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
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.