Dan Graham

Models and Beyond

1 February - 25 May 2014

The American artist Dan Graham (Urbana, Ill., 1942) is particularly known for his Pavilions, the first of which were produced during the early 1980s. These are architectural constructions of glass and metal, a hybrid form of visual art and architecture. Eight years ago De Pont purchased one of his Pavilions. For the exhibition Models and Beyond, the museum has asked the artist to design, specifically for the main space, a new and ambitious pavilion. This acquisition will be shown in the midst of a broad selection of Graham's architectural models, photographs and video works dating from 1966 to the present. The whole aims to provide an impressive survey of this conceptual artist's versatile body of work, which continues to influence artists as well as architects.

It is now, in 2014, precisely fifty years ago that Dan Graham more or less by accident, as he says, ended up in the world of visual art. Initially he played a role as co-founder of the John Daniels Gallery in New York and as an art critic, but soon Graham also became active as a conceptual artist. He made use of language, photography and video, produced films, held performances and created installations and pavilions.

Although his body of work has great diversity, its coherence is equally striking. He has little concern forart as an entity unto itself. From the very start, a socially critical involvement could be discerned in his work. While many conceptual artists seemed to be renouncing any connection with the world around them, Graham was in fact striving to give shape to his commitment to social issues through conceptual art. 

Among his earliest works are the photographs that he took during the mid 1960s with his Kodak Instamatic: these show postwar prefab homes in all sorts of suburban surroundings. Due to the way in which the identical, box-shaped dwellings have been portrayed, the rows of houses bear some resemblance to the sculptures of Donald Judd. Also in his photographs of trucks, warehouses, roadside diners and apartment complexes there is a striking similarity to the impersonal, serial language of forms found in minimal art.

"I wanted to show that minimalism was related to a real social situation that could be documented," he later said about this. In his photographs the uniformity of the suburbs takes on an abstract quality. At the same time, they portray a day-to-day reality in which pop culture was rooted, and where youth's resistance to the established order found an outlet in the punk and rock music that Graham liked so much.

Along with architecture and music, psychology is a field that interests Graham to a great extent. A recurrent theme in his performances and installations from the 1970s is the discovery of the self in a confrontation with one's own reflection and the gaze of the other. The audience was often given an active role in this, as with the installation Public Space/Two Audiences carried out for the Venice Biennial of 1976. For this installation Graham divided a space in two with a partition of glass, and then fitted a mirror onto the end wall of one of those spaces. The public could enter both spaces. Visitors, rather than art, were 'on display' here. This gave rise to a confusing situation: one of observing oneself and others, of experiencing how one was being observed and how others also felt observed.

The free-standing pavilions of two-way mirror glass seem a logical subsequent step. "My pavilions derive their meaning from the people who look at themselves and others, and who are being looked at themselves. Without people in them, they might look a bit like minimal-art sculptures, but that's not what they're meant to be," Graham emphasized. Their arrangement outdoors provides them with an extra dimension. Because of the changeability of daylight, they constantly assume different appearances. In Two Adjacent Pavilions, one of the first pavilions actually to be carried out and which became part of the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum after being shown at the 1982 Documenta, Graham exploited this quality.The two neighboring pavilions appear to be the same. Yet one has a transparent roof and the other does not. On a cloudy day there is no difference, and both reflect the surroundings. On a sunny day the pavilion with the transparent roof, however, becomes completelytransparent; its interior suddenly becomes visible, along with any visitors who happen to be present.

Graham's pavilions touch on both visual art and architecture, without corresponding to either of these. In this way he gives himself the latitude to explore the two disciplines in a critical manner. His use of two-way mirror glass is a striking example of this. It has the quality of reflecting light as a mirror does, but from the other side it remains transparent. This is why it is widely used for industrial buildings: from the late 1970s onward, urban development became increasingly dominated by the mirrored facades of imposing skyscrapers. These monuments of capitalism blended in with their surroundings, but at the same time their reflective surface functioned as an impenetrable shield, which provided protection from the eyes of the outsider. In exchange for these Graham offers his own pavilions as potential 'heterotypes'. The term, coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, refers to places in a city which are 'different' and which create a meaningful interruption in the continuum of everyday space.

Over a period of roughly thirty years, Graham has experimented with straight, triangular, circular and meandering shapes for his pavilions; and aside from using glass with varying degrees of transparency and reflection, he has also worked with materials such as perforated steel, wood and shrubs to devise pavilions that are sometimes literally illusory. At times they have a theme, as does the Children's Pavilion from 1989, which Graham designed in collaboration with Jeff Wall for the Rotterdam district Ommoord, though it was never carried out. They might also have a function, as a skateboard pavilion for instance, or they could be part of an existing building, as was the case with the Rooftop Urban Park project, installed on the roof of the DIA Art Foundation in New York. 

The exhibition comprises about fifteen architectural models, both realized and unrealized, which do justice to this great diversity. While Cinema, the maquette dating from 1981, is a tribute to early modernism and even resembles Jan Duikers's 1934 Cineac in Amsterdam, with his Model for Yin Yang from 1997 Graham ridicules, on the other hand, artists' and architects' new-age flirt with Eastern spirituality. The small maquette for Two Adjacent Pavilions is one of the earliest, dating from 1978. Later architectural models are often much more ambitious in terms of scale and execution, and they function as independent works of art. Frequently these models are accompanied by a video of the realized pavilion, in which the situation and varying light conditions are such an important part of the experience.