Summer Guide: Dan Graham Gets a Whitney Retro

Sit down with Dan Graham, a Renaissance man if ever there was one, and you'll likely get a verbal performance akin to high-energy jazz, a string of free-associations on modern culture: Claes Oldenberg's parodies, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica's neo-concretism, rubber sheet geometry, French novelist Michel Butor, and New Jersey architecture. Graham, 67, a self-taught artist whose formal education didn't go beyond high school, has seemingly read everything, known everybody, and done it all: conceptualism, films, performance, photography, city planning, theory, and rock 'n' roll collaboration (he even named the short-lived No Wave band the Theoretical Girls). Perhaps because he defies easy categorization, that distinctly American habit, Graham remains less appreciated in this country than he is in Europe, but his first U.S. retrospective, which began at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and comes to the Whitney Museum this summer (opening June 25), should help bring wider attention to his playful intellectualism.

For all his devotion to art, Graham initiated his career on little more than a whim. "I was a slacker—I had no real job," he says, recalling the early '60s, when he had left New Jersey suburbia for Manhattan. "But two friends wanted to open a gallery to social-climb . . . and I read magazines like Esquire, and they always talked about the art scene, so, superficially, I had some interest in it." Twenty-two then, he managed the space for only a year (it went bankrupt), but in a remarkable moment of "being in the right place at the right time," he showed work by Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Smithson, and Donald Judd, all of whom, of course, would become preeminent practitioners of minimalism.

Graham enacts Performer/Audience/Mirror in Amsterdam, 1977
Courtesy Dan Graham
Graham enacts Performer/Audience/Mirror in Amsterdam, 1977

Much of Graham's work, too, relies on the simplicity of form, but it's of a deceiving sort—underpinned by deep thought and an interest in playing, often on the sly, with the viewer's perception. "I think my work had less to do with the philosophical idea of conceptual art," he says, "and more to do with anarchistic humor." Graham's 1967 photographs of row housing, published in a magazine as Homes for America, have often been interpreted as an exercise in minimalism, but were intended, Graham says, to mock stories decrying the sterility of the suburbs. "It's more a celebration of the petite bourgeoisie. . . . It's a fake think-piece."

The films, video, and performances that followed (many of which will screen at the museum) further attempted to upend conventional notions, particularly of time, space, and continuity. Influenced by the phased music of his friend Steve Reich, time-paradox sci-fi, Paul Ryan's experiments in video recording, and "the effect of using a lot of marijuana," Graham combined mirrors, feedback loops, and time-delayed videos to blend the present with the "just past" and turn viewers into performers.

That interest in "the spectators' perception of themselves"—­originating in a teenage reading of Sartre's Being and Nothingness, which (in one of Graham's typical associative paths) led him to Lacan's écrit on a child's mirror stage—forms the basis for the artist's best-known work, his public pavilions. Sleek geometric structures of plate glass and two-way mirrors typically installed outdoors, these gathering spots enclose visitors while putting them and the reflected environment on display. "They attempt," Graham says, "to make a heterotopia [Foucault's term for a place of 'otherness'] out of corporate architecture." He has designed pavilions, too, for an Austrian castle (a Star of David shape confronts the country's reputation for anti-Semitism) and for performances by Sonic Youth and the punk band Japanther. "I like [them] to be on the edge of functionality," he says. "So it's more like Russian constructivism."

Most remarkably, a pavilion of curved mirrored glass stands on a rocky plain in Norway, within the Arctic Circle. Like a hi-def television or, as Graham suggests, "a panorama by Frederic Church," it presents, in reflection, a gorgeous vista of mountains and sea. Mystical in its beauty and conceptual for its remoteness, the work is clearly that of a sage who loves art and life in equal measure.

The Whitney Museum of America Art, Madison Avenue and 75th Street, whitney.org

Summer Art Picks

Dennis Oppenheim
June 4–27

Dennis Oppenheim's prodigious imagination has produced, over the past 40 years, large-scale conceptual earthworks; intimate examinations of the body; absurdist, roomsize contraptions, such as A Device to Convert Chilling Underground Winds Into Memory; and, more recently, enormous architectural sculptures of whimsy and satire, like Martian Rock With Tunnel. Here, he presents several new works, including a giant water splash (à la Harold Edgerton's strobe photos) and a swarm of birds shaped like a cup and saucer. Janos Gat Gallery, 195 Bowery, janosgatgallery.com

'Noguchi ReINstalled'
June 17–October 24, 2010

With structural repairs complete, the Noguchi Museum can finally use all of its space to present—for the first time since 2002—the entirety of its vast collection the way Noguchi originally intended when he designed the building. Attesting to the sculptor's broad interests, more than 200 pieces (including set designs, drawings, and furniture) run the gamut of expression: sleek, spiritual, earthy, humorous, profound, and even wryly sexual. The Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City, noguchi.org

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