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.
Like much of the art in the show, the ads and other ephemera represent some of the first ruminations on various contemporary modes of communication. In one advertisement, Graham hired medical writer Roger Sharp to pen an ad reading that the artist had sought out a qualified medical writer who could describe the male post-climax condition but received no responses. The joke is still amusing today, though arguably not quite so fresh; contemporary artists such as Adam Chodzko, Steve Lambert, and countless others have used jocular advertising as their medium. That said, only a few male artists today—photographer Charlie White among them—create work engaged with revealing impotence within male sexual identity.
Some of the later work in the show feels as though it would likely have been most effective viewed in the decade it was made. Undoubtedly, the low point of the show came in the form of a diagram and photographic documentation of an architectural project executed in collaboration with photographer Jeff Wall. Epitomizing the heavily politicized and needlessly complicated art at the time, a short descriptive excerpt by the artists is enough to make most viewers’ heads spin. “The oculus is a two-way mirror concave glass lens through which children can see an enlarged image of themselves as giants against the smaller image of adults and other children looking up from the inside, superimposed on the changing skyscape and also superimposed on Jeff Wall’s nine illuminated cibachromes of children of different nationalities set against different skies.” Got all that? Me neither.
Other works, particularly the film, are less complicated. Rock My Religion (1984), Graham’s documentary exploring the connection between rock music and religion, marks an exhibition highlight, even if it only nominally connects with the themes of perception permeating the rest of the show. The double projection Roll (1970) provides another high point, one reel capturing a man in a lumber jacket rolling down a hill in the forest, while another constitutes footage from the camera of the rolling man. There’s nothing overly exciting about two projections past a tension between the perspectives, but its contrast speaks to Graham’s outlined objectives for an artist in his ad INCOME (Outflow) PIECE: to reveal invisible structures within media. In this case, Graham illuminates a mutually reliant perspective between the cameras. Notably, Graham’s exhibition hearkens back to Paul McCarthy’s solo show at The Whitney last summer, in which the artist similarly used architecture to create perspectival disorientation. In particular, McCarthy’s Spinning Room, a work conceived in 1971 and executed in 2008, uses mirrors, scrims, and various delayed video projections of viewers so complex it’s difficult to grasp the timing sequence. Graham’s Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay presents a shockingly like-minded project conceived a little over 35 years ago, and executed much later (in this case, 1993).
Interestingly, whereas I struggled greatly to understand the time delays of Graham’s piece, I didn’t have nearly the same trouble viewing McCarthy’s similar project—in fact, I found it almost immediately moving. It plays to the narcissism of viewer while creating an unexpectedly beautiful colored projection of images.
But beyond all this, it occurred to me that I connected to McCarthy’s work with ease because I found greater familiarity in its aesthetic language—it is very current. In of itself this observation isn’t particularly revelatory, but it does indicate the degree to which time has been complicated by Graham’s work and by McCarthy’s. Temporal context is confused because conception and execution are separated. Notably, the comparison also reveals the degree to which Graham’s work is rooted in time. Despite the date of execution, his art still feels intimately linked to its era of conception.