plus it was ecologically efficient, and it was definitely the new cliche of mediated social space on the inside of the city. For Documenta 7, I came up with the idea of doing an outdoor piece, but I wanted it to relate to the city, the suburbs, as well as the traditional park situation. It was to be used the way garden architecture and garden pavilions function in a normal large park. So I was picking up all of those things at the same time.
MMHow do you see the difference in function between the pavilions and the pergolas? The pergolas seem to be much more relative to a planned garden environment.
DGYou haven’t seen pavilions in the United States. In fact, they were just as garden oriented. The one from Muenster had a wooden roof, and a wood pole … it was in relation to an octagon, an 18th century palace. The layout for the grounds around the palace were octagonal. I was trying to coalesce different time periods.
MMThis pavilion was made with mirrored glass.
DGMirrored glass made it into a photo opportunity. And the idea of an amusement park, a funhouse situation creating kaleidoscopic space. And also a kind of fun division between parents and kids on the inside, and photographing parents and kids on the outside. It was very similar to these half-open music pavilions of the late 19th century, where there would be a bandshell on the inside of a large estate gazebo.
MMPsychologically more playful, less aggressive.
DGBut the shows are normally in the summer, and based on tourism, which means families travelling in their automobiles, to specific locations where people go to see modern art in a country setting. And also they need to relax. And if they remain—let’s say in Muenster, most of the city is a large university city—so, these temporary buildings have to be used as young people would use them.
MMSpeaking of young people, you’ve done two children’s pavilions.
DGWell, let’s see, the first one was circumstantial and was part of this very large exhibition in Ghent called Chambres d’Amis which had as its theme artists using interior private spaces of people who lived in Ghent. People responded to advertisements to allow their spaces to be used. This included doctors, lawyers, architects, social workers, teachers … People who were interested in the educational aspect of being temporary curators and guides, and also what would happen if their home and their private life became the subject of the artwork. I chose an architect because I liked the idea of doing work that was quasi-architecture for an architect. What turned out to be important was that I couldn’t do a work in the large-scale size that I had normally worked in, because it would have dwarfed his own architecture. Secondly, the area we chose in the back was a very rough area used by his kids as a playground. There was also a playground across the street used by neighborhood children. I wanted to keep that relationship to the playground across the street and build that into the piece. So what was originally going to be a small botanical garden finally became something more of a dollhouse, a children’s-size pavilion.
MMWas street traffic allowed through the property?
DGWell, sure, that was the idea. In other words, the property itself became part of the museum show or, let’s say, it was related to these shows in public spaces inside the city. When I showed this video tape to Jeff Wall, he had the idea of designing a large-scale playground piece where he would do images of children very similar to the images of children he saw in the videotape. This became the Childrens Pavilion, and it was a completely different proposal which came about not because Jeff saw the original piece, but because he saw the television replication of the work. And of course, psychologically his identification with his children, his childhood. So I was operating from his interests and my own. At that time I was interested in underground architecture. For instance, one of the most salient playthings used by kids are these earth-mound mountains, that often have a hole in the top for kids to dive down into. The game has become a king of the mountain type thing except that they dive into the space. So my children’s pavilion was based around those conventions, and the conventions of the worship of children. The pantheon has an atrium hole in the top for the worship of the different gods whose images would be along the inside wall and illuminated by the sun overhead.
MMVirtually all your work deals with the spectator becoming aware of their own consciousness, a mediated view of themselves. That particular children’s pavilion is very much a media representation of how children are seen. It’s the establishment of stereotypes of children.
DGIn Alteration of a Suburban House, you’re also dealing with the stereotyped idea of the suburban house after World War II as shown in magazines, the cliched prototype of a desirable, model house. The stereotype of a child probably comes from films; I think Jeff derived it from Spielberg films. We are both interested in Baroque paintings, the angels that appear on the ceilings in Baroque paintings. At the time I was doing Rock My Religion, where a teenager appears as an androgynous angel figure. The idea of children as angels comes from that sentimental idea of children that Jeff and I probably had concurrently. I also like the idea that on the outside, when you look down through the oculus you’re looking through a concave mirror image of yourself vastly enlarged, against the sky, the real sky on the outside opposed to the idealized sky in the photograph. As that sky changes, your image of yourself is changing. With a two-way mirror you’re seeing the idealized children below but you’re also seeing real children with their parents looking up through the oculus.
MMIn your reading, what kind of affinities do you have to any philosophical or religious outlook?
DGAt the time of the Childrens Pavilion it was a break with the anti-humanist liberalism of the minimal period and a return to, if you want, the United Nations of Humanism. It was the beginning of the ecology period and I was looking for an underground, earth oriented architecture.
MMI wanted to talk about those pieces that involve both indoors and outdoors. I’m thinking about Altered Two-Way Revolving door and Chamber with Sliding Door.
DGAgain, these are all projects that were given to me. I designed that for an inaugurating exhibition to celebrate the World Financial Center. It was on the outside of a large lobby of the office building. There was an L-shaped corner in the building which was itself made out of two-way mirror glass. I filled it in to make a triangle, which was a natural extension to the architecture which allowed for a viewing area for the people on the inside.
MMThe general passerby coming across the door would have thought it was a doorway.
DGWell, I don’t think after the opening of the exhibition, people went there for the work. The work blended into other semi-functional, semi-landscape, semi-artistic things that were part of the exhibit.
MMThe fact that it wasn’t functional but looked like a doorway into the space …
DGBut it did have a door that you could close and most people closed it. By closing the door you are creating a shelter for yourself. And you’re implicated in all the relationships. I think as soon as you close it off, you’re creating an architectural situation for yourself.
MMIt’s curious. I was over there a couple of times after it was set up. Anyone who went in, closed the door and after a few moments, would come out looking sheepish.
DGIt was small enough that generally it was for one person not a large group of people. And because it wasn’t labeled as art you didn’t have to look at it aesthetically.
MMMore adventuresome but not intimidating.
DGYou have to make a commitment in terms of taking time out. Most of the public/private pieces are to be walked past and not thought about. You’re not really stopped in your tracks. They’re really designed for semi-distracted observation.
MMYou seem to be a move away from urban/corporate type works, with the use of the pergola, with its various plants, in a garden setting.
DGThey’re public/private spaces for people to stroll through. The large, two-way mirror, hedge labyrinth piece has been built for a private collector as an extension of his garden and his hedge system. Another version of it was constructed for a gallery in London, in the center of Hyde Park. People stroll through it. You can see it if you’re driving through Hyde Park. It functions as garden space, as Renaissance, Baroque theme park.
MMDo you specify what plants are meant to go in those works. In other words, how much of a botanist are you?
DGWell, it depends on the actual situation, For example, when I was doing something in La Jolla, I was trying to match the plants they actually use as hedges. In fact, in La Jolla, I had to switch because there was a plant plague.
MMIn La Jolla, a lot of people have hedges made out of jasmine which is fragrant and is associated with erotic gardens. Would you make a choice like that?
DGI was looking for something that was opaque when you looked at it from a distance but when you got close, had a lot of space between the flowers and the leaves. I wanted it to become more transparent as you got closer. Very similar to the mior glass. There was a vacillation between it being opaque, translucent, and transparent.
MMAs with your other work, you are looking for a certain degree of anonymity.
DGI was looking for a contextual match. In other words, it’s related by context to a surrounding architecture or a plant. But it’s a hybrid between it and something else. It’s also emblematic of something that isn’t there but allegorically is suggested.
MMYou said a number of years ago that you really wanted your work to leave out both the artist and the notion of artistic vision.
DGWell, I don’t know if there’s been the elimination of the aesthetic vision. These pieces are inherently aesthetic. It’s just that the aesthetic ideas are contained inside people’s perception of the piece, not the environment and the architecture.
Mike Metz is an artist who lives in Brooklyn and works in Staten Island.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee