Rock My Minimalism

John Haber
in New York City

Dan Graham and Ernesto Neto

Dan Graham has performed naked, with a naked woman holding the camera. He has stood in front of an audience while describing his own body—and theirs. He has worked with some of the loudest rock bands ever, and his best-known video, Rock My Religion, compares a rock concert to a revival meeting. It includes clips, too, of hippies outdoors, flowers at Jim Morrison's grave, and couples making passionate love. He has designed an arena for skateboarders, covered with graffiti. He gives kids and grown-ups practically the whole fourth floor of the Whitney to climb and to play.

What, then, makes his work so detached? I could tell you, but then I would have to shoot you—on old sixteen-millimeter film stock and through a two-way mirror. His retrospective recovers a pioneer of conceptual art, a label that Graham dislikes. It also makes clear why he so dislikes it. He allows one to see geometry as either conceptual rigor or physical presence. Then he takes both out for a free concert. Ernesto Neto's anthropodino (Park Avenue Armory, 2009)

For all his sense of humor, Graham can leave one waiting for the punch line, but at least one gets to relax. While he goes through contortions on video, the audience sits comfortably on the floor.

In all this, his performance-inflected Minimalism anticipates more than conceptual art. It also looks ahead to the fashion for appropriation and audience participation. Ernesto Neto does everything he can, too, to make his audience comfortable. In the process, he makes art fit more for children.

People in glass houses

Most remember Dan Graham, if at all, for one thing, an empty box. You might have seen a simple version, just smaller than human dimensions. Each cube has a large circular cut in its glass or mirrored surface. It translates the elements of plane geometry—the circle and the square—into the third dimension. It is not just a container, but a partitioning of the room, a view inside, a view of the room looking out, and a view looking back toward oneself. Talk about an object lesson.

Graham made his first Pavilion, as he calls it, before 1990, and the series has occupied him ever since. That skateboard arena's concave dip and graffiti are part of one. However, the show goes back almost thirty more years. Graham has passed through not just other media, but a good three or four careers. Strangely enough, they may even connect. The graffiti, for example, names the rock bands that collaborated on Rock My Religion.

Born in 1942, Graham skipped college and in 1964 opened a New York gallery, where he showed mostly Minimalism. His early work, however, seems anything but geometric and sculptural. He already looks to Minimalism for inspiration, while grounding it in something else. At first, that something else means magazines—which to him present a kind of folk anthropology. With the cooperation of Harper's Bazaar, he interrupts a magazine spread for a cash-register receipt. With Homes in America, an actual 1967 magazine article on the New Jersey suburbs, he supplies both photos and text.

The idea came to him on a sad train ride home to his parents, after the gallery died. Along with the photos, Graham also supplies the article's text, and it sounds much like the sociology of its time. It even more or less makes sense. It describes suburbia as not a true developing community and definitely not an "organic unity." Yet its dry tone avoids celebration or criticism. As with that receipt's column of numbers, the artist prefers to omit the bottom line.

Like Roy Lichtenstein, another influence, he has no problem with consumerism. He just wants to know where he consumes and where he lives. Other influences (to trust the artist's own wall text) include Larry Bell, who also made cubes, and Mies van der Rohe, who made them into homes in the woods. With Rock My Religion in 1984, Graham looks everywhere for human nature, but from a distance. He cruises past more suburbs, accompanied by the hum of Glenn Branca on the sound track. The raw concert footage, and I do mean raw, shows local bands—including Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, and Black Flag—and the Shaker revival meeting is distinctly American, too.

Film takes up the 1970s, mostly of the artist in performance. It, too, is looking for the human body, and it, too, sees the body only as reflected in words, mirrors, and a camera. He rolls around while training the camera on himself. He and another actor circle each other while pointing their cameras. In Performer/Audience/Mirror of 1977, Graham describes first his own less than ideal body, then his audience, then himself as seen in reflection, and then his audience's image. He seems to have found the apotheosis of his art—the illustrated lecture, but with arguments that can never quite connect.

End of lecture

That feeling of a lecture dogs everything he does. Yet it also reflects his search for at once conceptual clarity and corporality. A Pavilion can present either one—concept or physical object, body image or just the body. As in the optical illusion of a Necker cube, one can see them both, but never both at once. It says something that first he and a woman in the audience aimed the camera at each other, keeping the image of each solely in the eye of the other. But then they had to take off their clothes.

New Yorkers have had their own invitation to Graham's nonchalant complexity. Another Pavilion topped the former Dia:Chelsea. A glass wall takes up the roof without cutting off its view. It also surrounds a mirrored cylinder at the head of the stairs. Nearby, a video camera multiplies and displaces the view that much more. Even there, though, one hesitates to enter his art. Thanks to Bennett Simpson of LA MOCA and Chrissie Iles of the Whitney, there is now no holding back.

The Whitney gives much of the show to Pavilions. They get a single large space off the elevator. At least it looks like a single space, give or take all the divisions. They include a heart, a triangle, a star of David, and a revolving door. Even the huge trapezoid of a museum window, in the majestic design by Marcel Breuer, fits right in. Taken together, they look like a geometer's theme park, and they will never look as good as in each other's company.

The revolving door leads to still another wall, two rather plain doors, and another Pavilion within. It consists of two rooms joined by a glass wall. The rooms look exactly alike, except for a mirrored wall at one end. Who and what one sees depend on which door one chooses. It looks a bit like a TV game show, but with no prizes and no "door number three." It also looks like a psychology lab, with the experimenter out to lunch, but the experiment continuing.

Graham's ambivalence about conceptual rigor and physical presence runs through pretty much all of Minimalism. Fans and critics alike caught onto that right away. Critics, like Michael Fried, derided the sculpture as too dry or too theatrical, but it made art a brute fact of life. Walk on metal plates by Carl Andre, in the fluorescent glow of a Dan Flavin, or through the wall of air that Fred Sandback somehow suspends between rectangles of colored thread. Each time, a room seems to belong to plain shapes and plain materials—or to one's own body. Richard Serra has turned that glorious ambivalence into a threat.

Graham never aims for conceptual and emotional heights like that. The Pavilions place one in what Jacques Lacan called the mirror stage. That childhood moment derives in turn from what Jean-Paul Sartre called reflective consciousness. A voracious reader, Graham knows that it takes others—or an artist—to make one reflect on oneself. Each Pavilion is also a reflection on the constraints of museum walls, which also may or may not allow passage to adult freedom. Graham leaves one on the verge of self-reflection, but the lecture always stops just short of it.

The stockings were hung

Ernesto Neto makes Graham not just prescient, but downright profound by comparison. Neto gives New York summer sculpture an early start. In the process, he has created the most child-friendly artwork in memory. Afternoons at the Park Avenue Armory, small fry outnumber adults. So what if they grow up with a stocking fetish?

I am less sure that anthropodino is suitable for grown-ups. Even the title sounds like a pet for Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, and it does not require mastery of both capital and small letters. The Brazilian artist has fashioned Lycra into tunnels, branching out from a bright central rising. A scaffolding of wooden "bones," perhaps dinosaur bones, supports it, and circular pores allow it to breath. Its asymmetric plan could represent a living cell or tentacled sea creature, but of a distinctly cartoon variety. It all but cries out for a smiling face.

One can hardly help smiling back. The tunnels have pale, comforting primary tones of pink, blue, and yellow. Perhaps they mark off sections for girl babies, boy babies, and bisexuals. Above them all hangs a tent in the color of more conventional nylons. From there descend what the curator, Tom Eccles, calls "fabric stalactites," weighted with eastern spices. Within days the fragrance had all but disappeared.

anthropodino represents ingenious engineering. The portholes connecting each tunnel's two fabric layers provide both ventilation and structural integrity. Outside it, children line up as patiently as children can to take off their shoes and tumble into one of three pools, padded with carpeting or plastic balls. It also represents the Armory's renewed commitment to contemporary art, five years after the Armory Show first departed for the piers. Each year will now bring a new installation to the ancient drill hall. What it does not represent is much in the way of meaning.

Like Carsten Höller, Tomás Saraceno, Nicolas Bourriaud, and "relational esthetics," Neto turns art into a shared space, a shared space into a strictly guided tour, and a tour into a view of a real site with its specifics effaced. Rirkrit Tiravanija has even served up curry as art with some of the same spices. Much of the same mix—of grand opera and lack of specificity—also defines installation for the New Museum's "Generational." It looks great and feels great, but it vanishes if one presses it too hard. One enters by one tunnel, exits by another, maybe scratches one's head and tries again, and that is that. Any associations beyond a naive and slightly sexist notion of maternity are purely incidental.

Neto longs for creature comforts, not just in life but in art. His organic forms reach back more to Art Nouveau metro stations than to biomorphic abstraction after World War II, like Anish Kapoor. Different generations since then have created a space for child's play while also confronting deep childhood and adult fears. Who can resist entering Serra's Torqued Ellipse, and who can resist the feeling that its twenty-ton walls are about to collapse? Just this winter, Pipilotti Rist made the atrium at MoMA a place for families to relax and to climb, while bare breasts and some serious blood spilled out on video overhead. Children mostly ignore Neto's tunnels, too, in search of a good time, and they may be onto something.

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"Dan Graham: Beyond" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through October 11, 2009, Ernesto Neto's "anthropodino" at the Park Avenue Armory through June 14.


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