Through a glass darkly
Dan Graham By Mark Francis et al. Phaidon, 2001. 160pp. £22.95
'Because I read Robert Venturi's books at the time, which attacked Mies van der Rohe, it has taken me maybe 30 years to realise I am very close to Mies, ' says Dan Graham in the interview that introduces this addition to Phaidon's 'Contemporary Artists' series.
Given that for the last two decades or so Graham has been best known for steel-andglass pavilions, his audience probably made that Mies connection long ago. Much of this monograph is devoted to them, but Graham's interests in photography, performance and video emerge as well.
Keen on Jean-Paul Sartre, sci-fi novels and the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and for a time writing articles on rock music (one on the Kinks is included here), Graham seems to be very much his own man.
In the early 1960s he bought an Instamatic camera and began photographing houses and diners in his home state of New Jersey.
One result was the magazine spread Homes for America (1966-67), a deadpan documentation of the kind of mass-produced dwellings you can order from a catalogue - 'Both architecture and craftsmanship as values are subverted. . . There is no organic unity connecting the land site and the home.'
Since their conception in the late 1970s, the pavilions have appeared both indoors and out, in museums and galleries but also in airports, cafes, playgrounds and parks.
Their forms are various (cube, tetrahedron, pyramid etc), but all exploit particular qualities of glass - transparency, mirroring, and degrees of reflectivity in-between.
In his comments, Graham can underplay the significance these structures might have:
'I see them as photo opportunities for parents and children. . . My work is for children and parents on weekends.' On the other hand, he also says: 'In all my work, geometric forms are inhabited and activated by the presence of the viewer, and a sense of uneasiness and psychological alienation is produced by a constant play between feelings of inclusion and exclusion.'
Perceptually, the pavilions are intriguing, as their frames and mirrors fragment and recombine both the structure itself and its surroundings; and as the light changes, so does the opacity/transparency of the glass.
They are places of self-awareness and surprise, where viewers may be ambushed by their own or others' reflections. They are far more animated than they first appear.
Graham and this book's contributors plausibly map the possible associations of these structures - with the pleasure pavilions of Baroque and Rococo gardens, Laugier's primitive hut, even bus shelters - but their Mies lineage (Barcelona Pavilion, Farnsworth House) is insistent. It brings to mind Edith Farnsworth's confessed discomfort and feelings of exposure in her raised glass cell in rural Illinois. Graham's throwaway remark about 'photo opportunities' is misleading: these pavilions are not simply fun and games.
The book follows the standard format of this established (and excellent) series - an interview, an overview, an essay on a specific work (here by Beatriz Colomina), and extracts from the artist's own writings - but for once its photographs rather let it down.
Few capture the optical subtleties of Graham's completed pavilions.