Do people expect conceptual art to create the same transcendental feeling we ask of more traditional forms of art? I don’t, but from the video documentation at Dan Graham’s retrospective at The Whitney, it seems viewers haven’t always agreed with me. Even when very little action appears in his taped performances from the mid-70s, museum crowds wait patiently as though the art will eventually deliver a higher experience. I can only assume that for some, such transcendence was actually experienced.
You won’t see too much of that sort of behavior at his current exhibition at The Whitney, but not because art audiences have so transformed over the years that they don’t know what to do with the work. Many of us may not enjoy durational performances quite as much as we used to, but we still know how to look at them. And, regardless of era, we still require the same things we always have to fully engage with art: namely, exhibition organization.
Unfortunately for Graham, curators Chrissie Ilses and Bennett Simpson don’t lay out a lot of that in the show, titled “Dan Graham: Beyond.” Arranged largely by medium rather than chronologically, the exhibition space is a disorienting array of architectural glass rooms with semi transparent and transparent glass, wall-mounted textual documentation of various projects, and a number of double projection wheels. The curators present a pleasing exhibition design, but there’s almost no way for a viewer to gain a better understanding of the artist’s work and career without pre-existing knowledge.
Probably the largest problem in this respect comes from the fact that Graham’s earliest art-making is nestled in a small gallery away from the main space, even though his magazine ads mark the beginning of his interest in conceptual art. This room also contains some of Graham’s colleagues’ writings, an important addition to the show, since it was through meeting Minimalist artists like Carl André, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd in 1964 that the artist began working with magazines as a means of interrogating the canonization of art. Interestingly, in an interview with artist Nicolas Guagnini republished in the exhibition catalogue, Graham explained that all his colleagues at the time wanted to be writers. “Not to be academic about it but I think the mid-60s was magazine culture.” Given this sentiment, I’m not sure why the work wasn’t highlighted a little more.