At a media preview Thursday morning, Walker Art Center curator of visual arts Peter Eleey introduced Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Iles, the curators who assembled the career retrospective Dan Graham: Beyond, opening at the Walker on Saturday. Simpson and Iles, Eleey explained, would be leading a tour of the exhibit. “And of course,” Eleey added, gesturing to the artist himself, “Dan will contribute to the discussion if he wishes.” Indeed, he wished.
The 67-year-old Graham has an erudite yet impish quality; he seems to be thinking about everything at once, and finding most of it tremendously amusing. As we walked through the exhibit, Simpson and Iles took turns explaining Graham’s historical significance and the interrelations among his works, but kept finding themselves enthusiastically interrupted by the artist, who clarified a point here, shared a story there, and kept emphasizing that whatever place he’s earned in the international contemporary art world (and he’s surely earned a place; Beyond is the cover story of the current Artforum), most of his work was meant to be funny.
It’s appropriate that Beyond, which originated at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (Simpson’s home institution) and subsequently appeared at the Whitney (Iles’s employer) in New York before coming to Minneapolis, follows The Quick and the Dead in the Walker’s galleries. Like The Quick and the Dead (curated by Eleey, who is also the Walker’s supervising curator for the Graham exhibit), Beyond is a funhouse—literally so, as it involves curving mirrors. Indicating one piece where viewers can choose to be reflected in a convex surface (making them thinner) or a concave surface (making them wider), Graham said, “it’s a funhouse for children and an opportunity for parents.”
Graham’s mirrored “pavilion” (his word) Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth is familiar to anyone who’s visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where it has been on display since 1996. It’s a characteristic piece, and you’ll encounter more like it in Beyond: structures that invite you to interact with them, to use them to see the world differently. Partially mirrored glass, featured in Punched Steel Hedge, is a favorite material of Graham’s: it allows (indeed, forces) the viewer both to see through it and to see himself or herself reflected. The essential insight I brought away from my gallery tour with Graham was that, for the artist, it’s not about the glass—it’s about the viewer. When you stand in the Sculpture Garden and discover that you’re looking at yourself and the people around you, that’s exactly the point.
Unrealized (that is, modeled but not constructed at full scale) Graham pavilions include a skateboarders’ bowl with a mirrored pyramid above it (“This was the 80s,” said the iconoclastic artist, “and cities were putting pyramids on top of their most important corporate buildings”) and a circular glass swimming pool where bathers swim betwixt fish in a giant tank on one side and diners at a café on the other side. The gaze itself is the object of the piece: the swimmers gaze at the fish, and the diners gaze at the swimmers…and, presumably, the fish look back at the swimmers and the swimmers look back at the diners, and everybody’s looking at everybody.
If this is starting to sound a little bit kinky, Graham is ahead of you on that one too. The 1970-72 piece Body Press involved a naked man and woman turning video cameras on themselves in a mirrored cylinder; and the 1969 performance piece called simply Piece (which the catalog dryly notes is “to date unrealized”) involves 12 men and 12 women copulating in a series of positions from the Kama Sutra “until stymied either by exhaustion or a lack of available partners.” Some Walker staff members were asked to enact a conceptual piece in The Quick and the Dead that involved the lone enactor remaining clothed and curling into a ball; I can only imagine the way those staff members looked at each other when the Beyond catalog arrived.
Graham’s life could fill a fascinating book: as a gallery owner he was an early booster of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt, and he also managed to be instrumental in the music career of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. (His skatepark pavilion, he explained, was influenced by issues of Thrasher given to him by “my friend Thurston Moore.”) Though his work is playful, it’s driven by a fierce, wide-ranging intellect: as we moved from piece to piece, Graham would listen to Simpson and Iles name a couple of theories or influences behind a given work, and then he’d pipe up to cite a couple more.
Graham wears his brains lightly, though, and it’s to the credit of Simpson, Iles, and Eleey that Beyond allows his work to do so as well. Whereas current Walker installations of work by Haegue Yang and Robert Irwin greet gallerygoers with wordy intimations of grandeur that the work itself is hard-pressed to meet, Beyond—again, like The Quick and the Dead—saves the verbiage for its 348-page catalog (which you will want to buy after seeing the show). When you encounter the work itself, you can do so on your own terms. Graham’s magazine piece Homes for America, which he calls a “fake think piece” satirizing the dilettantish sociology of the suburbs so popular in the 1960s, was influenced by Flaubert, but Graham seems okay with the fact that not everyone will pick up on that. “It’s kind of like those homes around the Mall of America,” mused the artist as he revisited the piece on Thursday.
If one key to understanding Graham’s work came from the conspicuous joy and amusement with which he watched visitors interact with his work—after the group split into the two rooms of his mirror piece Public Space/Two Audiences, he urged us to switch sides so everyone could get the whole experience—another came from his statement that he and his peers in the heady New York art world of the 60s “wanted to destroy value.” In other words, they wanted to place the focus on the function and concept of a piece rather than fetishizing the piece as a physical object. Performance was obviously one means to this end, the mass-produced magazine pieces (“the editor of Artforum would print whatever I sent her”) were another, and his mirrored pavilions are yet another: you’re not looking at “a Graham,” you’re looking at yourself.
That said, Graham’s pavilions are physical objects, and they now fetch princely sums—plus requiring the additional cost of transportation and assembly. Ralph Burnet, real estate mogul and owner of the Chambers Hotel, owns one. “I paid Dan Graham a frickin’ fortune for a piece installed in my house,” he told me. “Then I had to hire a glass company, have the whole thing installed…it was very tedious.” But what could he do? He had to have one. “Dan Grahams,” he said, “are Dan Grahams.”
Image credits: top: Dan Graham, Figurative, 1965, printed matter, Collection Herbert, Gent, Belgium; middle: Dan Graham, Two-Way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth, 1994-1996, stainless steel, glass, arborvitae, 508 x 206-5/16 x 90 inches overall, Collection Walker Art Center, Gift of Judy and Kenneth Dayton, 1996, photo by Jay Gabler; bottom: Dan Graham, Skateboard Pavilion, 1989, architectural model, two-way mirror glass, brushed aluminum, steel, wood, and graffiti, 55 x 57 x 51-3/8 in., courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris, photo by Steven White