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Dan Graham retrospective at the Whitney: More than meets the eye.

By Blake Gopnik NEW YORKAuImagine replacing all the pictures in a great museum with mirrors, so that there was only our own gazing left to see. ThatAAEs rather like what Dan Graham, 67, has managed in his art, now on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the retrospective AoBeyondAo. It is one of the most important, compelling shows of the New York season. A classic Graham involves a walk-in AopavilionAo made of a few huge panes of glass or mirror, or of half-mirrored glass that is both reflective and transparent. Take a quick look at one of his pavilions and all you see is a minimal sculpture made of a few panes of glassAuelegant and attractive, but not all that compelling. In the past, IAAEve given GrahamAAEs pavilions just that kind of look, then lost interest. But thatAAEs because I was looking wrong. To take in a Graham, you need to ignore the thing itself, and take advantage of the opportunities beyond it. In a 1991 piece called AoHeart PavilionAo, the two side walls of a valentine-shaped room are made of half-mirrored expanses of glass. The top end of GrahamAAEs AoHeartAo is made of two more panes that are curved. When you walk in through a gap in one side, you see your own face reflected, huge and wobbly, on the inside of the concave curves at the heartAAEs far end. You become an oversize looker floating in midair, a ghost in the machine of art. Or you can choose to ignore your own reflection, and look through the curves at all the museumgoers looking in at you. And then you realize that thatAAEs not what theyAAEre doing at all: From their mugging, you can tell that theyAAEre looking at themselves, being reflected circus-mirror style in the convex flip side of the same curved pane youAAEre looking through. A sober few of them are clearly looking at YOU and imagining what it is youAAEre seeing as you look, just as youAAEre imagining what they are looking at, and seeing. Another piece, from 1987, is not much more than a glass revolving door that connects two spaces in the gallery. It has so little true functionAuwhy not just leave an opening between the two rooms?Authat it gets us looking at the now-functionless thing itself. Which, given that itAAEs glass, means weAAEre really looking at the reflections and transparencies it showsAuwhich are in any revolving door weAAEve ever used, but which weAAEve ignored as weAAEve spun through. The Whitney also gives us maquettes, drawings and videos that show reflective pieces by Graham that have never been built, have disappeared or were too site-specific to ship. In one, Graham plays with shop windows; in another, with an entire retail interior; in a third, with a movie theaterAuall places built around looking, and where Graham can confuse the view. In a model for a project conceived in 1978, Graham replaces the whole facade of a classic ranch-style house with a sheet of glass. Then he installs a mirror right across the middle of the suburban home, making its spaces half as deep as they would normally beAubut seeming deeper even than normal, because of the reflected view the mirror gives of the front halves of the rooms, and of the yard and street beyond. Life in the suburbs has always involved an element of looking and being looked at. GrahamAAEs project makes it explicit, as passersby who look in see themselves reflected back, peeping at their own peeping-in. Even before Graham hit on his mirror conceits, a lot of his work was about looking. A famous and influential early slide show, called AoHomes for AmericaAo and published as a magazine spread in 1966, is a suite of photos of more suburban houses, like the ones Graham, now a New Yorker, grew up in in New Jersey. TheyAAEre shot as though glimpsed casually, in passing. They give us the unfocused looking that is all we devote to our suburbs, but now that sidelong glance has been frozen in a suite of photographs. Within a few years, as a pioneer of video art, Graham filled galleries with closed-circuit cameras and monitors, on various time delays so that you got caught in a kind of infinite loop of looking and being looked at. (Graham also did pioneering work in conceptual art, text-based art, performance art, installation art, documentary art and rock-themed art.) Think of the infinite regress you get when youAAEre caught between two mirrors, and how unstable that can make you feel about your place in the world. Then imagine a time gap between the two reflectionsAuthatAAEs the kind of supercharged disequilibrium GrahamAAEs art can evoke. Then thereAAEs the piece in which Graham piped the visuals from a familyAAEs television set out onto a monitor in their front yard, where anyone who passed could see whatever they were watching. The piece is about television culture, obviously, and the content that runs on our TVs and how much of it is inane. But itAAEs also about the raw act of watching, of channel-surfing, of turning the TV on and off. By funneling the signal out of the familyAAEs domestic space, it turns television watching into a spectator sport. For the most part, weAAEve now become so used to video feeds and plate glass and perfect mirrors that we barely notice the strange kinds of viewing theyAAEve surrounded us with. As we walk by a department-store window we look through it at the display, rather than at it or into the reflection of ourselves. What Graham does, in a sense, is let us imagine ourselves into the shoes of someone from an unglazed, unmirrored, unvideotaped worldAuinto the shoes of a Giotto, maybeAuso that we can recognize how strange it is to be forever looking, and forever seen, at so many removes. LATWP News Servic

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Sep 7, 2009
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