Fillip 9 — Winter 2009

Vancouver from the Outside In: Part Two
Dan Graham and Cliff Lauson

The influence of 1960s and 1970s international conceptual art practices on the development of art in Vancouver is by now well understood. More contentious is the degree to which the relationship between the local and the international is brought to bear on interpretations of the work and how accurate a characterization the centre/periphery dyad was in the first place. Cliff Lauson spoke with Lawrence Weiner and Dan Graham, two American artists of the post-minimal generation who visited Canada repeatedly during this time, to discuss their personal experiences of Vancouver as well as the art and artists associated with the city. The following interview took place in New York on 25 February 2007. The first interview, with Lawrence Weiner , was published in Fillip 7.

Dan Graham: Where it begins is I had a student, Duane Lunden, at the Nova Scotia College of Art [NSCAD]. Duane used to work with Jeff Wall, and they were both Trotskyites. When I was at Nova Scotia, I thought that they shouldn’t have artists come for brief visits, but for longer periods of time. So, I set up a teaching situation where I would do the first three and last three weeks and I invited people who had never taught before for the rest: Jeff Wall, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosler, and Michael Asher.

When I did Homes for America (1965), it was published in Arts Magazine (1966) and Ian [Wallace] and Jeff really liked it a lot. They were best friends and Ian pretty much started Jeff going on historical things dealing with classical painting because he did a piece based on [Nicolas] Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego (1637–38) called Lookout (1979). It was on Hornby Island, and all these hippies dressed up as if they were Greeks.

Cliff Lauson: Yes, it’s a large landscape panorama with figures montaged into it.

Graham: It was Duane Lunden who was a Trotskyite and was interested in Wittgenstein. When Jeff went to the Courtauld for a few years, he saw me in London and then followed me to documenta.

Lauson: And this is where you exhibited the half-mirror-and-glass work, which you have said bears structural similarities to Jeff Wall’s Picture for Women (1979)?

Graham: No, no. The half-mirror with glass was Public Space/Two Audiences (1976), a piece I did for the Venice Biennale. Jeff didn’t see that one, but he knows about it. When Jeff went to Simon Fraser, they hired him because he was on the Left. I saw his first notes—they were brilliant. Jeff’s teaching was absolutely brilliant. He was teaching at the same time as Ian, who was at Emily Carr [University], and he and Ian brought me to Vancouver. I saw Rodney Graham’s first piece outside of Simon Fraser University. It was a ravine illuminated by a big flash of light from a power generator. I thought, “This is better than Michael Heizer!” [Laughs] First of all, it was about light. Secondly, it was really about what Canada was about: giant power stations and ravines. What I loved about Vancouver was it seemed to be a kind of 1950s fantasy of a science fiction future. It was Arcadian.

Lauson: So, in the 1970s it felt to you like a 1950s vision of the future, in a utopian kind of way?

Graham: Yes, it was like comic book science fiction.

Lauson: Was the work you did at NSCAD part of Garry Neill Kennedy’s ambitious programme to involve international artists?

Graham: No, it was actually David Askevold. David had a course called the Projects Class, and he asked Gerald Ferguson, who knew Lawrence Weiner, and Lawrence recommended conceptual artists like me. I had no money—didn’t even have money for a camera. I knew Canada had the equipment, so for a number of projects I travelled up there from New York to help realize them. My first video pieces were actually done as learning exercises for students. I never went to college or art school, so it was nice to be teaching. Many of the students were Americans getting away from the draft during the Vietnam War. They also brought in Joseph Beuys, and later, Gerhard Richter. David Askevold was a brilliant teacher and also a brilliant artist.

They were making lithographs, so I said why not do monographs? Artists’ own writings. Kaspar Koenig, a friend of mine, wanted a place to publish, and I got him up there.1 The titles were almost all my ideas: Simone Forti, Donald Judd, and Steve Reich. I also wanted to involve Shulamith Firestone as well. She wrote Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), one of the earliest feminist books. My teaching and reading list were fifty percent women. What finally happened was when I left, the place was taken over by Bruce Barber and his people. They said I was anti-feminist and anti-political because they really resented the Garry Kennedy regime. They won’t redo my book.2

Lauson: So, in the 1960s, Vancouver and Halifax....

Graham: No, I was in Halifax in the early 1970s. Actually, I was there in 1969 and produced Lax/Relax (1969) there. There was also this student, Ian Murray, who had a small gallery. When I brought up Simone Forti to do her book, she was very generous and actually helped me out on one of my pieces, Helix/Spiral (1973).

Lauson: I’m interested in the group of artists who comprise the so-called Vancouver School, which is kind of a shorthand moniker like the New York School. Of course, each artist has his own individual practice, but, interestingly, all of them seemed to leave behind what was in the 1960s and 70s considered an international conceptual art practice.

Graham: In other words, they rejected N.E. Thing Company?

Lauson: Yes, and, to a degree, genres like performance art, although the boundaries start to dissolve when you start to look at film and video and places like the Pumps Gallery and the Western Front.

Graham: No, actually Rodney comes directly out of performance art. One thing that all those artists lack that Rodney has is humour. Like the piece he did for the Venice Biennale [Vexation Island, 1997]. It had a lot of rustic wood in it, like a vacation hut in Canada. The Virgin Islands were a colony of England, so the palm tree played with that. It also played with the fact that the Canadian pavilion is at the foot of the neo-Georgian British pavilion. The work has enormous humour. I can follow Rodney through Rock and Roll, and also I understand his interest in history. I think the thing about Ian Wallace is that he also brings in real history. And that’s the thing that I love about Rodney—his work really deals with history, and it’s an homage to other artists.

Lauson: Though in Rodney’s practice, rock music has an unresolved relationship with the visual, and maybe that’s because he is so prolific as a producer of art objects that belong in the gallery context. He is a singer/songwriter and his band has CDs and plays concerts, but these all operate alongside the artwork; they do not displace the aesthetic object. You always go to the gig after the opening or something like that.

Graham: You have to understand that I was never a professional artist. Everything I did was amateur; the photographs are amateur. They’re a hobby. Most people who come out of art school think everything is professional and this is very narrow minded. Whereas Rodney basically indulges his passions, they are all hobbies in a certain way. You saw that show I did, right?3 That was all about fun in the summer. But I didn’t do it as an artist. I did it basically to have fun and also the situation was educational, so I made something in an educational context.

Lauson: So for you, both the music and the art are hobbies?

Graham: I would say that, but for Rodney, it’s what he wants to be. Overall, I think that two things are important. First, that Jeff and Ian were very influenced by my and Robert Smithson’s articles for Arts Magazine. Secondly, that Ian is the most brilliant teacher in the world and his dialectic with Jeff was immeasurably important for everybody. He writes about everybody.

Lauson: Writers typically cite you, Smithson, and Ed Ruscha as the “artists who use photography”—forerunners that influenced artists in the Vancouver School.

Graham: I don’t think they know anything about Ruscha. Ruscha had no influence. They don’t know the work.

Lauson: So that’s an anachronism?

Graham: They read that in after the fact. I’m glad you got to talk to Ian because he’s so generous. You know Jeff wrote a great essay about Ian Wallace and the monochrome. Actually, I have a great monochrome painting right here by Gerhard Richter. Gerhard told me his hero was Roy Lichtenstein. He said he was so afraid to meet him because he was so in awe of him. [Benjamin H. D.] Buchloh talks about [Andy] Warhol being important, but none of the artists I know like Warhol; everything comes from Roy. That’s where the humour comes from. That’s what I mean: the reason I absolutely love Rodney’s work is because it has deep, deep humour.

Lauson: And you know Ian’s early monochrome paintings as well?

Graham: I haven’t seen them.

Lauson: They were inspired by a visit to New York in the late sixties 1960s, after which he just dove straight into a minimal painting mode for a couple of years.

I want to come back to the notion of a school because you frequently referred to the Hudson River School in your Tate talk.4 What is the significance of this grouping for you—the idea of collective interest and influence?

Graham: Most American art comes out of that period. I also love [Thomas] Eakins. My work is about light and also about the panorama, and [Frederic] Church did the first panoramas. Of course, I come from [Dan] Flavin, and Flavin’s work is a combination of Caspar David Friedrich and [Albert] Bierstadt. He talked about this all the time. Ed Ruscha says that Bierstadt was his biggest influence in landscape. Like in England, people would be influenced by John Constable and Joseph Turner. I was influenced by Flavin and Lichtenstein, and Flavin comes directly from Hudson River. But also Ed Ruscha—people don’t realize that his work is landscape. His sister was an architect. Actually, in the Whitney show, he showed paintings inspired by Thomas Cole.5 Thomas Cole was a teacher. You see you’re probably taught from the modernist point of view that everything is present time and this comes from [Marcel] Duchamp. We absolutely despised Duchamp.

Lauson: When you say “we,” you mean...?

Graham: All the artists of New York, the minimal people. See Duchamp was a dead end and we took nothing from him, although in retrospect, Duchamp was friends with brilliant people like [Francis] Picabia. He was also friends with [Frederick] Kiesler, the great architect. So, Duchamp was somebody who knew he was smart. His work is a dead end though; it sums everything up. It doesn’t go anywhere.

Lauson: Did Pop art have an influence?

Graham: Not Pop, no. It was about Russian Constructivism. Flavin comes from Russian Constructivism. Lichtenstein had a certain academic humour. And [Claes] Oldenburg had humour, but it wasn’t a Pop influence. Of course Ruscha’s work, you could call Pop art or Conceptual art, but it was amateur. The books were done for fun. I’m typical of a generation that didn’t go to college or art school.

  1. Gerald Ferguson recalls Graham’s edict “burn the paint- ings and keep the books.” Quoted in Gerald Ferguson, “On NSCAD and Conceptual Art,” in Conceptual Art: The NSCAD Connection, 1967–1973, exh. cat. (Nova Scotia: Anna Leonowens Gallery, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1994), 32.
  2. After a fifteen-year hiatus, the NSCAD Press re-launched in 2002 and has since republished a number of previously out-of-print books, including Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbaut, and David Solkin, eds., Modernism and Modernity: The Vancouver Conference Papers (Nova Scotia: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983/2004).
  3. The exhibition Dan Graham’s New Jersey, at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Columbia University, New York, 22 February–23 March 2007, combined photographs from the 1960s and 70s with new photography created in 2006 during trips made with Columbia Graduate School of Architecture students.
  4. Artist’s Talk, Tate Modern, London, 15 February 2007. Archived at
  5. Course of the Empire: Paintings by Ed Ruscha was presented in the United States Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and was subsequently exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art (17 November 2005–29 January 2006). The series, comprising five re-paintings of Ruscha’s own Blue Collar (1992) paintings, was inspired by Thomas Coles’ The Course of the Empire cycle, though Ruscha’s version of the American landscape comprises generic industrial buildings.

Image: Dan Graham, Helix / Spiral (Simone Forti), 1973. Two 8mm films, enlarged to 16mm, colour. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

About the Authors

Dan Graham is an artist who lives and works in New York.

Cliff Lauson is a PhD candidate at University College London and is
writing on Vancouver art and artists. He is also working on specific exhibition projects as Curatorial Assistant at Tate Modern, London, and has recently published in Art Monthly and contributed to Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing.

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