New York

Dan Grahm

Dan Graham’s Pergola/Conservatory, 1987, is a complex extension of his glass “pavilion” sculptures. Designed for an outdoor location, it is an open-ended walkway 20 feet long, with a curved vaulted ceiling. The double armature, wood inside and metal outside, supports a surface of two-way mirror glass and functions as a trellis for exterior vines. Graham’s pergola is a hybrid, incorporating elements of the rustic arbor and gazebo as well as urban structures such as the bus shelter and the corporate atrium, which Graham, collaborating with Robin Hurst, discussed in the six-panel piece Private “Public” Space: Corporate Park Atriums, 1987. Like the earlier pavilions, the pergola relates structurally to the modular units of Minimalism and conceptually to the cultural fantasies of Pop art. But Graham introduces a historical and sociopolitical content absent from the Minimalist or Pop object.

Two-way mirror glass changes translucency and opacity according to variations in ambient light. In relation to the viewing subject, the glass sets up a play between interior and exterior, revealing and concealing, seeing and being seen. These dichotomies, in his earlier work, refer to the power divisions inherent in the use of the glass curtain wall in corporate buildings, where it provides an appearance of openness but nevertheless denies access to the building’s contents. Viewed from the exterior, Graham’s pavilions either “disappear” or set up multiple perspectives on their reflective faces, recalling the fragmentation of logical space in Mannerist or Baroque art and undermining the centered and authorial position of the viewing subject in one-point perspective. This is similar to our visual experience of the urban street, with its concatenation of the real, the reflected, and (in advertising displays) the fantasized, and which has the fragmentary quality of memory and a theatricality that Graham develops in the drawing Theatergarten, 1987. Graham’s pergola takes us further down the dark path of fantasized memory. It relates ironically to Mies van der Rohe’s reflected assimilation of the garden into the building, and to the development of the atrium as a greenhouse/museum for controlled nature. Whereas the atrium is ostensibly a public recreational space, the pergola or arbor is associated—through romantic literature and Rococo art—with a private and illicit relation, as the locus of a liaison in which desire condenses with fantasies of wild and rampant nature.

Viewed from inside, the pergola’s modular structure appears as an infinite regression of space in the mutually reflecting surfaces of its opposing walls, which produces the disturbing effect of a maze, in relation to which, paradoxically, there is no way in or out: we are in a space where language, having become delirious and autonomous, slips beyond our control. The sense of dislocation is exacerbated by the anamorphic reflections of the viewer produced by the curved vault, comparable to the distorting carnival mirror and the ambivalent response of combined fear and humor caused by its grotesqueries. The viewer’s reflection is unstable and cannot be resolved into the conventional mirror’s idealized image of the self. Anamorphism disrupts the coherence of the viewer’s position; indeed, in order to “reconstruct” the anamorphic image, the viewing subject must move his position and relinquish his mastery over the whole scene. Were Pergola/Conservatory to be installed outdoors, Graham’s playful commentary on the viewing subject’s fantasized projection into nature’s scene would, under certain light conditions, be visible on the ceiling, where the image of the sky and passing clouds would collapse with the viewer’s anamorphic reflection. The viewer would thus be projected “into” a Tiepolo-like fresco; but he can take the place of the angels only in his otherness.

Jean Fisher