Overwhelming Overview
Dan Graham at the Whitney (NYC)

Issue no2
April - May 2018
Machine


The exhibition Dan Graham: Beyond at the Whitney Museum of American Art offers an overview of the impressive oeuvre of New York based artist Dan Graham. Graham is the third artist – after Gordon Matta-Clark and Lawrence Weiner – to be honoured with such a retrospective as part of a collaboration between the Whitney Museum in New York and the MOCA in Los Angeles.

Dan Graham: Beyond is overwhelming in its inclusiveness. The show contains drawings, photos, film and video, architectural models, sculptures, conceptual and written works, often jumbled together. A clear chronological or thematic structure appears to be missing: upon entering visitors are dropped into Graham’s recent works and ultimately left to ponder all possible connections for themselves. No easy task, because apart from the huge array of different media, the work of self-educated man Dan Graham basically reflects every important development in the arts since the sixties. Very little clues about this are presented however, because the focus of the show is on the ‘whole’.

Nevertheless, to make some sense of it all, a chronological approach is the most sound: The early work of Graham, inconspicuously shown in a backroom, can be characterized by its documentary and analytic approach. Take Schema (1966) for example, a conceptual work in which Graham statistically analyses the content of several American magazines; precisely counting the number of words, images and use of colour per page. Because Schema could be used to interpret any and every magazine, it lent itself perfectly for continual re-contextualisation. Graham’s interest in popular media such as magazines (‘magazines are like pop songs to me’ he once claimed), is telling for his anti-elitist approach in those early years. Unsurprisingly one of Graham’s most famous works – the photo series Homes for America (1966-67) – was published in a magazine as well. In this series Graham observes the freshly built suburban homes he encounters on route from his parent’s house in New Jersey to Manhattan. The way in which Graham is looking for patterns and repetitions of the architectural structures (without losing sight of the ‘life’ in the suburbs) is largely comparable to the analytic character of Schema.

Shortly after Homes for America the human body begins to feature in Graham’s work, starting with the artist’s own body in the video’s Roll (1970) and Body Press (1970-72). In these works Graham filmed – in the first person so to speak - rolling through the autumn leaves in Central Park (Roll), while the second video (Body Press) registers the same action from an external point of view. The videos in turn are projected on separate walls, forcing the spectator into yet another point-of-view of the event. This relation between spectator/participant and the event itself can be found in many of the works in Dan Graham: Beyond: they are also integral to both his performances (and their registrations) and the mirror pavilions.


Another famous work by Graham is Public Space / 2 Audiences (1976). In this sculpture two spaces have been separated by a two-way mirror. People in one of the rooms see both themselves and the people on the other side of the mirror, and play two parts as well: viewing and being viewed simultaneously. This quite literal image of the overlapping of object and subject – Jacques Lacan’s so-called ‘mirror phase’, that Graham likes to refer to – is also a major aspect of Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay (1974). Two mirrors hang facing each other in a small space, in front of them Graham placed two camera’s and monitors. Visitors look at delayed images of themselves on the monitor making them both spectator and object of the work.


In the most recent phase of his oeuvre Graham seems to distance himself of this conceptual approach. In earlier mirror-sculptures the body is approached as a separate entity, but in more recent sculptures it is once again made part of the social context. This is most apparent in the architectural installations Graham calls ‘pavilions’. These geometric structures, constructed of glass and mirrors, influence the spatial experience, but differ from the mirror works of the seventies because they also create a protected and functional environment: for instance a playground, a Jewish monument or as a skate bowl for skateboarders.

Several of these pavilions take pride of place in the exhibition, forcing – among others – the impressive documentary Rock My Religion (1982-84) to the background. In this film Graham looks back on the underground movements of his own youth. The social developments of the early eighties are characterized by scenes from Hollywood movies and images of Woodstock, with which he creates a connection between rock ’n roll and religion. As opposed to much of Grahams commercially produced pavilions, in the documentary one can still find traces of his former ideology.

Lack of space has clearly been influential, when it came to putting together the show at the Whitney. Recent works and the space-devouring pavilions have been deemed more important for the show than the creation of a – more logical – chronological approach. Because of the immense artistic production by Graham it is – even at the best of times – hard to get a grip on it, but at the Whitney it is almost impossible. Because of the cornucopia of mirror pavilions the other – more interesting work – sadly suffers from lack of attention.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2018