Dan Graham on his Influences, Sources and Collaborations

Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen in Conversation with Dan Graham

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Influences, sources and reference play an important role in your work. It would be interesting to talk about it.

My retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York and the MOCA in Los Angeles had a huge section on my influences, where I presented slides and texts on works relevant to my practice. My influences in architecture are Aldo Rossi, Itsuko Hasegawa, Kazuo Shinohara and Eero Saarinen. In art, my use of two-way mirrored glass comes from Larry Bell, and Dan Flavin is a huge influence. Sol LeWitt was also very important—I showed him when I had a gallery in the 60’s. (JOHN DANIELS GALLERY, NEW YORK. 1964-65)

You did his first solo-show?

Yes. Sol told me his biggest influence was actually Giorgio de Chirico, as his work described the city plan of Torino. All my work is about city planning, too—“Homes from America” was basically about the city plans of suburbia. I always hated the idea of the “white cube.” My early magazine page pieces, which were done three years before Conceptual Art, really came from Stanley Brown and On Kawara. Stanley’s work was about topology of the city. He did a piece called This Way Brown where he would ask people in the city to direct him, and they’d make little drawings – maps to guide him.
But did you notice that both those artists’ work is about humor? I think all great art is about humor. I recently visited On Kawara’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, and they showed these hilarious postcards saying, “I’m still alive” and “Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t committed suicide”.

That might be a common misunderstanding of your own work as well – people don’t always see its humor.

Well this is why I enjoyed meeting Christian Jankowski in Zurich. His work is very funny. I included him “Deep Comedy,” a show I curated at Ballroom Marfa in Texas. I also wrote an article about Sol LeWitt called “Sol’s humor”. There’s a very unknown wall relief that had little peepholes where you could look at photographs of naked women. People really don’t know about these things.

You know,”Homes for Amerca“ was really misunderstood by Benjamin Buchloh. It’s basically making fun of magazines like Esquire, which would always have these exposés of suburbs by a sociologist and a fine photographer. My work is a fake reportage piece. It’s also about the city plan as a basis for art—very much like Venturi in that way. And it’s actually very similar to Ed Rusha’s books about highway culture. It’s like a poetic arcadia—a kind of suburban ideal, a celebration of the petit bourgeois, like Flaubert.  

Collaboration is very important for you. Were you working with other artists early on?

No, that came much later. My collaborations were almost always with musicians. It started when I did the Westkunst video with Glenn Branca. There’s a section in the piece on suburbia, and I told him that I wanted music that interprets what happens on a Sunday, when your parents take you for a drive in the suburbs and in the countryside.

Then, for the soundtrack of Rock My Religion, you worked with Sonic Youth.

When I worked with Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth was still unknown. They lived downstairs in a cheap apartment where we lived in. At the time, I didn’t know much about Patti Smith, but Thurston had a lot of magazines and copies of fanzines she’d made. He would come to my place to listen to records and I went to his place to see his files. When I asked him to do songs for Rock my Religion, he came up with the music very fast.

You must understand, I never had any money. Rock my Religion was made on a cheap Super-8 camera. I didn’t have money to go to the Shakers, so I took the Greyhound and walked for about 15 miles. Now, everything is high-tech and everybody has a lot of money for equipment. But I always used the cheapest cameras.


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More recently, you collaborated with the landscape architect Günther Vogt for the rooftop project on the Metropolitan Museum.

Yes. I’m very interested in landscape architecture, and when I discovered  Günther’s work, I realized that he’s a genius. When he came to New York, we just did architecture tours together. I told him that my favorite Japanese architect is Itsuko Hasegawa, and he was so interested that he traveled all the way to the Japanese countryside to visit her Museum of Fruit.

Another collaboration we’re very fond of is the one with Antoine Catala.

Well that was a quicky. The best collaboration I did was actually with an ex-girlfriend: "Corporate Arcadias," an article I wrote with Robin Hurst. At the time, I was thinking doing pieces on ‘70s alternative spaces and ‘80s corporate atria. The relationship was over, but since I knew she’s into landscape architecture, we worked together and finished it very quickly. Most of my collaborations are done very fast and for fun. With Günther, it was instant. I took him to the roof where I originally had two ideas for the central piece: one was a rectangle, the other a square. He picked the rectangle, which was a better fit for the roof’s layout. In the beginning I didn’t take the AstroTurf idea seriously—I thought it would be awful. But he came up with the best product.

Is the theory of Relational Aesthetics important for you?

I don’t know what that is. I think it’s a fake, a rip off of my work. Andrea Fraser is very dangerous; she’s an evil simplifier. She totally misunderstands Michael Asher. Michael was not doing Institutional Critique. Because he’s a Cancer, he had a problem with his mother, who was a famous collector. So in a way, he’s trying to get back in museums because of that problematic relationship. But his work really comes out of Flavin.

He, along with Daniel Buren, John Knight and Benjamin Buchloh, did a conference with Roger Pelas in Marseille. Buren was trying to get away from Paris, so he got very involved with Lyon and Marseille, where Pelas was a kind of corrupt art dealer. Anyway, at the conference, they attacked me.

How so?

They said my Dia piece is not deconstructing the museum. But I was trying to redefine Dia, not deconstruct it. Walter Benjamin said that if you don’t like the last decade, you have a fantasy of another, utopian decade. I was trying to make a ‘70s alternative space, combined with an ‘80s corporate atrium to give historical memory. It’s a slum roof and a penthouse roof. It was never meant to be a form.

We currently show your work in the department of architecture at ETH Zurich, where we also published a new book of your models from 1978. Is it true that a show with Michael Graves triggered this series?

Yes. I’d seen that awful show about the The New York Five—not only Michael Graves, but the whole group: Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk and Richard Meier. Michael Graves’ early work is genius, but when I saw that terrible show at Leo Castelli about their models, I thought: Why can't artists make models? 


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Fig. 1 and 2
Dan Graham, Alteration to a Suburban House, 1978, Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York

Fig. 3 and 4
Dan Graham, Cinema, 1972, Collectin of Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Fig. 5 and 6
Dan Graham, Pavilion/Sculpture for Argonne, 1978-81, Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, Brussels

© Images by Dan Graham