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Dan Graham

Star of David-Hamburger Version, 2001

Sculpture | Silver brass, NiCr coated glass, wood and paint
45.8 x 99.5 x 99.5 cm

 

Hybrids between architecture and sculpture, metal structures with glass and tinted mirrors, at once transparent and reflective, Dan Graham installs his pavilions in public spaces, parks and cultural institutions. Their optical complexity crystallizes a complexity of relationships — between the watcher and the watched, between what is reflected and what remains invisible and hidden by the reflection, between the structure and the ambit inside it confined by the reflection — in which the viewer’s expectations are at once stimulated and frustrated, demonstrating how the forms of the city affect the behaviour of its citizens. Inside the pavilions, not only the movements of the viewers but any change in ambient conditions such as the intensity of the light or the temperature change their reading as subject and object are fused prismatically, and the discovery of oneself as viewer is directly related to the awareness that the pavilion appears to have of itself.

These structures arise out of a claim about the historicity of public space: from the gazebos in Baroque garden, from the teachings of Venturi and Scott Brown and, above all, from the book Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas, in which the urban is understood as a concatenation of spaces of entertainment. Notwithstanding these postmodern references, the language of the pavilions derives from the forms that minimalism adopted as a grammar: the basic cube comes from the lattice structure of the American city, from the minimum unit of the urban block reduced in scale. The same reduction also extends to the natural environment: Graham has spoken of how the pavilions adopt the forms of the setting sun in the paintings of Robert Mangold, of those situations that occur everyday at twilight in our big cities, when pollution turns the sky golden brown.

This succession of references also gives a semantic content to of the choice of the polarized mirror, that fundamental material of the urban landmarks of large corporations, which creates a singular effect of surveillance, transparent from inside and reflective on the outside, concealing the idea of economic production that takes place in their interior. If big business seeks to identify with nature by reflecting the sky, the pavilions reflect in contrast an active viewer conscious of these necessary contradictions in the reading of the city centre: the pavilions can be seen as the critical reverse of the situation of power looking out from the top of a skyscraper.

For Dan Graham, the model is of fundamental value in its own right, and not just an intermediate step in the completion of a work. In an architectural project, the model embodies a fantastic vision or an exercise in propaganda prior to the realization of a built work. In the field of art, within the economy of forms that the artist imposes, the model manifests the potential of the structure that will eventually be built: the body’s ability to undertake a spatio-temporal reading of a significant object, hybridizing aesthetic form and urban complex in the critical public space of the viewer’s gaze.

Manuel Segade


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Dan Graham

(Urbana, Illinois, 1942)

For nearly half a century now Dan Graham has been producing a crucial body of theoretical and artistic work which addresses the social and ideological functions of contemporary cultural systems. With no other training than a high school education, at the age of 22 he founded the John Daniels Gallery in New York, where he put on group exhibitions with artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson, as well as the first solo exhibition by Sol LeWitt. The economic failure of this venture and the lack of means of production led him to write about television, popular music and aspects of contemporary art. In 1965 he started work on Homes for America (1966-67), an essay with photographs that constitutes one of the seminal works of Conceptualism. During the 1970s he experimented with time and the spatial mediation of the body in performances and video works. Since the 1980s his work has been linked to the construction of pavilions of glass and mirrors, hybrids between architecture, sculpture and urban design that negotiate with the viewer the semiotics of the conception of the communal public space. His enormous influence is borne out by his participation in documentas 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 (1972, 1977, 1982, 1992 and 1997).

Manuel Segade

 


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Dan Graham

 

Left: Glass elevator traversing sites of Artium Park Avenue, New York, 1987 / Right: Chemcore Artium B terminal garden, New York, 1987

Photograph | C-print 

35 x 27.5 cm

DGR.0004

Dan Graham’s experience as a failed gallery owner was the spur for his increasing interest in the socio-economic context of the production of art: in those early days of Conceptualism, the debate between art and economic value occupied a central space. Influenced by the thinking of Walter Benjamin, he published a series of articles in the early 60s that must be seen as artworks inserted in ephemeral media, with the fact of being published in magazines stripping them of the load of value attaching to the conventional artwork. It was also Graham’s readings of Benjamin, together with his passion for the Futurist avant-garde, that prompted him to develop a cinematic vision of the city centred on the new architectural forms of New Jersey, where series of identical homes were built along the circulation routes of movement of suburban highways to house the influx of population after World War II.

Influenced by the artist Marcel Broodthaers’s use of stereotypes of printed language, Graham went on to explore the semiotic notion of cliché, and started taking pictures with a Kodak Instamatic, using the inexpensive camera to generate images that are interesting for their sheer banality and publishing these in Esquire, denouncing the alienation of vernacular architecture. Together with an analytical text, these pictures were subsequently published as Homes for America in Arts Magazine in 1966. Dan Graham insisted that his references were pop songs such as ‘Mr Pleasant’ by The Kinks or ‘Nowhere Man’ by The Beatles. The fact is that he effectively brought out the environmental nature of the serial and topological aesthetic of Donald Judd’s minimalist art, transcribing industrial forms deriving from a social reality capable of being documented into a new cultural key.

In recent decades Graham has continued this photographic work in various suburban settings, creating a fascinating system of relations, repetitions and differences, which branch out in space and time from that seminal work, questioning architecture, highlighting the idiosyncratic banality of its elements and revealing the interpenetrations of private and public space and, ultimately, their role as articulators of social organization. Born into a middle-class Jewish family, Dan Graham’s work is rooted in an awareness of the cultural intensity of the new immigrant middle class: in voyeuristic fashion he portrayed households from drive-in restaurants, from the road, where the quality abstract of industrial structures, with buildings colour-coded for easy identification, make it possible to speak of the social productivity of the suburbs, seen as centred on youth culture as a form of resistance to an established order determined by the interchangeability of its modular structures for living, which parallel the standardization of the nuclear family for which they were designed. Begun at the very moment of Pop’s triumph and continued into the late 90s, these images are for Dan Graham — as the influential contemporary art historian T. J. Clark noted in his texts of the time — political celebrations of the revolutionary nature of petty-bourgeois culture within a static social system.

Manuel Segade


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