No 40.

Dan Graham

in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa

I never thought I’d have the chance to interview the polymath artist Dan Graham (1942–2022) before he passed away—figures like him never die, despite being mortal. He was born Daniel Harry Ginsberg on March 31, 1942, in Urbana, Illinois, and had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009. His Rooftop Urban Park Project sat on top of the Dia Foundation’s building in Lower Manhattan throughout the 1990s. Speaking with Graham, I remembered that the best part of being in conversation with anyone is being able to bear witness to their reference points and hear what they’re working through—and these are things that aren’t always immediately recognizable in their work. I learned that for someone with the anxiety of having never been formally educated, Graham led by surefire way in his art and set standards for materials (his pavilions for urban contexts and gardens, sinuous booths of semi-reflective glass, which he began in the late 1970s, for instance) that have reshaped our thinking of how architecture and art converge. Frankly I’m unsure if we’ll be able to catch up with him or pick up where he left off. He’s essential to 1970s-era Minimalism, but his politics and the questions he posed through his study of space and place remain prevalent and pressing today. This interview was conducted in January of 2021.

EO

First question: What does education mean to you?

DG

Well, I dropped out of high school, and I would only succeed with having a photo of mine in the yearbook. The word they use now, and I used to use for a while, is slacker. Though my parents wanted me to go to college, I refused. The education I got was simply by accident.

EO

How?

DG

Well, two friends of mine in New York City, who had money, were reading Esquire magazine, and they wanted to create a social life for themselves by having a gallery. I knew nothing about art. They didn't either. So, with their money and my parents taking a tax loss, I had this gallery briefly [John Daniels Gallery], which I was director of, even though I knew nothing about art. On the other hand, that’s where I met Sol LeWitt and gave him his first solo show. Sol was not shown by [Richard Bellamy’s] Green Gallery, and I guess he thought he should be. I picked up a few things, just by being around other artists.

Like almost all artists I knew at that time, I wanted to be a writer. I still don't think of myself as explicitly an artist, considering I make work of different kinds. Russian Constructivism was important to me, and so several different things inspired me: design, architecture, art, and as with [Alexander] Rodchenko, photography, and writing. The great thing about art in the 1960s was that you could call yourself an artist and pretty much do anything you wanted.

EO

You didn't know anything about art, but you wanted to be a writer. What informed your desire to be a writer?

DG

Like I said, everybody I knew wanted to be a writer, except for Sol LeWitt, who was a great reader. I even had a column in something called From the Spanish Diary, which is out of Baudelaire. I think you want to be like James Joyce and Carl Andre...

EO

[Laughs.] Where did your interest in writing come from?

DG

When I was younger, a lot of people I knew dropped out of high school to go to cafés in San Francisco because they were interested in being a beatnik poet. I guess my interest in writing came from science fiction, which isn’t uncommon for people of my generation. What's interesting now is that young writers are very interested in the writings of Ursula Le Guin, but I think her work should be everybody's starting point.

EO

Why did you get into object-making?

DG

Well, I was writing a catalog essay for John Gibson, who had probably the best gallery in the world at that time. John convinced me to be an artist. For me, that meant I could get free tickets to any museum in the city, just for being in some group shows. It also happened that a work of mine, which I think is a magazine page about poetry, Pop art, and the side effects of drugs, was in John Gibson's back room, and a collector, Dr. Herman Daled, who just died, bought it. I think Daled's art advisor was Marcel Broodthaers, which is probably how he wound up with the best gallery in Europe, MTL Gallery in Brussels. In other words, I was surrounded by the best people. It's a gallery that showed Stanley Brouwn, John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth, Broodthaers, and [Daniel] Buren. So, I picked up things very quickly from knowing these artists.

EO

What did you learn from running the gallery?

DG

I guess I learned about what they came to call “Minimal art.” Also, after the gallery went out of business, I used to take the train back to my parents' house in New Jersey, and along the way I noticed a lot of things that I saw in Minimal art, like Donald Judd's everywhere, and realized I could photograph it by walking on the railroad tracks. A little later, I got invited to go to teach at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I realized, in Canada, they had video and film equipment, and all these things that I couldn't afford. So, I thought why not? I could actually go up there and maybe use it to make art like Bruce Nauman.

EO

How did you negotiate making work if you were so cash poor?

DG

I should bring up Andy Warhol. Andy was a great writer and he’s a good illustrator, but I think he didn't intend to be an artist. He picked up a lot of ideas from smart people around him. But let's just say, for a long time, I could live in a very cheap apartment on Eldridge Street and not have a studio, which I still don't have, but I found myself in interesting situations with the help of my friend, Kasper König. I was just accidentally meeting the right people at the right time.

EO

Where did you live on Eldridge Street?

DG

Across the street from Miguel Abreu's elevator building.

EO

Do you remember the apartment, the building number?

DG

Yeah, it's the fourth floor, 84 Eldridge Street. I met Miss Kim Gordon when she was first living there, before Thurston Moore moved in. It was a different Chinatown than it is now. I only ate the local Chinese food at the time to survive. At the time, we didn’t have success in art, except for when I was invited to shows like documenta, who would pay to produce the work, which I couldn’t afford, and it’s different now than it was then because now with art, everyone has a trademark.

EO

What do you think your trademark is?

DG

I don't have one. I keep changing what I'm doing because I critique what I did last time. This idea of artists-as-businessmen is only a recent situation with people who are doing very bad art. In other words, they'd settle on what the trademark could be.

EO

Did you ever teach?

DG

Yes, having never gone to college, I was kind of fond of being a teacher in Nova Scotia, where I initiated the book program with the help of Kasper, but remember, I was teaching there without a degree.

EO

What did teaching mean to you?

DG

It was a way to portray, in lecture form, some of the writing I wanted to do. Also, I could use local media as a format. I had a piece, Likes (1969), a “Computer-Astrological Dating-Placement Service,” which used a computer algorithm to match potential partners based on astrological signs, physical appearance, and relationship priorities. I put advertisement in the local newspaper, and they booked me to be a guest on the local TV news program.

EO

[Laughs.] Which is essentially modern-day Tinder? What's your relationship to astrology?

DG

Astrology is a good way to get to know your students, to find out what their sign is, and it’s also used for first dates and dating. It was basically a cliché in the 1960s. But I like clichés.

EO

Do you still think about astrology now?

DG

I never thought about it much. But it's still used as a way for people to get to know each other very quickly. Being an Aries, I realized that to a lot of people I embody the characteristics and symbols of being super Aries. For a while, I got away with being obnoxious, playful, and opinionated. My favorite artist Goya is an Aries, and I love his humor. Astrology gives you an instant identity. My other identity is that I'm from New Jersey.

EO

What do your pavilions mean to you as an art form?

DG

I don't want to be known for pavilions because that's not what my new work is about.

EO

I know that you don't want to be known for pavilions, but what about them?

DG

When I started them, I was thinking about the [Mies van der Rohe] Barcelona Pavilion, which at that point, I didn't like. But I did like the idea of a temporary pavilions, and putting that together with seat furniture, like telephone booths and bus shelters. When I think of Mies's Barcelona Pavilion, I think of landscape and his use of stone serves as an allegory for the New Weimar Republic.

When I started working in France, through a socialist period, I did a lot of work in very small locations, or in parks. And I liked the idea of overlying different historical landscape periods. In fact, I feel a lot of my work is inspired by my favorite architecture firm, Atelier Bow-Wow. I could keep doing pavilions, but I could never turn out a standard Dan Graham pavilion anyway. I really disliked that idea.

EO

What were you working through as you made the pavilions?

DG

In a way, influences. I thought my work was anti-Mies, though it does incorporate Mies. And when I use oak wood lattices, I'm doing Sol LeWitt, though, when I made those in Japan, it's also like the Shoji screen without the paper.

EO

Right. Why did you decide to work with glass? What's your relationship to materiality?

DG

Two-way mirror glass was used first in the Los Angeles area, it cut down air conditioning glass. It's for ecological reasons. Jimmy Carter was the first person to be involved with ecology. But then, it was also used as a one-eye mirror, so people inside could look outside without being seen. And I think corporations also used it for these office buildings because it would give an image of the sky, so it was like an alibi. I liked the idea of using that material as both transparent and reflective. To use it as I know Foucault uses it. He came up having a hedge utopia situation. I don't mind you doing things like the corporate building because I think there were always parks there. And just like the Ford Foundation, I mean, and the interior is the area where people take their lunch. It was actually designed by a great landscape architect, Dan Kiley. I don't like the idea of art critiquing or sociological critiquing things like corporations. That's very dumb because that's the reality we live in.

EO

Could you talk more about the pavilions and the materiality of them—they’re hyper specific as objects.

DG

Well, I think I probably got the idea for them from when I lived in Jersey, and my mother would take me to New York City to buy stamps. So, it was on trips to New York, where I saw those showcase windows. That was before I read Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, where I think he was talking about the same thing, but this was our version of it here in America. So, my work had a lot to do with the first impressions of a place and trends of urbanists—my work has a lot to do with urbanism. I got that from Sol LeWitt, who worked for I.M. Pei.

EO

What about the Skateboard Pavilion (1989)?

DG

Oh. That's a very good question. I'm writing about that right now. It was for a show called “International Garden Year.” Every three years a German city decides they want to have young artist and landscape architects redesign some inner cities, and they have a show. And it’s for suburban people, where they’ll get plants, flowers, seeds, and powered lawn mowers. And for ours, we were asked to do meeting points. That's where it came up as Skateboard Pavilion. Remember skateboarding was a no-no. It wasn't allowed in city parks, or in museum buildings.

EO

Really? Say more.

DG

Oh, at that time yeah, it was not allowed. Skateboarders were kind of bad boys. I remember Thurston Moore showed me Thrasher magazine. I'll tell you that hardcore people were very interested in skateboarding. So, I thought I wanted to combine two different time periods. In the center of the city, they're always doing rare buildings, office building, but they also had pyramidal shapes in the South. I thought with skateboarding, you could go up in the air, and it's almost like a psychedelic 1960s experience, gyroscopic, involving the sky. But the top was a pyramid, which is a corporate power, office building power situations of the '80s. I also found out later, that skateboarding became bad because they were people who used to be surfers, as you know, right?

EO

Right, it was a way to exercise the muscle and urge when they were off season. Was the piece realized?

DG

No, it was never done. It was just proposed as this meeting point for "International Garden Year.”

EO

Do you have other works that were never realized?

DG

That's the way it is. Most of my proposed works were always dropped. It's a miracle that anything happens.

EO

Right. But were you focused on making work that could be made or was it about getting the idea out into the universe?

DG

Well, now people want to show the work a lot, like Lisson Gallery. But I'm used to that. That's what's happened all my life—people being disinterested and then having my work shore up again. And I'm very lucky that certain things happen to me.

EO

I think that the ideas are genius, and without necessarily having them be realized as real objects and infrastructures.

DG

Well, I think my work is not about ideas. I think my work is, for the most part, about staging and confronting our reality with fiction. Look, I wanted to document a certain period of rock music through art.

EO

What about the Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube (1991) and a Video Salon (1992)?

DG

The Video Salon is important. The gate piece is not really about that piece. It was really about the politics of what the tool shed was, in ways, and was a critique of what was happening there during the time. Walter Benjamin wrote very short essay and said, "If you don't like the decade, you're in ... " the last decade, I mean, he said, this was the '80s then, corporate decade, "you create a false utopia, and with the '60s." Everything now is a fake. So, I wanted to venture into that direction, make it a continuity through combining the decades.

EO

Yes, the line of Benjamin reminds of the Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia essay, where he talks about the meager politics of utopianism at the time and people’s general obsession with power which manifested as a dystopian disposition instead and didn’t really evolve into much after that. I also can’t remember the specifics of where I remember this from but a class, I took at the New School that extensively engaged Jameson’s writing heavily alluded to the power of water tanks on roofs in New York City as symbols of American capitalism that was not only represented by the infrastructure itself (the building) but also the real estate of these buildings, specifically thinking of the buildings as billboards themselves.

DG

Right, exactly, so what I did in the tool shed area was to stage videos that were of what artists were doing in the '70s—performance, dance, and music. Many of them were done, actually, in the landfill at Battery Park City before it became Battery Park City. The piece is also about corporations, and I try to communicate that translating those theories into an atrium. I was trying to combine the politics of the 1970s and '80s. Also, the piece was like a big city park in its own way. It's also like a salon and a penthouse roof and an observation deck for tourists, like the Empire State Building. And the view that you have of Battery Park City and the rest of the city is very important. Also, I used the boardwalk material because it seemed that Battery Park City was going make a proposal that was going to be reviewed by a grand jury, where the Westside Highway would be underground and there would be a park on the top, so I wanted to unite the two together. The entire roof was really about that urbanism in a certain way. The reason I used that cylinder in that piece is because I wanted it to relate to the water tower as Aldo Rossi said it was similar in its symbolism of skyscrapers to New York City.

EO

In terms of like the corporatism in the '80s, how did that inform the pieces that you were making?

DG

Well, when I did a piece in front of a bank in Brussels, I did it in a small park where people went to take their lunch. So, there's always a relationship to city parks. What is happening with Battery Park City is that New York City couldn't afford to have parks because there's a big recession. So that's a kind of corporate city park. I try to deal with reality as it is.

When I do work for private clients, I work like an architect does, I consider the needs of the family and how the family works. I was in a great show in 1986 called "Chambres d'Amis” in Ghent, where during the summer hours artists took over the backyards of the local people, and I was tasked with making a work for a garden. It was fun because I could look at it from the point of view of an anthropologist, which amounted in Children’s Pavilion that I made in collaboration with Jeff Wall, for a show curated by Jan Hoet.

EO

Were you thinking about being a consumer?

DG

Well, I think your generation's obsessed with critique. That's something that I think I kind of take for granted. My parents were college educated, but I grew up in an area that was government shared housing to house people who were working in shipyards. It was working class neighborhood. I think that’s what is so interesting about Jeff Koons. I can't dislike his work because I can see what it comes out of. I think Claes Oldenburg was very important for him because Koons went to school in Chicago. Obviously, he’s from a Pennsylvania working class family and gets a lot of craftsmanship from there because his grandfather made furniture and his father made kitsch gifts. I think he combined the ornamentation he saw in neighbors' houses with high rococo elements in it.

EO

But do you think of your work in terms of ornamentation and structure?

DG

No, because he comes out of another generation, the generation of business culture.

EO

No, I'm saying your work, specifically.

DG

Yes, in the sense that it was influenced with [Robert] Venturi, yes. But I love Venturi's work, even though Europeans hate it.

EO

You said earlier that your use of glass comes from the glass displays in shop windows…

DG

When I did the Hedge Labyrinth and Two-Way Mirror piece, which was also for “International Garden Year,” I was thinking that hedges define the very edge of the city of suburban properties behind certain houses, whereas the two-way mirror glass defines the center city office buildings and glass office buildings where you are reflected back to yourself. What I like in choosing materials is that the two-way mirror glass is both transparent and reflective, depending on what the light is. Whereas for the hedge, often when you're up close, you can see through it, whereas far away it’s opaque. I like putting the two together to create this contrast. Also, the Hedge Labyrinth goes all the way back to the European Grail code in gardens.

EO

But what are you trying to reflect? Are you thinking about that?

DG

This work was done inside a European city. I wanted to reflect the actual history of landscape and its place in Europe. The theme of the “International Garden Year” show was for landed architects to redesign the central parks, and also, because I was thinking about how urban people love to buy flowers, plants, seeds and power lawn mowers. I didn't grow up in suburbia, but I grew up in the very edge of it.

EO

What are your thoughts on architecture?

DG

I'm an architecture tourist. I love architecture. And it happens that people who work in architecture offices seem to like my work, like Brad Pitt, which I learned when he interned for Frank Gehry.

EO

Your works read as compressed objects that gesture at different references.

DG

I think my work is all about context. And in one context, I really believed in European socialism in Norway and in France. In America, I could call myself closer to being something of an anarchist, whatever that means, but I think my work is more specifically context based.

EO

With Homes for America (1966-67), for example, how were you thinking about the medium of the magazine as the context where the work needed to exist?

DG

First of all, I love magazines. I don’t mean magazines like Rolling Stone, but rock-and-roll magazines, like Sounds and NME, which were both cult papers. And maybe I was just interested in magazine culture generally. I was very happy that Robert Smithson had a friend, who was a poetry editor of Harper's BAZAAR, and he placed a work of mine as his page in Harper's BAZAAR. So I liked that kind of context. Also, my early Dean Martin entertainment article was in a rock magazine called Fusion from Boston.

EO

What’s your role as a writer?

DG

[Laughs.] Let's just say that it’s something I am very good at, but I also like writing about supporting new artists, artists who are overlooked. It took me a long time to realize how great John Chandler, the conceptual artist, was. A lot of it I learned through seeing his work and through reading reviews of Judd—he was an incredibly good writer, or critic.

EO

Do you still have the obsession with magazines?

DG

No, I did that at that time. I don't read them that much anymore.

EO

What were magazines, at that point?

DG

They were like newspapers but culturally and socially informative. Since I loved rock music, I remember reading Peter Townsend’s work closely. He'd always be talking about his hero, Ray Davies [lead singer of The Kinks]. So, writers who wrote about rock were able to do provoking criticism in the magazines at the time.

EO

What does success mean to you?

DG

It means I can get projects done, and in a very good context.

EO

Would you ever make work for the context of a magazine as a medium?

DG

Yes, for the same reason you like to do these kinds of interviews on telephone because you could do it instantaneously. It's immediately available to you, right?

EO

Right. Are there works of yours that you really enjoy to this day?

DG

Yes, everything I've done quickly and successfully was in a collaboration with people who I think are geniuses. When I did the Met Museum’s Roof Garden commission, that was a Günther Vogt. There was a work by the landscape architect that I first saw of a hospital in Kortrijk, Belgium. There was a competition happening with the architects, so I went to hear the presentations by the landscape architects. Though Günther didn't win, I was very impressed with his working style because the other things I knew about landscape architecture were from Dan Kiley, but it was highly corporatized. I also did a project with him for Novartis campus, in Basel. I remember we were able to do that work in about two days. I mean, the ideas alone that would flow between us. Also, I couldn't have done that work for the Met Garden without Ian Alteveer. Ian is the assistant curator, making all possible.

More and more, I see my work as period pieces, a little like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I like the idea of working with people I'm very close to, like Glenn Branca. Maybe we share the same background because I grew up with people like him. He came from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—we're basically workman class and Catholic, right?

EO

The conception of your work is so architecturally driven even in how you map out your ideas. The medium for you in a lot of ways is the message.

DG

As I said, I’m totally an architecture tourist. The only thing I’ll happily spend money on is architect books, so I’ve got an extensive library, which I’m happy to be a teacher sharing this information with people. In a strange way I’ve become a semi-scholar teacher, but no one will hire me because I’m out of fashion and no one wants a lecture of the theories of architecture, materials, and buildings. [Laughs.] Speaking of fashion, the art world is so close to fashion, I have to mention this. I think I took a lot of ideas from fashion, when I did the magazine pages that were disposable. I remember doing paper dresses.

EO

I understand as an “architectural tourist” but let’s get down to your relationship to architecture.

DG

I see myself as an obvious architect person. I have architecture books, partly to steal ideas from, because I didn’t go to college and so I'm very interested to educate myself.

EO

Okay. What is your relationship to criticism?

DG

Well, I got into architecture theory because art criticism was so stupid. I discovered Oppositions, which was quite good when it was regularly being published. I’ve got to say that I’ve seen amazing architecture because of when I was doing shows in Europe though I lost a lot of the money I was making because I wanted to travel—the most exciting was seeing Aldo Rossi’s cemetery [Cemetery of San Cataldo, Modena, Italy, 1971].

I don't know what criticism is. It's oversimplification and very stupid, and at times can be ahistorical. So, now I'm trying to finish a long article I wanted to do, from nine years ago, on the evolution of museum from the 1960s to present. Almost all the work I've done has been in the context of my love for museums. I don't believe in the critique of museums because it's not productive as a conversation. When I did the Waterloo Sunset pavilion at the Hayward Gallery, it was because I realized museum education program was becoming important, in the 1980s. And, I didn't want to critique the building itself because I work with architects who wanted to preserve the building, and the piece was a mezzanine to the museum. I took some ideas for that piece from a great architect named Itsuko Hasegawa.

EO

I was reading your Nuggets book earlier, and there's so many great passages. Especially the Sol LeWitt piece. It’s so good.

DG

I was most happy with that short piece on Jon Sherman, who was a mystery to me. He's a fellow Aries. The mystery was his relationship to Andy Warhol's Factory. His girlfriend worked there, I mean, was an actress there, Ultra Violet. Also, I really like the way he made his film and rubber pieces. He probably got me involved in the idea of design because I did several design pieces influenced by him.

EO

What would Dan in 1964 think of Dan presently?

DG

Well, let's just say that I can't believe that my image has survived and some of the work has survived, because I always thought I was a semi-loser most of the time.

EO

Why?

DG

Because people who are successful were always people who had a very defined image. But some of them had great humor, like Sol LeWitt. I think that's the best thing about being an artist because I could travel anywhere in the world. The place that interests me the most now is Korea.

EO

Why did you feel like you were a loser when you were making art?

DG

Maybe, in retrospect, it looks like some of the work was important, but I don't think anybody at the time thought it was, or myself. Also, I'm very self-critical. Want to know the truth? I really wish some foundation, like the Getty, would be interested in taking my catalogs, where the ideas are. Getty has no interest right now. For my newest book, which will be about atriums, I'm working with an amazing designer I work with as a friend, and I've worked with for years. I can't believe how wonderful the catalogs are and his graphic design.

EO

Is there something that you want that you feel like you haven't got?

DG

Opportunities to do work that's in between different areas. Also, what I've lost is working with two socialist situations that I believed in: in France and in Norway.