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Art Review

Color him anti- establishment

'Dan Graham: Beyond' presents four decades of the Conceptual artist's

February 20, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

Another colorless exhibition has opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I don't mean colorless as in dull or insipid, since this is a show definitely worth spending some time with. I just mean "without color." Black and white are the dominant tones in "Dan Graham: Beyond," while splashes of gray, silver and smoke pass for stylistic panache.

Starting in 1965, the New York Conceptual artist began doing hand-to-hand combat in the local art world, making work that chipped away at encrusted shibboleths of New York School aesthetic doctrine. Graham's results, as laid out in the first rooms of MOCA's four-decade survey, are by turns witty, surprising, smart and engaging, as only an art in the process of exploring untested possibilities can be.

The unremitting lack of color is vital to the work's success.

Take "Homes for America" (1966-67), which remains perhaps Graham's best-known piece. Photographs of suburban tract-housing developments in New Jersey are interspersed with blocks of text. The washed-out photographs are in color, but it's incidental.

These dry, matter-of-fact pictures are typically composed to underscore bland uniformity and sameness in the structures. A mirror-image of two brick staircases leads to the front doors of a duplex. An angled row of two-story shingled boxes is marked by tall downspouts from wide rain gutters. Plastic kitchen trays are stacked up beneath fluorescent lights inside a strip mall's discount house. For this environment -- built according to requirements of mass production -- the chunks of printed text chronicle the economics of land use, the logic of variable floor plans and the obsolescence of architecture and craftsmanship, traditionally understood.

The piece has all the charm of an analytical housing and urban development report produced at a government printing office. "Homes for America" was in fact printed in Arts Magazine. It unfolds as a cross between a socially conscious photo-essay -- the lineage might include Margaret Bourke-White or Felix Man -- and common art criticism. In form, style and presentation, "Homes for America" implicitly criticized two kinds of art prominent in the late 1960s.

One was High art, as suggested by Graham's reliance on an off-the-shelf Kodak Instamatic rather than a professional-grade Leica or Nikon camera. Specifically, the piece undercuts New York School art, as codified with steadily narrowing precision by its powerful high priest, critic Clement Greenberg. Graham's colorless art stood in direct opposition to Greenberg's anointment of Color-field painting as art's ultimate Modern refinement.

A gray, three-column, two-page magazine spread was about as far as art could get from, say, Jules Olitski's atmospheric layers of pure color spray-painted on canvas, which were an official U.S. entry at the Venice Biennale that year. Olitski, a Greenberg favorite who soon after became the first contemporary American to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum, represented what the establishment was doing in the art world.

"Homes for America," by contrast, represented what the establishment was doing outside the art world -- which meant just about everywhere. With the rise of modern suburbs, an American generation after World War II essentially invented a new way of living.

Beyond the art world, one could also find the second kind of art implicitly being criticized by Graham's analytical, dryly illustrated text. The layout is like a nerdy send-up of Better Homes and Gardens. The commercial razzle-dazzle of mass culture, which would play a seductive role in marketing the suburban developments Graham addressed, is nowhere to be found in his art.

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Homegrown talent

Graham was 24 when he made "Homes for America." He was born in Urbana, Ill., and grew up in Winfield Park and Westfield, N.J. Self-taught, he attended neither college nor art school, hightailing it to New York as soon as he could. He opened a short-lived downtown art gallery, and his first solo exhibition took place there in 1969.

Over the next decade, three-quarters of Graham's exhibitions were mounted in Canada and Europe. The new and fragile contemporary American art market had collapsed. He showed frequently at schools and alternative spaces. With one big exception, most of the show's compelling works were made during this scrappy time.

"Roll" (1970) is emblematic. A pair of film projectors placed back-to-back show brief, grainy, amateur movies on opposite walls. One pictures the artist in the middle distance, rolling down a slight hill in an autumnal woods. The other shows the same thing -- except this time the movie camera was held by the artist, not someone else filming him. The image tumbles and tosses as limbs, body parts and dry leaves are jarringly glimpsed.

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