Dan Graham

American Sculptor, Photographer, Performance, Installation, and Video Artist

Born: 1942
Urbana, Illinois
I like to get into new areas, and I like them to be in a borderline situation, rather than definitively one thing.

Summary of Dan Graham

Dan Graham has achieved widespread recognition for the way in which his work combines a range of media and reference points in order to explore post-war society and relationships between people and places. Graham's early work was influenced by the Minimalist use of industrial aesthetics and early Conceptual Art's emphasis on the written word, bridging the two movements through formal aesthetics that invited, rather than repelled, engagement with the wider world. Graham began his career publishing work in magazines, but became known for his video collages, performance pieces and pavilions, which encourage open-ended explorations of human interaction, often drawing upon the mirror as a device for considering ego, surveillance and play. He has always drawn extensively from sources outside the art world, including rock music, literature and architecture, and in recent years has expanded his practice to consider the role of landscape in relation to the human body and the urban grid.


Progression of Art


Homes for America

In this photograph, a series of houses recede into the distance, each identical save for their different shades of grey, brown or black. The frame is dominated by the soft, grey sky and the landscape is cropped such that only the upper storeys and rooves of the houses appear, abstracting them. The repetitive geometry of these houses is emphasised by the framing of the photograph, which removes the surrounding townscape, the contours of the land and the position of the photographer. This image is one of a group, taken in Northern New Jersey and Staten Island, which were initially exhibited as a slideshow and ultimately published, with an accompanying text by Graham, in Arts magazine.

Homes for America is indicative of Graham's early Minimalist and Conceptual influences along with the ways in which his work explores the built environment. The houses appear as grid-like patterns, with the powdery colors echoing the paintings of Agnes Martin. His use of deadpan photography, produced on a low budget, to elevate the ordinary to the status of art follows the ideas of Lucy Lippard and the work of Ed Ruscha. In this case, the subject that is scrutinised by its positioning as art is the suburbanisation of the United States; Homes for America focuses on the developments, characterised by the repetition of cheaply-built, almost identical houses, that sprung up on Staten Island and in Northern New Jersey during the period after World War II. Graham's photograph, however, does not make judgements on this phenomenon; the images, shown without figures, cast the houses as lonely, but the dominance of the sky is suggestive of openness and dream, imbuing the suburbs with a sense of poetry.

Chromogenic Color Print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Performer / Audience / Mirror

This still from Performer/Audience/Mirror shows Dan Graham standing before a crowd of people; the scene is reflected in a large mirror that dominates the frame, such that Graham is the only figure that the gallery audience sees both within and outside the reflection. The video, made from a performance in a dance studio in 1975, shows Graham interacting with an audience though an improvised routine in which he observes and describes his surroundings, his actions and the responses of the audience, reacting to changes as they occur.

This was among the first of Graham's experiments in Performance Art, which used mirrors as monitors to heighten awareness of the ways in which observation operates. In looking at the still, or the video, the gallery visitor watches others, watches others being watched, and becomes aware of their own watching and of those who may be watching them. This video investigates the different layers of representation and reality, revealing the fluidity of positioning as performer and spectator and encouraging consideration of role play, in art and in other aspects of life. Graham spent much of his childhood fascinated by television and particularly by the concept of the studio audience, which is here elevated into a meditation on perception. As such, Performer / Audience / Mirror also shows the ways in which Graham's early influences can be traced through his work.

Video (black and white, sound) - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Rock my Religion

Rock my Religion is a video collage comprising elements of text alongside documentary and performance footage, drawing together material relating to punk rock during the 1960s and 1970s and material relating to Puritan and Shaker traditions, linking the two realms. The 55-minute video opens with punk musicians onstage in a crowded room, alternating with photographs and woodcuts showing groups of Shakers, named for the writhing rituals they performed in religious practice. Graham himself narrates much of the voiceover, which details Puritan history, while historical texts and lyrics scroll over photographs.

The material, visual and written, often explores the alienation of work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries alongside the forms of release that occur in religious and musical practice. The video suggests that rock is a form of religious experience, offering the same possibilities of transcendence and community and the same dangers of fundamentalism as Puritan practices. Rock my Religion developed from an article Graham wrote with the same title, in which he explored the yearning for community often denied by the capitalist structures of the art world.

Graham's use of collage to construct Rock My Religion allows his argument to be articulated and illustrated through a range of different media and examples which support one another, with visual and aural repetition serving to capture the attention and imagination. The historical information provided in Graham's voiceover both informs the audience and provides a framework for understanding the photographs, video and music that accompany it. Graham's repetition of images of bodies in motion, images of industrial work settings paired with lyrics about labour in the 1970s and religious songs alongside punk music heighten the viewer's awareness of both the similarities and differences between rock music and religious experience. This use of a collage in video was very influential, with celebrated video essays, including Derek Jarman's Blue and Camille Henrot's Grosse Fatigue, utilising techniques pioneered by Graham.

Video (black and white and color, sound) - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon

This work, designed in collaboration with architects Mojdeh Baratloo and Clifton Balch, is among the first and most ambitious of the Pavilions for which Graham is best known. The work is composed of a circular structure inside a larger square enclosure; both are made of steel and subtly mirrored glass that marries transparency with reflection. The pavilion was situated on the rooftop of 548 West 22nd Street, then home to the Dia Center for the Arts, drawing reflections of the city into the same space through which visitors moved, encountering their own bodies and reflections alongside those of others. The rooftop pavilion was intended to operate as a performance space and was accompanied by a space for viewing videos in the lobby of the Dia building, encouraging visitors to linger.

Graham's pavilions are unashamedly intellectual, translating theoretical texts into phenomenological experiences. His materials are chosen for the roles that they play in society. The highly reflective glass, for which Graham is known, is frequently used in corporate facades and hence often associated with the alienation of late capitalism, but is deployed, here, in service of self-directed play. Mirrored glass, in a conventional architectural situation, will be reflective on the side exposed to sunlight while the other side is transparent, serving to shut out those outside the building. The positioning of Graham's pavilion on a rooftop changes the way in which the glass, activated by sunlight, performs, blending reflective and transparent properties. These changes in the glass, which returns distorted reflections or transparencies, creating a pleasurable disorientation in the visitor that can be likened to a Jacques Lacan's idea of the mirror stage in childhood, where astonishment at the loss and reappearance of one's image prompts the discovery of the ego.

Graham began to produce pavilions in the early 1980s, extending his interest in mirrors and surveillance technologies into three dimensions. Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon is influenced by Minimalist objects, similarly using industrial materials that show no trace of the artist's hand, but distinguishes itself from the work of earlier artists through a new emphasis on relationships. Unlike the Californian Light and Space Movement, which sought to concentrate audience attention on the effects on light through similar interventions, Graham's pavilions attract the attention through their beguiling visual effects in order to encourage consideration of social relationships. This structure relies on the audience for activation and encourages visitors to move around and through it, variously encountering their own body and gaze, reflected back, and the bodies and gazes of others. Graham's pavilion also distinguishes itself from the Minimalist work with which it shares an aesthetic through removing itself from the commodity market. The pavilion, which is site-specific, relies on the surrounding cityscape, which is filtered through and reflected by the glass, rejecting the white cube as setting. Dia, at this point, was known predominantly as an institution that commissioned and sold work, and so Graham's intervention serves as a provocation against Dia's values; in an institution known for prizing collectable objects, Graham creates a piece that cannot be sold, due to its relationship to its specific site, which relies on community in order to be activated.

Two-way mirror glass, stainless steel and perforated steel - Dia Center for the Arts, New York


Don't Trust Anyone Over 30

Don't Trust Anyone Over 30 is a rock opera for puppets written by Dan Graham with video projections by Tony Oursler and music written by Rodney Graham and Kim Gordon, performed by Japanther. Debuted at Art Basel in 2004, it has subsequently been shown in Vienna, Berlin, Minneapolis and New York City. This still, from the filmed Minneapolis performance at the Walker Art Center, shows the major characters gathered in a living room set. The rock opera is set in the 1960s and follows a 24-year-old presidential candidate, Neil Sky, who campaigns with policies including putting everybody over thirty in a rehabilitation facility where the drinking water is laced with LSD. Ultimately, after Sky becomes president, his 10-year-old son begins to plan his own presidential regime, in which everyone over ten is placed in a rehabilitation centre.

Don't Trust Anyone Over 30 is an affectionate satire of youth counterculture in the 1960s, drawing its title from a slogan made famous by Jack Weinberg, an activist at UC Berkeley who referenced it in an interview in 1964. Graham's rock opera is predominantly intended as entertainment, infused with a nostalgia for youthful idealism and a critique of planned obsolescence and the cult of youth. Don't Trust Anyone Over 30 expresses Graham's particular worldview, presenting playfulness and rebellion as appropriate, if flawed, responses to authority. The use of puppets, projections and music creates a funhouse atmosphere that engages the audience's own childlike sensibilities and creates an atmosphere of inclusion, created by a range of collaborators. This atmosphere, reminiscent of children's social dynamics, serves as an argument in favor of art as a form of entertainment.

Video (color, sound) - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis


Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout

Graham's pavilions have evolved across his career; Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout combines his earlier interest in architectural sculpture, mirrors and visitor relationships with careful use of landscaping. The Pavilion is composed of two parallel hedges, between which an S-shaped curve of steel and reflective glass runs along a rough diagonal, across a paved space set within a neat green lawn, situated on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Visitors are invited to interact with the piece, observing their reflections and the visitors around them as they move into the space, but the structure of the pavilion serves to separate visitors even as they are brought into the same space, with the transition between the two sides of the glass divide requiring people to walk around, rather than through, the pavilion.

Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout serves as a folly or playground in which the chief form of amusement is intellectual, encouraging open-ended ruminations on relationships with others and with the city. This particular pavilion serves to emphasise the significance of suburbanisation in understanding the post-war North American landscape, bringing both elements of corporate architecture and the suburban garden into the art institution. The lawn and hedge can be read as references to suburbia and to the tradition of the garden as a bourgeois leisure space, and the placement of such a landscape in the centre of Manhattan creates a disjuncture and encourages consideration of this relationship. The hedges, on either side of the curve, serve to block the view of the city to two sides while framing it on the other sides, echoing the ways in which cities are sometimes perceived of in suburbs, separate but connected.

This pavilion takes Graham's earlier interest in corporate materials as a means of subverting capitalist architecture, but by combining it with a suburban landscape tradition extends consideration beyond the workplace and into the domestic sphere. The pavilion, additionally, as a site for play, contributes to the growing understanding of large-scale installation as a site capable of offering multi-dimensional experiences that shape the viewer through immersion in a space that responds to their own physical and intellectual enquiries.

Two-way mirror glass, stainless steel and perforated steel, plants - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Biography of Dan Graham


Dan Graham was born in Urbana, Illinois in 1942 to Jewish-American parents. His father was a scientist while his mother was an educational psychologist. The family moved, three years later, to Union County, New Jersey, a suburban setting which would influence Graham's later artistic practice. Graham was enchanted by television during the 1950s, watching shows such as Uncle Fred and Howdy Doody, fascinated by the role of the studio audience and relationships between spectators and performers. He also enjoyed building a telescope from a kit with his father and started an astrology club as a teenager, indicating an interest in vision and social relationships that would continue across his adult life.

Graham's childhood was, however, largely difficult. He has described his mother as "cold," while his father was abusive. Graham had a breakdown at the age of thirteen and was prescribed anti-psychotic medication. He had difficulty in school and felt alienated from his peers, finding solace in reading widely, with the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Margaret Mead and various science fiction writers proving particularly influential. Graham has described the physicality of his work as a reaction against his difficult intellectual upbringing, noting that his mother "was in denial of the body" while his work became about relationships between the body and its physical environment, drawing upon the suburban playgrounds and prefabricated housing of his youth.

Early Training and Work

Upon graduating from high school, Graham saw himself as a "dropout," rebelling against the middle-class assumption that he would attend university. He instead produced reviews and essays for rock magazines, something he described as "an adolescent dream." Graham's writing served as an introduction to the art world; he admired those, such as Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, who were interested in combining art and writing, and began to move in their direction.

In 1964, at age twenty-two, Graham founded the John Daniels Gallery with two friends, naming the gallery after an amalgamation of two partners' first names. The gallery, made possible through the financial support of Graham's parents, was located on East 64th Street in Manhattan and set itself apart from the dominant Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist scenes, instead favouring Minimalism and Conceptual Art, then in their infancy.

The John Daniels Gallery allowed Graham to meet the artists that he admired and learn from their work. Soon after the gallery opened, Sol LeWitt had his first solo exhibition there, attracting his friends, who included Robert Morris and Dan Flavin. The gallery was creatively and critically successful, but failed financially, closing after less than a year. Graham learned from the artists he worked with and began to create his own work, initially favouring photographic projects and graphic design.

In 1965, Graham returned to his parents' home in New Jersey to evade creditors, and began to photograph the housing developments of Northern New Jersey and Staten Island, which would form the basis of his first significant project, Homes for America. Graham presented his artworks, during the late 1960s, in magazines and as slide shows, resulting in the attention of Marcel Broodthaers and John Gibson, a prominent gallerist, who introduced him to collectors and museums and gave him his first solo show, at John Gibson Gallery, in 1969.

Mature Period

In 1970, Dan Graham was included in Kynaston McShine's exhibition, Information, at the Museum of Modern Art, which introduced Conceptual Art to mainstream audiences. He was invited, later in the same year, to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, where he was among the artists included in David Askevoldhad's course 'Projects,' in which students executed works by prominent Conceptual artists; Graham's contribution, on which the students worked, was a set of seven video pieces.

Reluctant to be pigeonholed as a Conceptual artist, Graham continued to publish critical writing on music, art and architecture whilst expanding his artistic practice into performance and installation, with an increased interest in the psychology of audience behaviour, using cameras, mirrors and projection to destabilise viewer experiences. Later in the decade, Graham was invited to return to teach at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, leading seminars exploring contemporary mass media.

In the 1980s, Graham was closely involved with the New York music scene, befriending Glenn Branca, Kim Gordon and Robert Longo, among others, and designing album covers for groups including Sonic Youth. These influences informed his art work, culminating in the video collage Rock My Religion, which combined text, film footage and performance to meditate on connections between punk rock and organised religion.

In the same decade, Graham began creating the mirrored structures for which he is best known, interactive pavilions that visitors can move through and around. These resulted in international solo exhibitions and institutional and private commissions around the world, cementing his reputation as one of the most significant contemporary artists working in the United States.

Late Period

In the 1990s, Graham published several retrospective collections of essays, including Rock my Religion, 1965-1990 and Two-Way Mirror Power: Selected Writings by Dan Graham on his Art. He continued to teach internationally, including in Japan, where he met Mieko Meguro, an art student with whom he kept in touch. As Meguro's career as an installation artist developed, the pair became a couple and eventually married.

In 2004, Graham wrote a rock opera for puppets titled Don't Trust Anyone over 30, created with his friends, the artists Tony Oursler and Rodney Graham. Subsequently, he has focused on the pavilions for which he is best known, often collaborating with architects or designers.

Graham continues to live with Mieko Meguro in New York City. In 2016, he suffered a series of health issues that led to his spending several months in hospital; he is now often unable to travel internationally for his work. In 2017, Meguro held an exhibition, For My Love, Dan and Potato Chips, at Shoot the Lobster responding to Graham's hospitalisation, presenting the celebrated artist as husband and muse, laughing and smiling in paintings, alongside an installation composed of the bags of potato chips that sustained Meguro during her visits.

The Legacy of Dan Graham

Dan Graham resists his categorisation as a Conceptual and Minimalist, and even as an artist, preferring to conceive of himself as an artist-writer and emphasising the importance of cultural criticism as a means of interacting with his peers. Nonetheless, he is widely recognised for his contributions to Conceptual Art and Minimalism, creating work that bridged the divide between intellectual traditions and popular culture, and his impact on those he worked alongside and on subsequent artists is widely felt. His early use of the magazine as a site for art influenced other artists and curators involved with Conceptual Art, including Lucy Lippard and Mel Bochner.

Graham's interest in collage, as manifested in his early videos, has influenced artists including PPaul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who have similarly experimented with combining unusual cultural references and ranges of media; Kim Gordon, leader of Sonic Youth, has also noted Graham's impact on her band's approach, crediting her awareness of art's sociological possibilities to Graham. More recently, his impact can be seen in the use of the video essay as a form of cultural criticism.

Graham's use of the pavilion as a form of art bridging sculpture and architecture has had an impact on artists including Daniel Buren and Neil Beloufa, both of whom use mixed media installations as a form of Institutional Critique that involves the gallery visitor. His use of literary and philosophical reference points for immersive installation has reciprocally influenced a number of contemporary artists, including Yayoi Kusama and Martin Creed.

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