He was a wide-ranging contemporary artist, spanning video, photography, architecture, sculpture, performance, music criticism and even puppetry. Described as conceptual and a polymath, Dan Graham, who has died aged 79, was not, himself, a fan of such descriptors. He even rejected the label of artist. Refusing to be pigeonholed or identify with any artistic movement or creed, his prodigious output defied simple genre classification but became inextricably linked with Minimalism, Conceptualism, and post-Minimalism. He is best known for mirrored structures and interactive pavilions. In 2009, the New York Times described him as “a Zelig of so many creative circles”.
Graham was fascinated by watching and vision. Together with his father he built a telescope from a kit and started an astrology club as a teenager. Influenced by television from an early age, especially the role of the studio audience and relationships between spectators and performers, Graham was a sponge of popular culture, absorbing that which he observed around him. “All my intellectual ideas come from popular culture,” he said, adding: “I’m not deconstructing it. I’m celebrating it.” But he was also influenced by the ideas of big thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as those with a specifically Jewish bent, including the polymath Walter Benjamin and literary critic and New York Intellectual Leslie Fiedler. He could talk with equal enthusiasm and knowledge about the latest Seth Rogen movie as he could about Mad magazine.
Graham even saw himself as a Jewish comedian working firmly in the tradition of Jewish comedy greats like Mel Brooks and Andy Kaufman, whom he considered to be significant conceptual artists. The result was an oeuvre that blended highbrow with the middle and lowbrow, which critics complained was hard to love and too drily pedagogical, but which he felt was humorous.
“Anarchistic humour is very important to my work,” he said, calling his first significant project, Homes for America (1966–67) – a series of magazine-style photographs with text that commented on the desirability of 1960s housing developments by highlighting their monotony and alienating effect – a piece of “pure deadpan humor, it’s a fake think piece.” Published in Arts Magazine, its parody of contemporary editorial formats would have been equally at home in Mad.
Daniel Harry Ginsberg was born into an American Jewish family in Urbana, Illinois. His father Emanuel was an organic chemist and his mother Bess (née Freedman) was an educational psychologist who ran pre-schools. But the prevailing climate of antisemitism that continued in the wartime United States blocked his opportunities for career advancement. So, in 1944, after applying for more than 100 jobs without getting an interview, Emanuel Ginsberg changed his name to David E. Graham and was almost immediately hired by General Aniline and Film. His wife and children became Grahams, too. The family moved three years later to Union County, New Jersey, a suburban setting that would influence Graham’s later artistic practice.
Graham’s childhood, by his own account, was not a happy one. At the age of 13 he suffered from what he described as “almost a schizophrenic breakdown”, which resulted in his being prescribed anti-psychotic medication. Where he described his father as abusive, his mother was “cold and very intellectual.” Graham has attributed the physicality of his work as a reaction against this difficult intellectual upbringing, especially that of his mother. “All artists have a special relationship with their mother,” Graham said. “My mother was in denial of the body, and my work became about the body.” The relationships between the body and its physical environment, especially the suburban playgrounds and prefabricated housing of his youth, intrigued him.
After High School, rather than enrolling in university, Graham had literary aspirations, writing for rock magazines which ironically introduced him to the art world, particularly the work of Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd, and prompted his move into combining art and writing.
In 1964, with money from his parents, Graham founded the John Daniels Gallery in Manhattan with two friends. It set itself apart by favouring Minimalism and Conceptual Art over the dominant Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. Although the gallery closed after less than a year, it was creatively and critically successful and Graham learned from the artists he met and worked with there, including Sol LeWitt who had his first solo exhibition there.
Graham moved back to New Jersey and began to create his own work, initially favouring photographic projects and graphic design. He photographed suburban track housing that would comprise Homes for America, 1966–67. After Homes for America, Graham presented his artworks in magazines and as slide shows. He was given his first solo show in 1969.
Over the next decade, Graham continued to publish critical writing on music, art and architecture but moved into performance and installation, using cameras, mirrors, and projection. By the 1980s Graham was actively involved with the New York punk and experimental music scene, designing album covers for groups including Sonic Youth, which also influenced his practice.
Seeing the pavilion as a form of art, bridging sculpture and architecture, he began creating structures from glass, steel, and mirror and these dominated the latter part of his career as they resulted in international solo exhibitions and institutional and private commissions around the world, often in collaboration with architects or designers, cementing his reputation as one of the most significant contemporary artists working in the United States. As a mark of just how difficult Graham was to pin down, in 2004, he wrote a rock opera for puppets titled Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30.
He is survived by his wife, the artist and gallerist Mieko Meguro-Graham, his son Max Ward-Graham, and his brother Andy. His sister Deborah Graham Durant died in 2015.
Daniel Graham: born March 31, 1942; died February 19, 2022