DAN GRAHAM

By Quintessa Matranga
Photography Sean Donnola

I worked for Dan on and off between 2017-2018. I always say he hired me because he found out I was a Cancer, which is not to downplay my qualifications, even though I really didn’t have any at the time. He has a habit of keeping in touch with his former assistants—two of whom are now among his closest friends: Antoine Catala (Capricorn) and Trevor Shimizu (Aries). “Trev,” as Dan calls him, “used to have a pack of skateboarders following him around.” Every few weeks Dan calls me up out of the blue and we end up talking at length. He likes to discuss pop culture, movies, and of course, art world gossip. He jumps between topics very quickly, it’s hard to keep up—I usually end up scribbling notes on whatever scraps of paper I have lying around.

Even at 79, Dan never runs out of new ideas for sculptures, mix CDs (Dan Graham’s Greatest Hits), or essays. He says he’s back to exactly where he started: a struggling writer who can’t get anything published. Some people might not know that Dan started out as a writer and he never intended to be an artist. Now he says he became an artist so he could get free tickets to travel the world and educate himself; Dan never went to college and barely finished high school. His favorite actor is Nicolas Cage, whose hero was Elvis—both Capricorns. He says Capricorns are stiff, depressive, and scholarly. I asked him if he’d talked to Brad Pitt lately. Pitt once knelt before him to pay his respects at an art fair (Dan is sometimes in a wheelchair which necessitates people bowing to speak to him, medieval-like). Brad Pitt interned for Frank Ghery, Dan thinks they should create a firm, “Graham-Pitt.” I asked him who he liked better, Brad Pitt or George Clooney. He said George Clooney is too obsessed with saving the world.

Dan and I could not be on more opposite ends of the spectrum, career-wise. He is one of the most influential artists in the world, collected by every museum, and with every form of art world accolade you could imagine, but Dan is nothing like a typical yuppie artist, nor is he the kind of person you might expect someone with his career to be. He doesn't go to the Hamptons or have a house upstate. He works from home—a one bedroom, one bathroom apartment in New York. In many ways, he reminds me of a young artist, like myself. He likes working with small galleries and project spaces; he likes to help his friends get shows, and push their careers; and he’s always fighting to get his newest ideas out into the world—whatever form they may take.


QUINTESSA MATRANGA: Tell me about your show.

DAN GRAHAM: I basically took a kind of humorist approach, which I often do with shows. When I saw the space, I thought that if the front was a transparent plate glass window it would be just like West Side luxury car showrooms. So the title for the show is: “Three Models, Three Sizes, and Three Price Ranges.”

MATRANGA: I feel like people don’t really know how funny you are.

GRAHAM: Well it's the basis for my work, in fact. In terms of artists I identify with, you’re aware of my birthday, which is coming up. My favorite artist is [Francisco] Goya, his birthday being March 30th. I like how comedic his work is. He learned a lot from [William] Hogarth, it turns out.

MATRANGA: I don’t immediately think of Goya as being funny either.

GRAHAM: You might ask who my favorite artist in New York City is. It’s an artist who deals with comedy, Michael Smith.

MATRANGA: But do you feel like people see the humor in your work?

GRAHAM: I think when I started lecturing and teaching I realized that it’s very important to use humor. Also, all the young artists I know, and you know, ‘cuz you know them all, right? They get their ideas from reading science fiction. I’ve been told by many people that my only “Pavilion” pieces of mine that sell are very small. In the back area, I'm projecting one of the runways I did for Celine at Paris fashion week about five years ago. I think that would be of interest to Upper East Side women collectors who come down to Chelsea. And then there’s a large graphic, of my own redesign, of a small park in Culiacán. Culiacán was the headquarters of the drug cartel of El Chapo.

MATRANGA: You love El Chapo.

GRAHAM: No, I don’t love El Chapo. It’s just interesting that a local collector wants to change the image of Culiacán by inviting artists to do work down there. It’s a very typical situation. In other words, art is often about trying to change the image of a city. All the works I’ve been doing deal with parks. Even the Dia [Art Foundation] piece is basically a city park. Most of the flooring is the kind of rubber material that you find near slides. The boardwalk material I use is a reference to Coney Island. I’d read Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York [1978], so I wanted to make the piece really about the city plan and how New York had changed.

I remember when I changed planes at the airport in Guadalajara; there was a Starbucks in the airport and I noticed that young teenage kids were drinking coffee to stay awake and making out. So I thought a very small park, a fun place for local teenagers, would be something I’d like to do. One side is a curved hedge, and one side is curved two-way mirror glass, and in the very front [there’s] a small area of transparent glass. I always have a relationship between two-way mirror glass and hedges.

MATRANGA: Why two-way mirror glass and hedges?

GRAHAM: Two-way mirror glass because it vacillates between becoming transparent and reflective, depending on the sunlight. And hedges—when you see them from a distance, they’re very opaque. When you get up close and look through them, they’re almost transparent. I like the fact that hedges define the very edges of the city, and they’re very suburban. Whereas two-way mirror glass is often used as a facade in the center of the city, in high-rise office buildings.

MATRANGA: Right.

GRAHAM: And for the hedge I just drove with my architect down the street and we clipped off a hedge from a local house.

MATRANGA: What area?

GRAHAM: Well, that’s the fun of making art right? Not just photographing, but like with hedges, just clipping off some to get the right kind of hedge.

MATRANGA: Exactly.

GRAHAM: We’re talking about quasi-teenage fun.

MATRANGA: You’re kind of punk.

GRAHAM: I always thought art is really about indulging yourself in hobbies. For my photographs in the past, I always used the cheapest cameras.

MATRANGA: I like that.

GRAHAM: I’ve also seen that the few things I’ve sold often wind up in sculpture gardens. I’ve found sculpture gardens now to be amusement parks. The private ones in Europe often have a cafeteria and little golf cart-like vehicles so people of all ages can actually go from one artwork to the next. Some of the best shows I’ve done have been these large German thematic shows like Skulptur Projekte Münster or Documenta. I think they’re a mixture of education and entertainment. My point of view is definitely more anthropological, as opposed to a sociological critique. My idea is that the museum has been evolving.

MATRANGA: It’s nice that you say you like museums. And you’ve said to me that you’re against institutional critique.

GRAHAM: Well, I’m not going to name names here. But when I was in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, I did a heart pavilion in their huge lobby, because I think entrance lobbies are basically pick-up places.

MATRANGA: That’s so funny.

GRAHAM: Also, I was thinking Pittsburgh is the beginning of the Midwest. In other words, Hallmark cards.

MATRANGA: You’ve said that the best way to view your work is by laying down in the grass next to it.

GRAHAM: All of my work has been landscape oriented. Recently I’ve worked with two socialist governments in Europe. In France and in Norway, where the Queen had a program for artists to work in very remote townships. I’ve done some of my best work there because I can do historical overlays, in terms of landscape. The thing I love about Norway is the light. Also, there’s a lot of really beautiful old wood churches. Many have been burned down by Death Metal kids.

MATRANGA: Death Metal kids?

GRAHAM: Yeah, also an interesting thing I found out is Death Metal kids often live with their parents while making lots of money at the same time.

MATRANGA: Why do you think that is?

GRAHAM: I just think they had the right, as we Jewish people like to say, shtick.

MATRANGA: Nice.

GRAHAM: Same situation as Hardcore. Hardcore originally came from Washington, D.C. That’s because a lot of the parents of Hardcore kids worked in the government and had ultra-liberal backgrounds. Just between you and me, I always thought the worst city for music was San Francisco.

MATRANGA: I love that. Why?

GRAHAM: I don’t like the Grateful Dead. It used to be a mixture of folk music and jazz, neither of which I liked. Jefferson Airplane, I felt was very minor. People told me there were a few noise bands that were good.

MATRANGA: Wow.

GRAHAM: I’m doing adult education now by cell phone with a friend of mine, Mark von Schlegell, to learn about 19th-century American literature. Particularly [Herman] Melville.

MATRANGA: Are you teaching him?

GRAHAM: No. He’s teaching me, of course. That’s what he studied in college.

MATRANGA: In college!

GRAHAM: At my age, adult education is quite important.

MATRANGA: Really?

GRAHAM: I think Mellville’s novel Confidence Man [1857] predicts Trumpism. It’s all about con men on a river boat going up the Mississippi. What I’m saying is, I can’t divorce my art—even though I’ve learned a lot from the Frenchies and certainly Walter Benjamin, I can’t divorce my art totally from American themes.

Published: April 22, 2021

Three Models, Three Sizes, Three Price Ranges” is on view at 303 Gallery, 555 W 21st Street, through June 26, 2021.

Quintessa Matranga is an artist living in San Francisco, California.