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Dan Graham Photo

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."
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Dan Graham Signature
"My work is always about interpretivity. It's about people looking at themselves and others who are being looked at, at the same time. It is about audience groups. And it is about time, because minimal art was static. When the clouds change, the pavilions change every moment as well."
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"All artists are alike. They dream of doing something more social, more collaborative, and more real than art."
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"In fact, I always disliked conceptual art, because my work is about anarchistic humor."
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"Warhol and other Pop artists had brought the art religion of art for art's sake to an end. If art was only business, then rock expressed that transcendental, religious yearning for communal, nonmarket esthetic feeling that official art denied. For a time during the seventies, rock culture became the religion of the art world."
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"A (spatial, temporal) work had only to be exhibited in a gallery and then written about and reproduced as a photograph in an art magazine. Then the record of the no longer extant art installation, along with accretions of information after the fact, became the basis for its fame, and to a large extend its economic value."
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"I still see myself as an artist-writer. I write for pleasure."
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"As an upper-middle-class Jewish person, I was fascinated by petit-bourgeois, Italian-American New Jersey culture. So I could be a voyeur by going to drive-in restaurants and by taking photographs of the facades of new houses."
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"I often get ideas looking at architecture in the city and in looking at architecture books, which I put in my notebooks, and if I see a site I might take one of those ideas and modify it to suit the situation. For me, it is a combination of what I carry to the project and what the place gives to me. I think most architects work the same way."
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"I think all my work deals with the city as a form."
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"All my work is a hybrid. I'm in a hybrid situation. Architects love my work, and my books sell out very quickly because architects are often involved with the work. Also, it is a great hobby for me... I think my passion is architecture tourism... So I see a lot of my work as a passionate hobby."
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"I always used to think I was a teenager, but now I realise I am an old guy and a small child at the same time."
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"What I love about Berlin is Bruno Taut - especially his social housing. He spent a lot of time in Turkey and also lived in Japan. I think that orientalism was quite important for Germany at that time. My other heroes are Robert Venturi, Shinohara Kazuo and Atelier Bow-Wow. Also the Müller House by Adolf Loos is a masterpiece."
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"Don't make art as a career. Because that means you're just doing the same boring things that you reacted against in the beginning."
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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.


  • Dan Graham's pavilions, for which he is best known, played a crucial role in extending the formal aesthetic of Minimalism into Relational Aesthetics. These pavilions, like Minimalist objects, used industrial materials and offered no sign of the artist's hand, but were not removed from everyday life, instead forcing their audience to consider their body in relation to others and to their surroundings.
  • Dan Graham's work bridges the gap between intellectual and popular culture. His videos and performances combine different media which inform and strengthen one another, appealing both to the audience's intellect and desire to be entertained. His emphasis on amusement as an important role for art, along with the techniques he uses for drawing audiences into art works, played a significant role in the rise of video essays and immersive installations.
  • Through magazines, pavilions and performances, along with his position in the arts community, Graham played an important role in extending art beyond the gallery space. His work circumvents the traditional commodity status of art objects, detaching itself from the physical institution through circulation via publication or resisting resale through deep engagement with a particular location.

Biography of Dan Graham

Dan Graham Photo

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.

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 - 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) - 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) - 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 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair

"Dan Graham Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair
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First published on 29 May 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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