A Preponderance of Persona

Dan Graham’s quirks were the stuff of legend. They’re also key to appreciating his artworks.

Minimalism emerged out of contention. With the passing of the eccentric, contrarian artists who spearheaded the movement, however, that contentious edge has dulled and the implacable boxes, lights, mirrors, and bricks we tend to associate with figures such as Donald Judd become little more than the nice, if abstruse, decor you see on Instagram. For a while, I found it hard to separate Judd from the current signifiers of taste among wealthy collector types on the Upper East Side, which is where I’m most likely to encounter his work. It was only after reading some of his writing that I began to understand the rigorous scope of his vision and, equally important, gain an appreciation for how much of an irascible crank he was. What seems to be a hokey attempt to assimilate Zen values of stillness and refinement is in fact a vitriolic battle for aesthetic precision. Irritated by a world that thwarted his need for perfection, Judd chose self-exile: in Marfa, Texas, he pieced together an entire hermitage that he could inhabit undisturbed, as though he could only find contentment in a vacuum. The spaces he tailored for his art, with their refined interplay of elements suggesting a coherent whole, easily eclipse all but the best architectural design, let alone gallery installations. Go to Marfa (or, much closer, the Spring Street studio he retained), and the cold, machinelike surfaces of his trademark boxes are brought to life by the heat of dedication given to their meticulous arrangement. He’d be furious about how indifferently his art is shown today.

I bring up Donald Judd when I should be talking about Dan Graham to illustrate an idea about minimalism in general, which, in my defense, is a very Graham move, both in the sense of his interest in historical overlays, i.e., how ’60s minimalists are perceived from the vantage of the 2020s, and by mimicking his habit of redirecting a conversation to his own interests, sometimes abruptly to the point of non sequitur. But the point still comes around, as it (usually) did in Graham’s case. Minimalist sculpture, so often derided as opaque, was lauded as innovatory in its day. To sympathetic critics, the insistence on using generic and industrial materials at once nullified the creative ego and enabled a democratization of art. This blankness can also give the false impression that minimal artworks are interchangeable entities and so, too, their creators. This was never an issue with the European artistic canon, where, for instance, the differences between Tintoretto’s tempestuous profundity and Veronese’s air of lavish gratification are readily apparent in their respective techniques. It turns out that art that is antiexpressionist relies just as heavily on technique and sensibility—all that’s required is a bit of doing. By making connections to the minimal artist’s interests and methods, otherwise known as their individuality, minimal art becomes an engaging aesthetic experience. How does one do that? A good place to start is to read an artist’s writings and interviews.

Another reason for considering Judd is that his absolute focus on fulfilling his totalizing vision is a near-perfect inversion of Graham’s gregarious facilitation of art, a prioritization of the audience’s experience over any exacting need for artistic control: Where Judd acted as a quasi-architect, Graham referred to himself as an “architectural tourist” and considered his interest a hobby. His own relationship to physical space was that of an urbanist concerned with the dynamic between the bodily and the architectural, a more fraught and psychologically complex field than the conventional minimalist “sculpture-as-monolith” that often attempted to negate the role of the viewer altogether. In this, Graham was something of a contrarian’s contrarian, interested in the porousness of meaning, history, and perception over time instead of the instantaneous present, a lover of institutions (for idiosyncratic reasons) amid institutional critique, a humorist in a self-serious art world, an observer more interested in watching others interact with his art than in organized visual experience. His work is generous instead of withholding, which isn’t to say that it’s an open book. As happens with Judd, to really appreciate Graham’s work one needs to have a sense of his personality.

The main impression is of the prodigious eclecticism and depth of Graham’s interests: architecture, sociology, topology, television, pop music, country music, punk music, and, notoriously, astrology.

Dan Graham was an iconic, hilarious, and incredibly weird person. These qualities come through in the interviews in Some Rockin’, but less vividly than seeing his tics and mannerisms in action, or in some funny story about something he said or the brilliantly erratic curation of the Dan Graham’s Greatest Hits series of homemade burned CDs that he circulated to his friends from 2004 until the end of his life. As far as I know, those CDs were never released or played publicly until Peter Fischli included them in Graham’s retrospective show, Is there Life after Breakfast? at Marian Goodman earlier this year, the curatorial masterstroke of a great exhibition. I met Graham twice through my friend Quintessa Matranga (his one-time assistant, who has two interviews in the book), and it was through her relaying of anecdotes that I started to think of him as more than “one of those minimalism guys.” These conversations do give an impression of his particularities, such as his wont to repeat the same stories ad nauseam, regardless of their inaccuracy. He insists that all the artists he ever knew wanted to be writers: Robert Smithson wanted to be Jorge Luis Borges; Judd idolized Alain Robbe-Grillet, the pioneer of the Nouveau Roman, as well as the philosopher A. J. Ayer; and Dan Flavin was drawn to Michel Butor’s novels (as was Graham himself). Apropos of nothing, he says that he always thought Smithson was secretly homosexual and in another interview bluntly states as fact that he was gay. He gets a lot of mileage out of recounting that Sol LeWitt wanted a wood sculpture he had made to be converted to firewood and that Flavin wished for his lights to be returned to the hardware store and that Carl Andre intended to take his bricks back to wherever he found them. Footnotes invariably correct Graham’s claim—appearing in numerous places in the book—that Flavin and LeWitt were influenced by a nonexistent Russian Constructivism show that was supposed to have happened at MoMA while they worked as security guards there. He has an odd tendency to rattle off facts with unnecessary supplementary information, such as telling Kim Gordon that “Sunday Morning” is a song by the Velvet Underground, as if he didn’t think his musician friend, whom he’d known for several decades, was familiar. Above all the main impression is of the prodigious eclecticism and depth of his interests: architecture, sociology, topology, television, pop music, country music, punk music, and, notoriously, astrology.

From this network of ideas Graham constructed his reality. As he says at one point, the appeal astrology held for him had less to do with the cosmos and more to do with its indexical instrumentality: here was a ready system for categorizing people in shorthand. (Those who knew him personally didn’t seem to mind. Judging from the tributes they posted on social media after his death in February 2022, Graham was the rare person who could jabber about astrology without being annoying.) His quips about artists also worked indexically, where he’d designate an observation or a handful of reminiscences as indicative of an artist’s work and file it away as a line to repeat when that artist’s name came up. If it sounds like shtick, he was good enough at choosing his lines that it’s hard to fault him for sticking with the practice.

Such individuating quirks give every one of the book’s conversations an unmistakably “Grahamsian” character, despite their featuring no fewer than eighteen interlocutors. For instance, after being told by Matranga that people don’t realize how funny he is, Graham states that Goya is his favorite artist, that his birthday is March 30 (one day shy of Graham’s own), that he likes how comedic Goya’s art is, and that Goya learned a lot from his near contemporary William Hogarth. Graham then goes on to specify, unprompted, that his favorite artist in New York City is Michael Smith, whose work also deals with comedy. Humor, Graham says, is part of his approach to teaching, only all the young artists actually get their ideas from science fiction, and did you know that he once designed a runway for the French luxury brand Céline for Paris Fashion Week? Not every interviewer has as much difficulty keeping him on track, but there’s a consistent sense that Graham would sooner follow a twisting train of thought than heed the flow of conversation. Actually, he’s at his best when he’s given free rein to ramble on about his pet pursuits. The interview with Joey Frank, a much younger artist than Graham but a fellow astrology enthusiast, is a blisteringly dense index of artists, musicians, directors, architects, and philosophers, complete with corresponding star signs and factoids. It’s very entertaining. Elsewhere, the limits of Graham’s anecdotal range start to drag, particularly in the interviews that tread and retread his early career, but the repetition is less a result of unimaginative interviewers than the reality of the interviewee’s eccentricities of thinking and speaking.

In many ways the fair pavilion is most emblematic of Graham’s work. Though they often projected scale, his projects shied away from the weighty self-importance that marked Judd’s architectonics. If Graham is sometimes considered to be an architect, he certainly is a peculiar one.

Some Rockin’ creates a fuller picture of the multifarious man himself than of his artworks, which you might expect from a book of interviews. But unlike with any other artist I can think of, this preponderance of persona is also true of Graham’s work in general. Part of that feeling comes out of the conscious inconsistency of much of his output and the fact that many of his best-known works are, paradoxically, not very memorable. His early works in video and print, like Past Future Split Attention (1972) and Homes for America (1966–67) and later pavilions such as Two-Way Mirror Hedge Labyrinth (1989), aren’t slight or bad but instead fail to make an impression because they choose to subvert the usual relationship between viewer and object. It brings to mind Michael Fried’s famous confrontation with minimalism, “Art and Objecthood,” which contrasts the traditional effect of painting—an engrossed study of the image Fried calls absorption—with the “theatricality” of minimalism, where the viewer’s attention turns away from the physical artwork to its presence, resulting in the prioritizing of the spatial relationship between the artwork, the viewer, and the surrounding building or landscape. Fried’s theory is debatable enough, not least for its outright rejection of theatricality and thereby of minimalism, but its terminological schema nonetheless helps parse Graham’s oeuvre. It might be best to consider his work as a “theater of absorption,” an intervention into space where the phenomenon of absorption becomes the subject matter of the work rather than its intended goal. His works are not primarily concerned with their intervention into space, nor are they traditionally engrossing in the manner of a painting. Rather, they facilitate an experience of absorption independent of the work’s visual content because the viewer’s interaction with the work is the content. In contemplating Graham’s oeuvre—be it his early performance pieces, which used mirrors, architectural components such as windows, video, amplification, and simple instructions for participants to externalize and articulate their extemporaneous experience, or his two-way mirror pavilions—the extant documentation always seems to miss the point. The point, of course, is the experience itself, in the same sense that playing is the point of a playground.

Graham’s performances were surely absorptive, psychedelic experiences of confused subjectivity for many of the attendees, but we can only appreciate that it must have been so for them. His pavilions are masterpieces of interactive art that reimagine the funhouse mirror with an impressive amount of sophistication, embracing a populist simplicity that pulls off being “fun for the whole family”—a vibe that, through the selfie-bait campaigns of desperate museums, threatens to swallow art entirely—without sacrificing any intellectual credibility. He makes frequent reference in the interviews to the Heart Pavilion, which, owing to its designated site at the entrance to the 1991 Carnegie International, explicitly sought to affirm the museum lobby as a “romantic pick-up place.” But things weren’t so straightforward. Where the folly’s form and name suggest a preoccupation with Venturi-like iconography, the actual structure channels Mies van der Rohe. Comprising clear curved glass mounted on chrome supports, Heart Pavilion facilitated an experience of space that could be shared with others.

In many ways the fair pavilion is most emblematic of Graham’s work. Though they often projected scale, his projects shied away from the weighty self-importance that marked Judd’s architectonics. If Graham is sometimes considered to be an architect, he certainly is a peculiar one. To be sure, he proposed many more designs, such as the dangerous-if-it-were-built Skateboard Pavilion (1989), than he did full-scale pavilions, but the general concept of using architecture as an imaginative exercise seems to get to the core of his aspirations. It’s also from this angle that his work can be seen to have devoted an unusual amount of consideration to children; his Waterloo Sunset at the Hayward Gallery (2002) is essentially a multimedia center for kids to play in while the adults go to look at the art. Indeed, one of the best sections of the book is Graham’s conversation with the architect Itsuko Hasegawa about her design of the Shonandai Cultural Center, an inventive and playful post-Metabolist building south of Tokyo designed to cater to children. In the course of the conversation, he succinctly articulates his vision for a near-utopian, child-oriented architecture:

The idea of a city within a city, as Ms. Hasegawa just pointed out, is indeed an interesting one for me—whether a district is a city or not depends largely on how developed it is within the city—this is the opposite of Disneyland. A good form of architecture, I think, is one that’s opposed to the whole world turning into a Disney World.

That artists preserve a childlike sense of possibility and wonder in their art practices is a commonplace, but it also happens to be true. Perhaps the reason Dan Graham’s art always resonates with the potential for lived experience and playful curiosity instead of conventional pictorial engagement is that its own defining quality is his openness to and enthusiasm for experience. His was a fascination with the world that few of us are capable of sustaining past our adolescence, let alone for a lifetime.

Sean Tatol writes for his website, the Manhattan Art Review, against his better judgment. He is the editor of the print publication Manhattan Art Journal, at his own peril, the first issue of which is now available.