Dan Graham, Mind-Bending Conceptual Artist, Dies at 79

Dan Graham, a contrarian polymath best known, despite his protests, as a conceptual artist, died on Feb. 19 in Manhattan. He was 79.

His wife, Mieko Meguro Graham, confirmed the death but declined to give a cause.

Though he had his problems with Conceptual Art as a category, Mr. Graham’s resistance to labeling went deeper. In a prolific career that took in genres as various as sculpture, architecture and “puppet rock opera,” and included pioneering works of video and performance art as well as criticism and teaching, he often identified himself not as an artist but as a writer. Sometimes he added that his real passion, in any case, was rock music.

But contradiction was also a philosophical throughline of his otherwise disparate undertakings.

Whether he was arguing, in an early piece of criticism, that Dean Martin’s television variety show was more self aware than it looked; or helping to turn Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon from an art student into a musician by drafting her into a performance piece called “All-Girl Band: Identification Projection”; or standing between a mirrored wall and a seated audience, lecturing them about what they were looking at, Mr. Graham always aimed to unsettle.

His best known work was a decades-long series of large-scale architectural installations he called “pavilions” — sinuous booths of semi-reflective glass that wrapped his preoccupations with spectacle in an appealing sculptural language derived from Minimalism.

Entering a pavilion, or simply observing it, you might have seen yourself reflected against the room beyond, undermining a sense of where, or even who, you were. Or else, contemplating yourself as a funhouse-mirror distortion, you might have begun wondering just how much of your reality was determined by your architectural environment. Either way, you were bound to walk away thinking differently.

Mr. Graham’s entry into the art world was almost accidental. A voracious reader and snapshot photographer but an indifferent student, he moved to New York after finishing high school and, in 1964, founded the John Daniels Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with two friends.

“I was what they call a slacker,” he recalled in an Interview magazine article by the artist Michael Smith in 2017. “I had no job, and I had two friends who wanted to social climb because they were reading Esquire magazine, and a gallery looked like a cool place to social climb.”

The gallery lasted less than a year, without sales. But before it closed, it had shown Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, given Sol LeWitt his first solo show, and introduced Mr. Graham — who had until then been more interested in science fiction and philosophy — into the very heart of the New York art scene.

When he started making art himself, he eschewed conventional mediums, submitting text pieces and photo spreads to magazines instead. This, he would suggest, was a way of contesting the notion of artistic value — his art would be disposable. Later touchstones included “Lax/Relax,” a spoken word performance inspired by Reichian therapy, and “Rock My Religion,” a careening, rough-edged video documentary that connects 18th-century Shaker circle dancing to hard-core punk while psychoanalyzing the hippie movement.

“He’s deeply into astrology,” Mr. Smith wrote in the Interview article, nodding to the difficulty of summing up a practice, and a personality, defined by its frenetic rush of mental associations. “He’s an Aries, indicating spontaneity. He’s also into clichés, architecture, music, art, puppets, mixtapes, and TV comedy.”

In the end, Mr. Graham found an enormous amount of success for a self-described slacker. He had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009, and his “Rooftop Urban Park Project,” a multipart pavilion overshadowed by wooden water tanks, sat on top of the Dia Foundation’s building in Lower Manhattan throughout the 1990s.

“Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout” was installed on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014, instantly becoming the centerpiece of an untold number of selfies, and his structure “Child’s Play” was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden in 2017.

Success was no reason to stop tweaking his audience, though. At a party for the MoMA installation, according to a former assistant, Mr. Graham grabbed a microphone and began talking about what he called his “favorite museum” — the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

He was born Daniel Harry Ginsberg on March 31, 1942, in Urbana, Ill., where his father, Emanuel Ginsberg, earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Illinois. His mother, Bess (Freedman) Ginsberg, was an educator who ran preschools.

In 1944, after applying for more than 100 jobs without getting an interview, Emanuel Ginsberg changed his name to David E. Graham and was hired by General Aniline and Film. His wife and children became Grahams, too.

Beginning in his teens, Dan was beset by mental troubles variously diagnosed, and medicated, as schizophrenia, depression or manic depression. Whatever it was, according to his younger brother, Andrew, it continued at least through his 60s, making life hard for Mr. Graham and for the people who loved him.

“He was a difficult person to have in your life,” said Ann Riesenberg, his sister-in-law. “But what I’m left with is this gratitude to have had someone who encouraged me to be all that I was, whatever that was.”

In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. Graham is survived by a son, Max Ward-Graham. His sister, Deborah Graham Durant, died in 2015.

Mr. Graham was a widely beloved figure in the art world, known not just as a keen critic with a provocative sense of humor but also as a radically generous friend.

“I would say that he had some kind of instinct for when things were really bad in people’s life,” said the artist Antoine Catala, who worked for Mr. Graham for a couple of years in the early 2000s, “and he would show up for them.”

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