Dan Graham is kind of awesome.

Tonight I attended at Sotheby’s Institute talk with Dan Graham.  The talk was open only to interns in the New York area, so there was an interesting spread of people from the Whitney, the Guggenheim, Sotheby’s auction house, and various other galleries and institutions. Sotheby’s was clearly trying to court us into their program: there were numerous brochures advertising Sotheby’s graduate programs in art history and art business in New York, London, and Singapore.  They also fed us cookies.  No one can resist cookies.

Anyhow, the program started a little late (of course).  First one of the directors of Sotheby’s spoke, then the head of the Contemporary Art program in NYC spoke.  She’s friends with Graham and spent about fifteen minutes listing his accolades which are vast and we get it already.  Dan Graham, in the meantime, sat in a leather chair looking pretty much like a snow-bird: old brown pants, black shoes, striped not-matching socks, and a really fantastic quasi-Hawaiian shirt with a blue checkered background and bright green flowers.  He wears glasses, has white spikey hair that stands up straight, and has a beard, also white.

After the talk facilitator finished proclaiming Dan Graham’s victories the talk commenced.  And many things were learned.  For instance, remember that article I posted the other day from the NYTimes about Dan Graham?  Ignore it.  Dan Graham hates it.  He called it a “dangerous and misleading” article.  He also hates the NYTimes, and thinks they have dull and poorly written articles.  He prefers the Daily News, says they have better sports columns.

Dan Graham was really fascinating.  I’ve been to some artist talks where the artist never really answers the questions and refuses to reveal anything personal about him or herself.  Luckily Dan and the facilitator clearly had a friendship and rapport, so he was open to her questions and also to some of the questions asked by interns at the end of the talk.  Graham has a stutter and sometimes it can take him awhile to get a thought started, but once the idea kicks in he is on a roll and is awesome.

He talked about how he wanted to be a writer and never really considered himself an artist until later on in his career.  The 60s art scene was evidently better than todays in that categories did not really exist: everyone considered themselves writers/artists/performers.  The divisions we have today did not exist.  Graham briefly had a gallery on the UES that showcased work by Lewitt, Judd, Smithson, and other conceptual artists from that time, and it is clear that he really admires and respects their work.  He does not shy away from openly claiming that other artists have influenced him.  In fact that kind of hero worship is an integral part of his work, as evidenced by a piece in the Whitney Retrospective that is a slide show of artists and works that have influenced him.  He is not impressed by today’s critic-driven, young-hot-new-artist-obsessed art market.  He thinks that the internet is dangerous and full of misleading, incorrect information.  He feels similarly about television.  He loves cinema, however, particularly the experience of watching a film in a cinema filled with other people. In fact the idea of social spaces and social groups is evident in all of his work.  Graham prefers that his pavilions be in lobby areas–places where people interact and socialize.  He wants his art to be populist and democratic: accessible to all.  I know a lot of people think his art is highly conceptual–and it definitely is–but it seems to me that Graham really wants people to just experience his art–emotionally, physically, viscerally–without making intellectual/academic/theoretical leaps.

Graham also seems to dislike the academy.  He stated that people do their best art/writing/work before they get all scholastic and such, and that once people start down the long path of the academic institution their work becomes sterile and lifeless.  Graham himself is not trained.  To Graham, training equals creative demise.

Graham loves rock and roll and the “ecstatic” experience of observing a show in a small cavelike space (he believes all shows should be performed in small dirty clubs) with other people.  I asked him a question of how religion and spirituality plays into his works, as seen in his seminal rock and roll film Rock My Religion (which draws comparisons between rock and roll and Shakerism and positions Patti Smith as a neo-goddess figure) and a “pavilion” (the interactive installation spaces for which he is known) he designed in the shape of the Star of David.  He stated that he isn’t particularly religious and is more interested in that idea of group ecstasy.  He is, however, Jewish, and at one point was commissioned to do a piece in Austria.  At the time Austria was led by a former Nazi (this story is as told by Graham, mind you, so I might get the facts wrong, I was scribbling furiously in my notebook) and he refused to work in that country until that particular politician was out of office.  However, the owner of the old castle where Graham’s work was to be displayed prevailed upon the artist.  Graham designed a subversive Star of David shaped pavilion that sat on the water so that you had to “walk on water.”  The Star of David could only be viewed from above.  Graham called this “Jewish humor,” then went on a tangent about how humor is important in his art and how he loves Mel Brooks and Andy Kauffman and, well, Graham is really awesome y’all.

Yes Graham is incredibly oppinionated and a little perhaps, controversial, but he is also nearly 70 and one of the most important figures of twentieth century art–I think he has every right to his divisive opinions and when I am nearly 70 I hope that I have the chutzpah to say whatever I want without giving a damn as to other people’s reactions.  Graham was really fascinating and inspirational and he gave me much to consider and many new names–writers, artists, curators, filmmakers–to research over the next few weeks.  One of the most intriguing, interesting figures I have encountered in a long, long time.  If you get the chance to check out the Whitney retrospective, do it.

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