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Beyond Exhaustion: Dan Graham's Period Pieces | The Nation

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Beyond Exhaustion: Dan Graham's Period Pieces

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THE ARTIST/MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, NYC/PARISDetail from Homes for America (1966-67), by Dan Graham

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Over the past several years, the Whitney Museum has organized with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, a sequence of important retrospectives of artists who emerged in New York City in the mid- to late '60s, just after the Minimalists. Robert Smithson was the subject of the first exhibition, in 2005; then Gordon Matta-Clark and Lawrence Weiner had shows in 2007. Each was in its own way a triumph. Arguably, this generation of artists born around 1940 (and of course they flourished not only in New York) represents at once the culmination and the exhaustion of a certain Modernist project as it had played out over the preceding century. In their work, formal reflexivity and self-critique reached degree zero; in an ultimate turn of the screw of abstraction, the art object dissolved into language and action.

Now it's the turn of another of their cohort, Dan Graham. The choice must have seemed a no-brainer. After all, Graham is something of a cult figure, especially among younger artists, perhaps because he has dabbled in many of the major artistic issues of the time, above all the relation of the artwork to its social context. And he seems to have garnered an ineffable aura of cool, in part because of his association with rock music--writing and making videos about it but also palling around with musicians (the Whitney catalog includes an interview with Graham by Kim Gordon, the Sonic Youth bassist who is widely recognized as one of the coolest people in the universe). Graham is, as the exhibition's co-curator Bennett Simpson writes (in an essay focusing precisely on Graham and music), something of an artist's artist.

So I can't help but feel that I'm about to blackball myself from some invisible club when I say that, in contrast to the three shows I mentioned before, each of which I walked out of having discovered an even richer and deeper oeuvre than the one I already admired, "Dan Graham: Beyond" left me disillusioned. (Curated by Simpson and Chrissie Iles, the show is on view at the Whitney through October 11, after which it travels to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, October 31-January 31.) Graham's work turns out to be mostly a period piece--the product of a brilliant dilettante who was, at least for a while, so in step with the zeitgeist that he sometimes appeared to be a stride or two ahead of it, an illusion that lent his work the appearance of an originality or strength it lacked. If you read the interviews with Graham in the exhibition catalog, it's fascinating how often he still speaks not on behalf of himself but of the group to which he felt he belonged, articulating a shared sensibility expressed as a series of likes and dislikes. "We hated Duchamp." "We loved Speer at that time"--referring to the Nazi architect. "We were all very influenced by Jean-Luc Godard." "We were very influenced by the French new novel, and the idea was not to use metaphor." Much of the exhibition feels like an anthology of illustrations of what a certain "we" found interesting in the late '60s.

Graham started out not as an artist but as a 22-year-old wunderkind gallery owner. He sold nothing, but in less than a year in business on East Sixty-fourth Street he managed to latch on to some of the best new work of the moment by the likes of Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. The downside of his curatorial flair may be reflected in the fact that every issue he took up as an artist was developed more lucidly and with greater intensity by one or another of his contemporaries. His earliest efforts, formally self-reflexive work with language verging on concrete poetry, are all too successfully featureless and nondescript--arid and dutiful compared with text pieces by artists such as Carl Andre and Vito Acconci. His use of magazine pages as a medium--the great calling card for his first phase as an artist, thanks to the fame of his 1966-67 work Homes for America--is neither as coherent nor as surprising as that of Mel Bochner or Robert Smithson, whose collaboration The Domain of the Great Bear, which inaugurated this genre, was published shortly before Homes for America. And for that matter, his fascination with suburban American housing, not only in Homes for America but in a work like Alteration to a Suburban House (1978/92), seems halfhearted when compared with Matta-Clark's furious engagement.

Graham's use of performance as recorded, at first on film, then on video, to examine embodied phenomenology recalls a host of artists at the time, among them Acconci, Joan Jonas and Bruce Nauman. Starting at the end of the '70s, and increasingly in the following decade, Graham's interest in the feedback between body and environment, behavior and context, led to a form of art that seems halfway between sculpture and architecture--"pavilions," as he calls them, metal constructions with walls of glass and in particular of two-way mirror glass. "It's about spectators observing themselves as they're observed by other people," Graham says. The notion is seductive, but in practice nothing much ever seems to come of it in his observation pavilions. People catch the idea of it and just move on. Graham's switch into architecture or something resembling it recalls, again, the trajectory of Vito Acconci--but Acconci's endeavors in this field have been far more playful, various and challenging.

From the beginning, Graham's core concept has been that the artist's task is to construct not a singularity but an empty structure--or "schema," as he calls it--that can be indifferently filled by whatever content. In its first instance, this took the form of a procedure for describing "a set of pages" of any kind whatsoever--generating a text with no other discernible content than "(Number of) adjectives," "(Number of) adverbs," "(Percentage of) area not occupied by type," "(Percentage of) area occupied by type" and so on alphabetically through "(Number of) words capitalized," "(Number of) words italicized," "(Number of) words not capitalized" and "(Number of) words not italicized." It's a kind of hyper-formalism--semiotic analysis as a Martian might perform it. If you believe that reading need not be pleasurable or enlightening, this text's for you.

What was brilliant about Homes for America was that Graham had found a schema that repeated itself at various levels, but with specific content as a structural linchpin. His photos of boxy tract houses in serried ranks, "designed," in the artist's word, "to fill in 'dead' land areas" with "no organic unity connecting the land site and the home," since they were simply "separate parts in a larger, predetermined, synthetic order," were echoed by the boxy, mechanical style of his layout--"insistently squared away," as Carter Ratcliff once described it--and then by the blank, listlike structure of the texts. These, in turn, echoed both the rectangular schemata of the underlying page design (which most designers try to overlay with something more organic and fluid rather than to emphasize) and the blunt, uningratiating aesthetic of minimalist structure. Here, Graham's schematic approach operates at a multitude of levels rather than reducing everything to zero.

Graham's performance-based work is a set of schemata too. The works have no predetermined content. They are open-ended structures meant to set up feedback loops between different people's behavior. Thus, as Graham says, in Past Future Split Attention (1972), "one person is describing the past of another person and that person is simultaneously talking about the future of the other person who's describing them." Watching the video record of one of these performances can be fascinating or boring or anything in between--it depends not so much on Graham's concept but on how "on" the particular performers happen to be in the moment. Graham's schemata in such pieces are rather like the improv exercises actors use to loosen up their approach to character; the interest of the result depends more on the actors than on the designer of the exercise. Or to put it a different way: such works seem designed to elicit unforeseen psychological or proprioceptive material from their performers--yet Graham never shows any particular interest in working with the material that arises, developing it from one piece to the next. It's there simply to "fill in 'dead' areas" in his schema.

Graham's pavilions can be seen as a form of display architecture in which the audience itself is what's put on display. He is attempting to get the public to do what, earlier, he had depended on performers (among them, sometimes, himself) to do. "I thought the people themselves, the spectators, should be inside a showcase situation looking at themselves perceiving each other"--that was the thought behind Public Space/Two Audiences, which Graham presented at the 1976 Venice Biennale. It is simply a room divided in half by glass so that the people in each side function as moving images of each other. With the pavilions he developed this thought in free-standing constructions rather than adaptations of existing rooms--but likewise using the interplay of opacity, reflection and transparency to turn people into dreamlike apparitions for one another.

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