17 Jan 2021 • One Artist, One Material
Dan Graham on creating art through architecture
Predating the selfie phenomenon, Dan Graham’s pavilions tackle issues surrounding privacy and self-image.
Widely considered one of New York’s most influential and versatile artists, Dan Graham is best known for his steel-and-glass pavilions. Often produced at human scale – and positioned somewhere between the genres of sculpture and architecture – his structures bear a sparseness reminiscent of the work of minimalist artists Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, with whom Graham associated in the 1960s. Graham’s art deconstructs and highlights the relationship between ‘architectural’ environments and those who inhabit them.
One of your first projects – Homes for America (1966-1967), a series of photographs illustrating suburban development in New Jersey – was accompanied by a commentary on the ‘obsolescence of architecture and craftsmanship in America’. Did this investigation prompt your lifelong interest in architecture?
DAN GRAHAM: My attraction to architecture came about because of the artists I was talking to at the time: people such as Sol LeWitt, who studied architecture and worked for I.M. Pei, as well as Donald Judd, whose ‘Kansas City Report’ was published in Arts Magazine. The essay was a commentary on urban planning – the idea of combining highway culture with a new classical city plan and minimalist forms. Homes for America was about the city plan and was my way of dealing with minimal art, which I disliked.
Your minimalist pavilions are often described as a commentary on the proliferation of the cold corporate skyscrapers of the 1970s and ’80s. How so?
One-way mirror was first used by corporates on big office buildings to cut down on air-conditioning costs. It worked only in Los Angeles, where there’s a hot climate. But the material’s use is actually an alibi for the corporates, because it reflects the surface of their massive buildings in the landscape. There are links to surveillance as well, because you can see outside from within without being seen. I was less interested in modernist architecture than in the modern office building – and in the idea of seeing the people inside physically working.
I hated my junior high school – this idea of people staring at other people, who in turn stare at them
And this developed into a phenomenological study of consciousness and experience, and eventually into your use of pavilions as instruments of expression . . .
Yes. You know, I hated my junior high school – this idea of people staring at other people, who in turn stare at them. I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and became interested in the idea of gazing. Rather than serving as minimalist art sculptures, my pavilions derive their meaning from the people who look at their reflections and at others – and who are being looked at themselves.
You’ve also cited Renaissance, rococo and Chinese-garden pavilion forms. How does landscape inform your projects?
I’m very landscape-oriented. I like the hedge outside the Barcelona Pavilion, for example. Hedges are important because they designate the edges of the city, whereas two-way mirror designates the business centre of the city. I bring these two things together. My installation for the roof garden of The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout (2014)] was the result of collaborating with landscape architect Günther Vogt. I noticed the straggly treetops visible from the roof garden and decided to base the form on the idea of a hedge – a baroque setting for people to explore in a fun way. We used Astroturf and two-way mirrors to create a provocative experience.
Your pavilions have appeared in various contexts. Where do you prefer to exhibit your work?
I try to involve lawns and gardens in my work, and I prefer sites that can be seen from the city. I like to do installations near corporate office buildings, in settings where people have lunch and relax. Instead of being objective, my work becomes subjective.
In my opinion, my most successful pieces are larger exhibits at a human scale. Waterloo Sunset (2003), a collaboration with the Hayward Gallery in London, was loved by the locals.
Waterloo Sunset formed part of a scheme to improve the Hayward Gallery’s foyer and facilities, but you also referred to it as a ‘funhouse’. Why?
Museums are good vehicles for reflecting the decade and the way they’re used by the public at any given time. I like to work in the lobby, which is a romantic meeting place and has social structures like bookshops, restrooms and elevators. Waterloo Sunset incorporated a freestanding glass-and-metal screen that had monitors displaying cartoons, artists’ videos and information about the museum.
Museums are good vehicles for reflecting the decade and the way they’re used by the public at any given time
I also like to look at the changing role of the museum. I see it as a place in flux. In the ’80s, for example, the French socialist government wanted to regionalize art. Bordering Paris, Parc de la Villette is on the edge of suburbia and the city. The intent was to combine entertainment and education in a park that could be seen from the highway. It’s similar to The Children’s Pavilion [an unrealized 1988-1989 project designed with Jeff Wall that proposed a cave inside an artificial hill], which was supposed to be like the world’s fair.
Your portfolio also contains other art forms, like rock music and television. What are you exploring currently?
I don’t want to do only pavilions. I’d like to be working more in fashion. I was doing something for Christian Dior menswear: a staircase for the brand’s showroom. I read a lot of rare architecture books. I often don’t understand the architects’ diagrams, but they inspire my work. I steal from architecture titles, and I heard that Herzog and de Meuron have books on my work, too. I also like to work within the many genres depicted in Frame.
This interview was originally published in our book One Artist, One Material: Fifty-five makers on their medium. Get your copy here.