Dan Graham

by Matthew Bedard

Psychologically, There May Be Feelings of Anxiety, Relief, Pleasurable Satiation, Disappointment, Lassitude, Leaden Exhaustion...
It could be said that alienation is a precursor to the idea of location. For location necessitates an other, and because of the other, the heart shall ever wander and stitch, shall ever estrange. Ask artist, writer, curator Dan Graham and he’ll tell you about the ever-wandering heart, his early efforts to debunk valuation, the woolly space between primates and structures and their overlapping locales, but he’ll warn you that alienation is perhaps a mistakenly ascribed condition of what he’s yielded. Rather, context is the core, not the point of separation.

Dan Graham will also tell you he loves magazines, which birthed his earliest expression—the advertisement structure, or “black holes” as he refers to them—his conceptual entry point. Graham re-enters the magazine model atop this issue’s cover with a repurposed piece from the mid-1960s, when he commenced his career as an artist, which summarizes—according to a physician responding to a want-ad Graham had placed in The New York Review of Sex—the after-effects, both physical and psychological, of male ejaculation.

When speaking today, Graham marries thought and experience with context—much like his artwork—seemingly simple from the outset, but lined with meaning, should you choose to explore it. And he’ll do so in an inviting, but also erratic and turbo-charged, outpouring, bounding at a clip that’s just out of reach ahead of you, mindful of the vernacular afoot and ready to flip it on its head. Such has been the methodology with the work that followed the magazine experiments, later including performance, film, and video in the ’70s, and the freestanding structures installed in landscapes (“Pavilions”) which have formed the bulk of his work since the ’80s—including Peggy Guggenheim Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, São Paulo Biennial, and Madison Square Park. Graham’s prolificness has, from the get-go, been marked by a casual dismissal of genre, pragmatism, and most importantly, as he’ll share below: humor.

You opened our interview with remarks on the feminism inherent in your cover piece. Can you return for a moment please to the comment you made about the cover being a feminist piece?

Normally magazines, and particularly women’s magazines, try to bring you to climax in order to buy a product. So this is the opposite. It was originally a series of pieces from magazine pages from ’65 and ’66. The magazine was The New York Review of Sex. I took a free advertisement there and talked to someone in the medical field who could tell me what happens to the male penis after the climax. And the idea was to have it published in a page of a magazine. Also the idea of a “black hole” comes not only from physics but also Carl Andre, so the thing is kind of topological. And of course I love magazine culture. It’s pretty obvious in the ’60s, magazine culture was pretty important, right? The idea of the magazines was that it was disposable, so you could get away with the idea of value. Roy Lichtenstein said that he wanted to use cheap printed matter to destroy painting, so of course, he put the cheap printed matter on his paintings and then they became valuable. And I was very influenced by paper dresses, and the idea to me was that it was made to be thrown away and magazines have always been thrown away right?

What attracts you to the idea of disposability?

I worked with a gallery—John Daniels Gallery—that showed Carl Andre and Dan Flavin. And in the group show, Flavin had his lights on the floor, so I stepped on one and it exploded and he said “That’s great.” He used to work in the back of a hardware store and would take a saw to wood. We had a fantasy back then in the ’60s that you could destroy value. At a point, everything became valuable so we had a fantasy that you could destroy value in art. Magazines, for instance, appeal to the general public and so some of the things are just advertisements in magazines.

The projects had second and third and fourth layers at play, even though they were designed for mass consumption?

Yes, and magazines were also kind of poetry because the way I look at [a] magazine is that its full of criticism and also literature. My work has never been fashionable; my favorite work is actually “Side Effects/Common Drugs.” There was a chart listing all the drugs that women were taking that had side effects and then you take another one to counteract that side effect. It was on a vertical and horizontal grid—a lot like Levi Strauss—but also I took the idea from “Mother’s Little Helper” by The Rolling Stones: they were arrested for having problems with drugs, so they did a song about women taking drugs. Also I think a lot of the great art has humor, and my work is basically about humor. I think Lichtenstein’s work was about ironic humor; he showed violence in the media, and they relate later on through Jewish Art, Jewish ironic humor. There’s a great book on punk rock called The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s—much of the great punk rock in America was produced by Jewish people. Richard Hell was Jewish, Malcolm McLaren, Tommy from The Ramones, so it’s kind of a Jewish tradition. Much of the ’60s was just sort of deadpan.

 Do you feel like contemporary art is not as pre-occupied with humor as it may of once been, or should be?

Well, I did a very big show in Marfa, Texas called Deep Comedy. When I came into art, two big influences for me were Stanley Brown and On Kawara. On’s work is pretty funny—“I’m still alive”—that’s quite humorous, right? The way artwork is presented in art magazines and art schools takes the humor away.

Sure, they can be very self-serious.

Yes. And the worst understanding of my work was from Benjamin Buchloh. He thought “Homes for America” was a critique of minimal art, which it wasn’t—and also a critique of housing projects in suburbs. It’s actually a fake think piece. In other words I’m making fun of sociologists writing things for Esquire, illustrated by, like, five photographers. It’s also about the city plan—instead of the white cube—as a basis for art. And finally it also comes a little bit from Flaubert. It has a kind of Arcadian poetry about the suburbs and also what T.J. Clark called “the revolutionary class of the petit bourgeois.” It has a lot to do with Italian Americans who were shifting their class. In other words, moving from Brooklyn to, say, Jersey or Staten Island—so it’s really a celebration of that class. I’m Jewish and I always thought somehow Italian American girls were always a little bit more wild after they got over their guilt. So really it’s a celebration of that class. And it’s not a critique. It’s not a critique of minimal art. All my great work—like the pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—is all about the city plan. This Brian O’Doherty idea of “the white cube” is just kind of retrograde, in my opinion.

Can we return to your cover? You mention “black holes” in magazines. Do you think that the sentiment or the physicality of post-ejaculation is a kind of black hole in of itself?

Well, if you look at one my pieces “Schema,” it’s really about the idea of information being physical and also generated by computers. But I think basically these lessons are early feminist, and are really making fun of the whole advertising structure that supports magazines. In other words, when I published “Figurative” in Harper’s Bazaar, one side was an advertisement for a women’s bra and the other side was for tampons. So it was generating meaning for other things than magazines.

The theme of this issue is Location, Location, Location, and obviously you historically have been what could be called a “location artist” or “site-specific” is perhaps a better term. Can you speak to the importance of location in your art and kind of your creative vision?

Well I think my work is not an isolated structure but takes meaning for what’s around it in terms of contingency and context. It’s part of a vernacular. One way my favorite architects Robert Venturi did the same thing: He used a relationship to highway billboards and advertising—not only Las Vegas but also Miami Beach—as a context for his work, which was not “not self contained.” Richard Serra wrote an article attacking a piece Venturi was involved with in Washington for using the American flag. Serra actually called Venturi a fascist because he used the American flag. Venturi used the American flag, maybe because of the influence of Jasper Johns, and he used oak and wood to frame this kind of building. In fact, Venturi tried to frame the Treasury Building because it was kind of  fascist and deviated from the building plan in Washington. Venturi’s piece was actually a map of the center of the city, which you could walk on and it was raised so if you couldn’t see you could feel it with your feet. In other words, I think I always deal with the vernacular. And particularly the suburban vernacular.

How have you seen that vernacular transform over the last several decades in relation to suburban culture?

There’s one great artist who’s always used that—my photographs are actually more amateur—and he’s a great American artist whose still going that I really admire most: Ed Ruscha. I think he did his photo books just as a hobby. I see art in a way as a passionate hobby. I don’t want to critique the museum, I love the museum, but I think the most important thing in the museum often is the lobby, which is a romantic pick-up place. Also the gift shop, coffee shop, even the toilet, and the elevator. But I think most of my work in France in the ’80s had to do with historical landscape gardens where people would come as the family and camp out Saturday and then Sunday they would go see the art. But then things changed and in the late ’80s and early ’90’s everything was about education programs for children, so I did a children’s day care center with CD-ROM computers and a cartoon place for children where you went to see the art. One of my favorite pieces was at the Hayward Gallery, which was cartoons—historical cartoons for old people with their grandchildren, or up to date cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls. And I think the education department is very important for museums now.

 Like certain structures, do you feel like there is resilience in your artwork?

I keep changing. That’s why I’m not very famous anymore. I don’t have trademark work. Resilience, well I try but I don’t have much success anywhere. MOMA doesn’t have any work. I pretty much haven’t sold anything in the last 20 years, but my favorite period is when I was doing the magazine pieces—that just seemed very important. It lead to something very boring called conceptual art. I think the argument of philosophy in art kind of bores me. Although I did read a lot of philosophy when I was 14. I read “Nausea” and parts of “Being and Nothingness.” I think Lacan takes a lot from Sartre. Basically: Art should be fun.

How about your relationship to the city over time, do you feel like you’ve become more integrated with its happenings and mechanics or do you feel alienated?

I never feel alienated from the city—that’s a misunderstanding in my work. Why I look at architecture is because I look at the city itself. My hobby is really looking at architecture. Two-way mirrored glass was actually first introduced during Jimmy Carter’s [presidency]. Because Jimmy Carter wanted to cut down air-conditioning cost so he used two-way mirrors because in hot climates the mirror reflected the sun and kept down air-conditioning costs. What happened was on the inside looking out you could see, but on the outside looking in you couldn’t. In my opinion, with the corporate and city is that it’s like an utopia obsession. And I’ve always been big on the corporate atrium. When I did my piece I used the plastic that’s used on slides because if children were to fall down it would really hurt. And to be honest I think I’ve always been a little bit afraid of children.

Lastly, how about the idea of your magazine cover for us being taboo or perhaps too provocative for our advertisers. Do you see a conflict there?

Well, that’s your job. In other words I’m going back into my own history. And that is very related in many ways to Lichtenstein. In other words, it’s a little bit cartoony. Also, I think it makes a good cover.