Dan Graham, an unclassifiable artist whose sculptures, performances and concept pieces have played on viewers’ perceptions of themselves, the people around them and their surroundings, has died aged 79. His four galleries – Lisson Gallery, Marian Goodman Gallery, 303 Gallery, and Regen Projects – said in a statement that he died this weekend in New York. A cause of death has not been announced.
“His influence over the past half-century as a writer, photographer, architect, sculptor, filmmaker and performance artist is widely felt in the contemporary art world,” the statement read.
Long linked as a pioneering artist in the development of minimalism, post-minimalism and conceptualism, as well as video as an artistic medium, during the 1960s and 1970s, Graham claimed no involvement in any movement. Instead, he saw himself primarily as an architect or writer. In a 2011 Museum of Modern Art oral history, he said, “My passion has never been art. It’s always been architecture, tourism, rock and roll and rock and roll writing.
His output was vast and varied. It included monumental glass sculptures and small-scale texts, delicate performances on surveillance, and razor-sharp rock ‘n’ roll videos.
Despite Graham’s disavowal of his status as an artist, he was influential to generations of artists who drew ideas from his self-referential texts, photographs, videos and sculptures. When Graham was the subject of her very first American retrospective in 2009, Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles told the New York Times that Graham could be linked to artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tony Oursler and Wade Guyton, all of whom are 15 years or more his junior. Corn, Times critic Randy Kennedy wrote, “Their work looks and feels almost unlike his own, or that of any other, a remarkable testament to how Mr. Graham’s fascination with the perception and conventions of art and mass culture have become part of the contemporary. artistic landscape.
Some of Graham’s most memorable works are his most lo-fi from the early part of his career. In the mid-1960s, after briefly trying and failing to be an art dealer, Graham returned to New Jersey, where he had grown up. On the way back by train, he noticed a number of houses on the way. These structures became the basis for his first major piece, Homes for America (1966-1967), a series of amateur-looking photographs of housing estates. The coin existed as a feature in the influential Arts magazine, which had planned to publish it alongside the works of Walker Evans. But unlike Evans, whose work Graham was unfamiliar with at the time, Graham was not a professional photographer and his shots were by no means polished.
Many of Graham’s other concept works exhibited a similar deadpan sensibility and were also published by magazines, which he compared to the 1956 science fiction film pods. Invasion of the Body Thievesreferring to the seemingly innocent way in which posts appear in and infect domestic spaces. Detumescence (1966), published as a page in a magazine, consisted only of a text by a medical professional explaining what happens to a man’s penis after orgasm. Diagram (1966), which was also intended for print in mass media, consisted of text detailing typography, specifications, etc. of its respective publication.
More than just sly provocations, these works also marked an attempt to disrupt the one-way transmission of information by the media. (He often cited Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave filmmaker whose 1960s works functioned in a similar capacity, as a major influence in this regard.) These plays also aligned Graham with Conceptualism, a movement whose ancestors also often worked using meta-texts that proposed that art didn’t just exist visually – it also took the form of ideas. Graham, who tended to contradict everything curators, historians, and critics suggested about him and his work, however, flatly denied any affiliation with Conceptualism. He called the move “academic bullshit” in a 2008 interview with musician Kim Gordon.
Dan Graham was born in Urbana, Illinois on March 31, 1942 and grew up in Winfield, New Jersey. (He was Aries and often made sure to mention him in interviews.) His mother was an educational psychologist whose field of work sparked an early interest in human understanding of space. Graham never received a formal education after high school, although he tended to act like a sponge, absorbing the theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, and more. in his early years. He first wanted to become a writer.
In 1964, Graham founded the John Daniels Gallery in New York. This gallery was not well known at the time, but it holds legendary status in the stories of the time as it was where Sol LeWitt had his first exhibition and where a number of minimalists who later acquired greater fame exhibited early on. But Graham made no sales, and the gallery closed a year after it opened.
After his conceptual texts, Graham branched out into works that took on more expansive forms. While these works often took the form of performances, videos and installations, audiences were often her medium. “I wanted viewers to be involved,” he said in his MoMA oral history.
These works from the late 1960s and early 1970s made time and space seem malleable and strange. Video, at the time a relatively new technology, was something Graham wanted access to, and so he began teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art, which was then a hot spot for artists working in the medium. There he produced To roll (1970), a double projection in the style of the genre-defying works of Bruce Nauman. One image shows the artist running down a hill holding a camera, while the other features footage of the camera he was holding. Other works used delayed streams and spatial effects to disrupt the linear flow of time, something Graham claimed minimalism failed to do.
By the mid-1970s, Graham had a prominent use of mirrors, which he used to reflect the audience in performances and to distort the viewers’ surrounding environments in sculptures. Graham has assigned various meanings to his mirrors over the years, linking him to Sartre Being and Nothingness (1943) and the corporate architecture of the 1970s. Performance/Public/Mirror (1972), Graham had his audience sit in front of a mirror and described to them the movements of his viewers. Then he turned to his own reflection and told how his own body worked in space. “First, a person in the audience sees themselves ‘objectively’ (‘subjectively’) perceived by themselves, then they hear themselves described ‘objectively’ (‘subjectively’) in terms of the performer’s perception”, he writes.
The works for which Graham is best known, his glass pavilions, resemble clear architectural spaces that offer the public unusual views of the spaces around them. These are made with bi-directional mirror glass, which “reflect[s] heaven,” Graham said in a 2014 interview with Art space. “But then it also becomes surveillance – you can see out, but you can’t see in.” One designed as an “urban park” was built on the roof of the Dia Art Foundation in 1991, and remained there until the space closed in 2004; a curvaceous sculpture linked to the pavilions appeared atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014. Many more have sprung up in areas not quite considered art spaces, near the Arctic Circle in Norway, for example.
While in the art world Graham is known for works like the pavilions, he has also developed a cult following beyond for one work in particular: rock my religion (1984), a 55-minute montage that links rock ‘n’ roll to a whole line of religious music that begins with the Shakers. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore provided the soundtrack for the video, which is, in a way, Graham paying homage to the rock music that influenced him.
Graham’s storied career has been widely recognized by various institutions around the world. It has appeared in four editions of Documenta, three editions of the Venice Biennale (not including an inclusion in the Venice Architecture Biennale, a rarity for visual artists), three editions of the Whitney Biennale, and two editions of Skulptur Project Munster in Germany. His 2009 American retrospective, “Beyond”, was presented at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Graham, who was long based in New York, claimed in a 2009 Art in America interview that he was struggling to get his work recognized in the city. That hadn’t stopped a legion of contemporary artists from making the trip to his $450-a-month apartment on the Lower East Side to hear from him. He was known for delighting visitors with concise meditations on the earnestness of the 70s art scene and the latest comedies playing in multiplexes near him. He often seemed to take as much pleasure in reading the writings of Guy Debord as in watching a crude comedy with Seth Rogen.
“All art should be for fun,” he said at a 2015 screening of his work.