Dan Graham: Beyond at the Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
June 25 though Oct 11, 2009
There should be an additional passage accompanying the promotional material that has been disseminated for Dan Graham: Beyond, currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It might also serve the audience well if there were an addendum to the sign on the ground floor that introduces the exhibition. “Viewers will be prompted to interact with strangers; parings and small groups are encouraged.” This imaginary preface is not a cautionary disclaimer. On the contrary, it should be read as a welcome to an experience that is as much communal as it is visual. The viewer is essentially caught in a space of sensorial multiplicity – all at once looking, being looked at, reading, listening, and watching.
Dan Graham: Beyond is the first US retrospective of the artist’s work to span the length of his career, from the 1960s to present. This is a shocking fact considering that artists with far less creative significance, who have worked for a third of Graham’s professional expanse, have been deemed qualified for survey exhibitions at this moment in contemporary art. This is not meant to suggest that Graham as an artist has been overlooked, but rather that his practice has been so successfully positioned on the periphery of the art market that museums and galleries have not quite figured out how to house him. Likewise, there has probably been some reluctance on part of the artist to be exhibited within the historicizing overture of the museum, with its inevitable linkage to commercial appeal. The exhibition does well to leave that tension unreconciled – whether or not it was a conscious decision on part of the curators.
Graham’s retrospective is delightfully awkward in location. To use a personified analogy, it takes on the disposition of a rebel in a tuxedo. Despite the attempt to fit in, Graham cannot help but to appear out of place. This uneasiness is also transferred to the viewer, who realizes, however hesitantly, that she is not only a voyeur but also a participant in a social experiment that has been orchestrated within the context of art. Graham’s architectural pavilions, made out of two-way mirrors, function like modules in the gallery. In their original outdoor settings they provide interstitial zones between interior and exterior space. Their placement in the gallery neutralizes this reading and emphasizes material and form. The transparent structures are designed to be looked through. The invisible walls leave nothing for the eye to focus on other than the increasing self-awareness of the body within the unit, in relation to others, as it negotiates being entered into the artist’s performance. The uncomfortable air of the exhibition is a welcome fissure in a museum ethos where artworks typically conform to the space. In this case, the Whitney is making a concerted effort to flex with the dexterity of Graham’s practice – the main feature of the exhibition.
Kalia Brooks is a New York based curator and writer. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Aesthetics and Art Theory with the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (idsva). Brooks received her M.A. in Curatorial Practice from the California College of the Arts in 2006, and was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies at the Whitney Independent Study Program 2007/2008.view all articles from this author