Looking Glasses

A religion of revelation understands God as addressing us from beyond our experience, not apart from it. It helped me to remember that when visiting what may be the most engaging encounter between faith and culture in New York these days.

That would be Dan Graham: Beyond, a retrospective of the contemporary American artist's work at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through October 11). The show includes sculpture, prints, drawings, video, and film installations.

Born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1942, and raised in New Jersey, Graham in 1964 founded and briefly ran the John Daniels Gallery in New York City. It featured conceptual and Minimalist artists, such as Sol Le Witt and Donald Judd. Graham's own first conceptual pieces were for magazines in the mid-1960s.They included cash-register receipts that played deadpan counterpoint to the glossy commercial ads with which they were paired. With similar flat-toned objectivity, Graham sharply criticized the depersonalization and standardization of American life in “Homes for America” (1966-67), a project for Arts Magazine on the large-scale suburban housing developments of the period.

By the early 1970s, Graham began exploring how the human body is perceived in space. One of his most engaging efforts is Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors in Time Delay (1974). Two video monitors face one another across a room in which there are also mirrors at either end. Visitors bring the whole thing to life by appearing not only in person and on the video screens, but also by being infinitely reflected and multiplied in the mirrors.

Especially compelling in this long-awaited retrospective is Graham's legendary video Rock My Religion (1982-84). It recalls the rock “religion” of teenagers in the 1950s, the counterculture of the '60s, and the art of the '70s. The most striking—if idiosyncratic—sequences juxtapose scenes from Shaker communities (which rejected sexually based marriage, resurrected the preindustrial family, and centered their worship on circular dancing) with scenes from rock concerts, the Woodstock Festival of 1969, hippie buses, and many a gyrating pelvis.

For acolytes of American singers like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, or of bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag, rock turned the values of traditional American religion upside down. It glorified the unrepentant sinner. Fun became its creed and “sex now” its insistent demand. It took estrangement from the older generation as a given, and was openly apocalyptic (perceiving a line connecting Puritanism to capitalism to the A-bomb). You might quarrel with any of Graham's interpretations in the video, but you won't forget them.

The video essay's emotional fervor is juxtaposed in the exhibit with Graham's cool, geometric “pavilions,” which he began to create in the early 1980s. At their best, these site-specific architectural installations-made of steel, plate glass, and two-way mirrors-are dazzling perceptual puzzles that reflect human interaction and complexity. Feeling fat, or a bit lonely? Stand outside the top of Graham's Heart Pavilion (1991) and its folded curves will make you as thin as you like (even a Giacometti-like model) and prompt conversations with other visitors (of all ages, as I found out).

Better still is Graham's Triangular Solid with Circular Inserts (Variation E) (1989/2007), placed before the protruding angular window on the Whitney's fourth floor. Viewed at different angles, this seven-foot-high piece morphs from a triangle to a hexagon to a parallelogram. With a circular opening on one side, a round mirror on another side, and a circular piece of reflective glass on a third, it invites you in, sends you around, introduces smiling faces to one another, and seems, for all its simplicity of external form, to contain endless possibilities of reflection.

Graham's sense of interconnectivity—the self embedded in society and the value of everyday life—has clear religious reverberations. And while Graham may be cynical about high art, inherited standards of beauty, and aspirations toward transcendence, he is nonetheless ambivalent and even nostalgic about the society that nourished him. I left the Whitney wondering whether he could ever imagine that ordinary moments, however transient, may still yield something, and in particular someone, of enduring value. Such a sense could open Graham and his brave knack for innovation to still further horizons.

Dan Graham: Beyond travels next to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It will be on view from October 31, 2009, to January 31, 2010.

Published in the 2009-09-11 issue: 

 

Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

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