New York

Dan Graham, Ovoid, 2020, two-way mirror glass, stainless steel, 7' 7" × 21' × 14' 9 ".

Dan Graham, Ovoid, 2020, two-way mirror glass, stainless steel, 7' 7" × 21' × 14' 9 ".

Dan Graham

Despite his unimpeachable position in the postwar canon, Dan Graham has always seemed a little like a man without a country in the contemporary art world—his half century worth of media-agnostic Conceptualism has never fully aligned, for better or worse, with any single methodological or stylistic framework. Even the glass-and-metal pavilions that have been his central focus for the past several decades elude attempts at neat categorization. They’re in dialogue with modernist architecture and post-Minimalist sculpture, but hold both at arm’s length; they impersonate forms of functional decor like bus shelters or shopping-mall kiosks, but instead of upholding the spatial status quo, they work to destabilize it. In the end, they announce their objectives best in informal public settings, where their easy site-interdependent approachability makes the case that they are vehicles of a relational aesthetics originally forged some two decades avant la lettre: built forms whose objecthood recedes in the service of the intersubjective scenarios they engineer.

In interviews, Graham regularly invokes a few themes that are crucial to understanding his occasionally inscrutable production. Some of these, such as his long-standing fascination with the physical, perceptual, and affectual reciprocations between bodies in proximity to one another and/or the built environment, are easy enough to track across his career. Others are less immediately obvious but are just as critical to his project—most notably humor, which he’s called nothing less than the very “basis” of his work. His show at 303 Gallery, “Three Models, Three Sizes, Three Price Ranges,” made this influence explicit in its very design, which poked fun at 303 Gallery’s high-toned digs in New York’s Chelsea: “When I saw the space,” Graham told an interviewer, “I thought that if the front was a transparent plateglass window it would be just like West Side luxury-car showrooms.” And the exhibition he made for it, his solo debut there, left the distinct impression of an artist drolly chomping the hand of a homogenously fancified art world that he clearly feels has not always properly fed him.

The exhibition was anchored by three sculptural pieces, all from 2020. Ovoid, a full-scale construction made with stainless steel and two-way mirror glass, was the only of the showroom models that could be “driven”; accessible to visitors, its elliptical perimeter formed a perceptually ticklish threshold that complicated concepts of in and out, transparency and reflection. It was accompanied by two smaller, maquette-like constructions, both of which were set on plinths and made from aluminum and the same kind of mirror glass: Neo-Baroque Walkway, a pair of undulating curtain walls based on a full-size artwork Graham made in 2019, and Fun House / Swimming Pool, a closed rhombus that felt like a proposal for a Miesian folly in an International Style landscape garden. Graham once remarked that he began making scale-model versions of his pavilions after it was suggested to him that these replicas might be more salable. And while he obviously took that advice, he was clearly well aware of the obstacles such a format posed to full-fledged interactions with his works, given that the approach failed to enlist the most decisive aspects of their site specificity; that limitation was made all too vivid here by their diminishment into timid tabletop objets d’art.

At one point during a fascinating 2015 interview that was playing on a screen in the gallery, Graham asserts that “great art is about humor.” But it was the other video on view, Céline x Dan Graham SS 2017, that would have most piqued the interest of those hunting for clues to support the deliciously subversive thesis that the entire enterprise was in reality a grand prank on 303’s luxe surroundings. An eleven-minute loop of a runway show by the titular Parisian fashion house featured Graham’s work—depicting the fun-house effects created by sauntering models and scribbling journos spied through or reflected in an array of the artist’s panels and pavilions, all obliviously set in a vast white cube that oozed blank anywhereness. If it felt like a capitulation for Graham to allow the work to be plunked into such an antithetical context, his decision to include a record of it here did confirm that his embrace of the comic extends to cases where the joke is also on him.