New York

Dan Graham

Dia Center for the Arts

The fingerprints, smudges, scratches, reflections, and other side effects of display that accumulate on the surfaces of works of art constitute a life of art that is habitually denied. I remember a particular Rodin male nude, a hulking, seated figure positioned on a landing of a well traveled stairwell of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, parts of whose bronze anatomy glowed with a polished sheen bestowed by thousands of furtive caresses, the sort of reach-out-and-touch response that institutions forbid, but viewers nevertheless indulge. The lesson of the statue’s favored golden finger is that there are always things in the experience of art we are not supposed to notice—some responses to art are appropriate while others are not.

Of course, if the Rodin bronze sculpture were a work by Dan Graham, that polished finger would be its primary subject, pointing toward the behavior of people themselves and to the nature of perceptual experience. Graham has long been interested in making manifest the repressed and incidental contents of art with respect to its contextual frameworks. What began as an awareness of place and presence—as contingencies specifically keyed to particular architectural situations—has evolved into anthropomorphic considerations. In keeping with these developments, Graham’s work at various points ceases to be sculpture and becomes full-fledged architecture.

Graham’s Rooftop Urban Park Project, 1991, goes a step further; this elegant and simply designed pavilion installed on Dia’s heretofore unused roof is not just architectural; it primes our awareness of social space. A 36-foot square enclosure built entirely of two-way reflective glass, with a cylinder measuring ten feet in diameter at its center (a section of which is hinged to allow entry and exit), the roofless structure shifts between transparent and reflective states, depending on the time of day and atmospheric conditions. Our absorption with the pavilion as an autonomous object is continually interrupted by the clutter of reflected bodies, the surrounding cityscape, a nearby water tower, or whatever other accidental images are reflected on its mirrored surfaces or penetrate its see-through walls. Our reception of the pavilion is distracted; we notice it is an “object” incidentally. Furthermore, because its function is unspecified, it acquires theatricality, inviting play and absentmindedness as modes of participation. In addition to the pavilion, the “park” part of the project includes a café and video viewing room, in what was formerly a small utility shed, and a projected program of performances, readings, and other events is scheduled over the next year (the pavilion has, at present, been given a three-year lease on the roof). Grabbing a cup of coffee, catching a video, “reading” the pavilion in terms of the events it reflects, vanishing for a minute or two into the private space of the inner “transporter” cylinder, acting out a network of psychological and social relations inspired by this place and enacted by other performers—the consummation of Graham’s project is social collectivity. The perceptual and behavioral processes it engenders correlate to compositional process. Putting the public in the position of maker (a position that requires no attention), Graham inverts the traditional relationship wherein the viewer is absorbed by art and gives us, instead, a situation in which art is absorbed by the viewer—and an absentminded one at that. If we choose to pay attention, however, we see that his functionalist strategies continue to acknowledge the camouflaged conditions of art that are too often dismissed as incidental or in conflict with either the intentionality of the artist or with traditional definitions of what can and cannot be regarded as content. Graham engages us in his own conceptual process in the Rooftop Urban Park Project, by posing a single question: “Where does a work of art begin and end?”

Jan Avgikos