Dan Graham (1942-2022) obituary: a pioneer of the illusion
Pioneering American visual artist, writer and curator Dan Graham has died in New York at the age of 79. Through cognitive and visual experiments, his art occupied an intermediate, fluid and hybrid space, concealing complex theories in a veil of simplicity.
Throughout her 50-year career, Graham moved seamlessly between photography, architecture, sculpture, film and live performance, alongside critical and speculative writing that spanned everything from reviews of rock music to astrology and art theory essays. He was best known for his “pavilions”, hybrid structures mixing sculpture and architecture, theaters of perception playing on illusion and geometry, making the spectator both spectator and protagonist.
Dan Graham, Groovy Spiral, 2013, One-way mirror, stainless steel. ©️ Dan Graham, courtesy of Lisson Gallery
Considered one of the pioneers of conceptual art (albeit a term he recently disavowed), he broke rules, rewrote conventions and imagined art beyond the gallery’s white, cubic walls. .
Graham began his art career as a gallery director at the John Daniels Gallery in New York, exhibiting the work of minimalist legends such as Carl André, Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt (including the first solo exhibition of the latter).
In 1965 Graham’s attention turned to his own conceptual and post-conceptual artistic ideas. His initial breakthrough work was Homes for America (1966–67), a magazine-style photo-text composition based on a cheap 1960s suburban housing estate in New Jersey. Graham used conceptual satire to portray these characterless networks of housing – built on a promise of desirability and positive social reform – as alienating, soulless variations on a theme of monotony.
Top: Dan Graham, Homes for America, Magazine of the Arts, 1966-1967 , Print . Above: Homes for America, 1966-1989 six framed and signed color prints. ©️ Dan Graham, courtesy of Lisson Gallery
Although working in a minimalist tradition, Homes for America was critical of a certain type of minimalism, one where repetition was never interrupted and mass production rendered craftsmanship and design obsolete. As Graham told the Brooklyn Rail in a 2012 interview, “There was this whole idea of overcoming monetary value in the air in the ’60s, so my idea was to put things in magazine pages where they would be disposable without value. And it was a hybrid too because the work was a combination of art criticism and essay: a magazine page as a work of art.
In the 1970s, Graham focused on the architectural installations for which he was best known. These “pavilions”, geometrically configured structures involving one-way mirrors, steel and glass, served as environmental “punctuation marks”, diversions from the expected rhythm of city life, a moment of pause and, above all, , an invitation for spectators to watch but also to live.
These single-storey structures create feelings of instability on solid ground. They watch, ponder, and trap those who enter into a disorienting combination of self-reflection, self-awareness, self-absorption. Spectators, or participants, find their bodies distorted, dislocated or merged with other bodies – trippy, confusing and stretching the senses, they are about to observe and be observed.
Dan Graham, Greek Meander Pavilion, Open screen version Shoji, 2001 . One-way glass, stainless steel, oak, PVC mirror. ©️ Dan Graham, courtesy of Lisson Gallery
Holding up a mirror to modernity, Graham’s practice has explored consumerism, the philosophy of surveillance and the psychology of space. His legacy is art that makes you see yourself and your surroundings a little differently.
Notable pavilion works include Public space/Two audiences (created for the 1976 Venice Biennale), One-way mirror with hedge maze (1989), and Hedge Walkabout One-Way Mirror (2014) realized on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with landscape architect Günther Vogt.
Graham’s major exhibitions included solo exhibitions at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin (2006), Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA (2009); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2014). He also participated in dOCUMENTA 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 (1972, 1977, 1982, 1992, 1997) and exhibited at the Venice Biennale (1976, 2003, 2005). §