Photo: Ian Markell

Dan Graham: Art's most productive slacker on pavilions, post-punk and pop culture

12 November 2017

Dazed and Confused

It would be difficult to overestimate the cultural impact of 70-year-old rock’n’roll philosopher Dan Graham.

The avuncular silver-tongued radical with a love of zodiac cliches (he gets bored with things quickly because he’s an Aries, he says) has made a joyfully bizarre career of popularising and legitimising post-minimal art. A true autodidact, he charged headlong into conceptual magazine-pieces, photography, video works, performance, critical writing and, of course, his fun-house-like mirrored pavilions.

At 22 he put on Sol LeWitt’s first solo show, and Kim Gordon cites him as the reason she got into music. While speaking to Dazed in his Nolita apartment, he keeps his right hand planted to his temple for a full hour, seemingly so as to contain his super-brain as it whirls in a stream-of-consciousness kaleidoscope from structuralism to sociology, pop to punk. Now preparing for his next adventure, Graham is as precocious as ever. Dazed & Confused: In your quasi-documentary ‘Rock my Religion’ (1982-84), a Patti Smith voiceover says, ‘My belief in rock’n’roll gave me a king of strength that no other religions could come close to.’

Did you feel that way about music growing up in New Jersey?

Dan Graham: When I was growing up I listened to radio programs with teh top 20 countdown, which was Patti Page, Teresa Brewer, pre-rock’n’roll. My favourite singer was Rosemary Clooney. Her songs were very sexy. ‘Come in-a my house / My house a-come on.’ And of course, George Clooney, who may or may not be the sexiest man on earth, is her nephew.

D&D: How did you come to open the John Daniels Gallery in 1964? You helped pioneer conceptual art.

DG: Well, I don’t believe in conceptual art. The gallery was an accident. I was somebody who was almost a high-school dropout. The word is ‘slacker.’ I didn’t know what I was doing. I rented a space and the person I bonded most with was Sol LeWitt, because he liked the same French writer, Michel Butor. In group shows I put in people like (Robert) Smithson, (Donald) Judd, (Dan) Flavin, and the gallery didn’t sell anything. I wanted to be a writer, and almost all these artists saw themselves like writers. Flavin wanted to be James Joyce, Smithson wanted to be like Borges, and Carl Andre actually loved Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. He wanted to be a poet and wasn’t a very good one.

Dan Graham, ‘Two half cylinders’, 2000 © Dan Graham. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

D&C: You closed the gallery in ’65 and began making you own art. Why did you use magazine pages as your medium?

DG: The situation came about because I was hiding from my creditors. For ‘Homes for America’ (1966067), I went back to stay with my parents in New Jersey, and along the railroad tracks I saw things that looked like Judd, taking pictures with my cheap camera. ‘Homes for America’ has a lot to do with ‘Mr Pleasant’ by the Kinks and ‘Nowhere Man’ by the Beatles, and like a pop song it was disposable, like magazine culture. And I was very interested in the disposability.

D&C: What is it about disposability that appeals to you? Was it a way to take commerce out of the equation?

DG: All the artists I was involved with wanted to destroy monetary value. When I showed Flavin in a group show he put his work on the floor and somebody stepped on it and it exploded and he was very happy. He said the lights should go back to the hardware store. Lichtenstein said he wanted to destroy painting in terms of value by using cheap printed matter. So my idea was to put things directly in magazine pages where they’d be disposable and destroy value.

D&C: ‘Homes for America,’ published in ‘Arts Magazine,’ is a mock photo-essay combining photos of New Jersey tract houses with text. People think that it’s a condemnation of suburban conformity, but it isn’t, right?

DG: People misunderstand ‘Homes for America.’ They thinks it’s a sociological critique. In fact it’s a fake-think-piece. It has a flat-footed humour. ‘Esquire’ aways had articles by sociologists against the suburbs and alienation, and they used very good photographers to illustrate the articles. I loved New Jersey Italian American culture, the plastic swimming pools in their backyards. In a way it’s celebratory, no anti-kitsch. It’s basically taking minimal art into magazine form and also into the idea of minimal art as city plan.

D&C: By the 70s you stopped magazine work and became an early adopter of video, which was a pretty radical medium at the time.

DG: The reason I stopped was because I hated conceptual art. The reason I got into performance and video is because I saw the early work of (Bruce) Nauman. I wanted to situate the work away from the performer, into the realm of the spectator.

Installation view, ‘Dan Graham: A Show for all the Children’, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, Switzerland, 2001

D&C: ‘Rock my Religion’ links modern American music to the history of the Shakers, via Patti Smith and 19th-century figurehead Ann Lee. I never knew how much a shaker prayer-circle and a mosh pit had in common!

DG: I did it first of all because Thurston Moore lived below me and took me to see Black Flag and Minor Threat. What was interesting about performers like Patti Smith is that it’s close to dance. I think New York was very influenced by SImone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, so I wanted to show the dance aspect of rock’n’roll. It was also feminist. I thought it would be interesting to make a film with a charismatic figure that women could identify with. It was a thing I did as a passionate hobby and it was before sampling. I put in all my favourite songs. It begins with Black Flag, and then I put in the Kinks and the Fall. I was constructing the whole idea of the rock’n’roll documentary, because I saw this great film about the Clash called ‘Rude Boy.’ I thought with a cheap camera I could do the same thing.

D&C: Is it true that you’re responsible for getting Kim Gordon into music?

DG: I was responsible for her getting involved in writing. When I first met her she was pretty lost. In terms of music, I took her to Maxwell’s to see the Feelies. And her boyfriend, who was her teacher in Los Angeles, was into jazz, so I wanted to get her away from jazz and into rock’n’roll.

D&C: And then involved her in a girl-band performance-art piece, and she took off from there?

DG: Yes, but it’s the job of the teacher to push people into things when they’re having blockage problems. But ‘Rock my Religion’ owes more to Thurston. I ransacked his files. He loved Patti Smith and I think he wanted to turn Kim into Patti Smith. But when I met her she was a total nymphomaniac and he was a prude. He’s from Connecticut.

D&C: Why ddi you make the switch to pavilions and large public spaces?

DG: This happened because i did a very successful piece, ‘Public Space/Two Audiences,’ for the Venice Biennale in ’76, and was offered a show at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art. I had the idea of showing architectural models as half sculpture and half architecture-pavilions. To pitch the work, I often say they’re photo opportunities for parents and playground-education situations for children.

Dan Graham, ‘Sine Curve’, 2008 © Dan Graham. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Mike Bruce.

D&C: You did a rock’n’roll puppet opera satirising the politics of 60s counterculture called ‘Don’t trust anyone over thirty’ (2004). What do you think of the left today?

DG: The academic left is really horrible. It has lost its sense of humour. The key thing from my leftist perspective is that my early work was about anarchistic humor. ‘Don’t trust anyone over thirty’ was really continuing my interest in rock’n’roll history, because I come out of writers like Greil Marcus, or even before that Leslie Fiedler, and I had this idea that I wanted to situate things in 1969, which is when the hippies moved to the country. The hero is a composite of Sky Saxon and Neil Young and the satiric aspect probably comes from my love of Billy Wilder. It was based on a film called ‘Wild in the Streets’ (1968).

D&C: You’ve been with Lisson Gallery in London since the 70s. But you say art is just a passionate hobby. Is that sense of not being a professional or commercially successful important to what you do?

DG: I’ve not had much success in terms of selling. After five shows I’ve only sold one piece (to Anish Kapoor). Of course I was thrilled to be doing something in England because when I first went, all my ideas of England were from Kinks songs. And it was very thrilling. Now it’s too expensive to go over there.