Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Dan Graham Two-Way Mirror Power: Selected Writings by Dan Graham on His Art Ed. Alexander Alberro. MIT Press, 1998. 198 pp.; 48 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (0262571307)
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Following Video/Architecture/Television: Writings on Video and Video Works 1970-1978, edited by Benjamin H. Buchloh (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; New York: New York University Press, 1979), now out of print, and MIT’s own Rock My Religion: Writings and Art Projects 1965-1990, edited by Brian Wallis, with its upbeat design and wide range of supporting illustrations, this is the third major compilation of writings by New York artist Dan Graham. As the textual architecture and thematic arrangement of the volume, its relation to these predecessors, and Graham’s writing styles and occasions are all quite complex, let me outline the general contents and shape of Two-Way Mirror Power.

The first of its six sections, headed “Dan Graham,” contains a single essay, “The Artist as Producer” (1978-88). This is a somewhat puzzling point of departure as Graham’s loosely Benjaminian meditation on teen music and countercultures from the ‘60s through the end of the ’80s, focused on the fashion-coded, entrepreneurial alternativism of former art student Malcolm McLaren, is singularly disconnected from his own artistic practice, the ostensible organizing principle of the volume. Nor, despite its typically vivacious commentaries on stardom, allusions to the convergence of rock music with Pop and Conceptual art, and discussion of Bow Wow Wow’s album cover replay of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, does the text really offer the instruments or aperçus for a wider cultural politics that might embrace the visual domain.

Under the rubric of “Magazine Pages,” section two collects an essay, a talk delivered at the Dia Art Foundation, and the digressive discussion that followed it, all dating from the mid-1980s. The title refers to Graham’s earliest work, beginning with the illustrated article Homes for America and the Schemas, a series of undenominated magazine page templates with variable components, achieved around 1966. We learn as much, I think, from the four illustrations of these latter works provided on pages 14-17, especially from Schema (March 1966), with its skeletal matrix of twenty-five stylistic, linguistic, and design particulars—"(number of) adjectives/(number of) adverbs…/(type of) paper stock" etc.—than we do from any of the texts themselves. The ambitiously titled lead essay, “My Works for Magazine Pages: ‘A History of Conceptual Art,’” poses these projects and the series of advertisements placed in commercial magazines that followed in relation to both Dan Flavin’s “situation installation[s]” (12) of hardware store fluorescent lights, and the legacy of the Duchampian readymade that lay behind them, but with whose logic, Graham argues, he and Flavin dispute. The temporary gallery-bound relocations by Flavin (which “upon completion of the exhibition cease to function artistically”, 12), the gallery-oriented annexation of media imagery in Pop art, and the perceptual compositionism of the Minimalists, all reacted to the incorporatist gesture of Duchamp, which brings a found object into the gallery space conferring on it in the process an ironic makeover into a recommodified art object. Following the implications of their critique, Graham suggests that the location and promotion of art might, momentarily, be collapsed together and rerouted through a network of purchased or donated advertisement spaces in the printed media.

Section three, “Video/Television/Architecture,” recapitulates the title and eight writings—introductions to and “notes” on various projects in these media made between 1972 to 1978 and the key “Essay on Video, Architecture, and Television”—from the earlier anthology, adding a previously unpublished interview with Ludger Gardes, conducted with the unidentified interlocutor in 1991. Arranged in chronological order, they allow us to follow Graham’s concern with psychological circuitry and “reciprocal controls” (38) in Two Consciousness Projections (1972), and with mirroring, temporality, and delay in Present Continuous Past(s) (1974) and Yesterday/Today (1975). What Graham interestingly terms “the verbal ‘soap opera’ structure” (43) and “rythmic periodictity” (42) of this last project interrogates the strategies and routines of presentness encoded in TV/video, while at the same time its 24-hour lag-time replays anticipate and complicate the more recent compulsions of the continuous real-time voyeurism of the web-cam.

On Graham’s account, Yesterday/Today also turns on the architectural, institutional, and social particularities of the conversations it records, a locative orientation addressed to office work and retail commodity spaces in video pieces developed for “Two Glass Office Buildings” (1974-76) and for “Showcase Windows in a Shopping Arcade” (1976). Graham opens his long-standing interest in the reflective powers of the mirror, its axial symmetry, doubling capacities, back-to-front revelations, perspectival disruption, and “seductive” fragmentation, explored in these pieces as it is conjoined with video and the vitrine, onto questions of the spectator/consumer’s narcissistic identifications and doubled "alienation"—"from his body-image and from the goods" (48). The social forms of reflection and transparency signified by the mirror/window are discussed at greater length in “Essay on Video, Architecture, and Television,” which, though subdivided into multiple small sections in the manner that seems best to suit Graham’s thematically episodic style, is the most developed critical piece in the anthology.

The fourth section, devoted to Graham’s work in film, collects another longish essay, attending to six pieces made between 1969 and 1974, an explanatory text relating to Cinema (1981), the artist’s project for a modernist urban cinema (located on the ground floor of a corner office building) articulated with “optical ‘skin,’ both reflective and transparent inside and out” (95), and an interview with another unidentified critic whose affiliation is unknown, Eric de Bruyn, first published on the occasion of Graham’s retrospective at the Centro Galego d’Arte Contemporanea in 1997. All but one of the films Graham outlines use two Super 8 or 16mm cameras and double or split-screen projection to create an improvisationally regulated somatic cinema as “taking” performers image themselves in a theater of mirrored environments, self-reflections, and objectifications shot with sweeping, measured movements of the apparatus as bodies track, pivot, spiral, roll, and rotate “in a topology of expansion, contraction or skew” (p. 85).

While the visceral filmic phenomenology that results is clearly performative, Graham’s noncinematic contributions to the performance tradition make up the subject matter of section five. The texts annotating the performances, however, each rely on either the media or environmental extras that are featured in Graham’s related work—a tape recorder in Lax/Relax, the possibility of video presentation in Past Future/Split Attention, a mirror in Performer/Audience/Mirror etc.—which, along with the live audience itself, now become the “props” and scenography bracketing or delaying the real-time “event,” much as “real-time” itself, particularly in the video field, was “delayed” by the loops, repetitions, and reflections in the media and installational work. The ten page transcript of the second performance of Performer, Audience, Mirror (P.S. 1, December 1977) stands out in the volume for its improvised texture as the performer is called on to provide continuous descriptions and commentaries on his own and the audience’s movements and dispositions as he sits alternately facing the audience with a large mirror behind him, then facing the mirror with his back to the audience.

The final section collects fourteen mostly shorter pieces discussing Graham’s signature Pavilion Sculptures, begun in the late 1970s. This work convenes several of Graham’s interests—in transparency, social formations of leisure, “minimalist” design, and experiential occupancy—moving them from concerns with the public interaction of multiple selves (in Public Space/Two Audiences, 1976) and interference in suburban space (in Alteration of a Suburban House, 1978) addressed in the first two texts toward the site-specific, freestanding, frame and glass/mirror structures the artist offers as commentary on the pavilion tradition. The ensuing pavilions are multifunctional objects, signifying as sculptural-type art objects, architectural “modifications,” reflective spaces (in which bodies and environments are literally reflected, while the space itself promotes reflection), and allusive, participatory domains. Thus Graham describes perhaps the best known of these pieces, his Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and Video Salon made in 1989 for the roof at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, as “an open-air, rooftop performance space, observatory/camera obscura/optical device/video and coffee bar/lounge, with other multi-use possibilities” (165). Connected typologically with pantheons, follies, mausoleums, Zen gardens, gazebos and grottos, occupationally with the art-audience, children, and skateboarders, functionally with bridges and viewing rooms, and iconographically with labyrinths, hearts, the Star of David, and the Yin/Yang symbol, Graham’s pavilions are finally machines, as he puts it, which “call attention to the look of the spectator, who becomes the subject of the work,” precipitation chambers for the layering of social interactions (166).

Apart from the publication of full versions of texts abbreviated in Rock My Religion, the addition of a couple of unpublished short pieces, and the genuine usefulness of having a full range of Graham’s meditations on art and its social adjacencies available in a single paper edition, perhaps the chief contribution of Two-Way Mirror Power arrives in the four lucid interviews, which it publishes in book form for the first time. Each interview has a wider range than the subject of the section in which it is set; but considered together they offer valuable points of entry into the particularities, development, and conceptualization of Graham’s projects. While the interview with Mike Metz (conducted for Bomb in 1994) is set as the final piece in the anthology, it might have served better as a substitute lead text, offering, as it does, a coherent synopsis of Graham’s work from the “Magazine Pages” until the 1990s.

John C. Welchman
University of California, San Diego

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