Donatien Grau: At the very beginning you wanted to be a writer. What led you to open a gallery?
Dan Graham: Being a writer was kind of an adolescent dream. I was pretty much what they call a slacker. I had two friends, both of whom went on to social forum, so they said, “Let’s open a gallery.” And my parents put aside some of their money. They could deduct it from their taxes if they made that investment. So the gallery was on Madison Avenue, and the first show was actually a Christmas show. Anybody who came into the gallery, I put in the show, all of that while knowing nothing about art. It was also the beginning of minimal art: a very good gallery, Green Gallery, showed minimal art: Flavin, Judd, Morris. Sol LeWitt, who was friend of all these people, couldn’t get to show there. So he came to my gallery, I put him in the Christmas show, and we bonded over our love towards literature. He loved Michel Butor too.
DGrau: Why did you all want to be writers?
DGraham: I think all the artists I met wanted to be writers. Flavin wanted to be like James Joyce. Smithson wanted to be like Borges. So we all thought of ourselves as artist writers. We didn’t like this idea of doing polemics. The idea was just to be a writer. Warhol too wanted to be a writer. In fact, even though he was dyslexic and he had to dictate his texts, like Popism, in fact he was a writer. He also was a filmmaker. We all wanted to do everything. This was the milieu of the 1960s in New York.
DGrau: Why was the gallery called the John Daniels Gallery?
DGraham: There were three partners. One of them was called John, and my name was Daniel. The third one didn’t want to have his name used. It was just one of these things for which we couldn’t think of anything better. It was naïve. I was 23, 24, and learning a lot back then.
DGrau: However, it is quite interesting that some really leading figures came to you to show at your gallery.
DGraham: had some pretty bad shows as well… People came to me maybe because Sol LeWitt did the first show. Perhaps they thought that this was an opening for people who were friends of Sol, or people who wanted to be like Sol, like Smithson, to find a place to show. Remember, nobody had any money or galleries then. Very quickly, minimal art started selling for lots of money, but at that time, I think nobody had money.
DGrau: Who came to your gallery? Was it just Sol LeWitt and his friends?
DGraham: Smithson came because he was very ambitious. He wanted to do minimal art, although his early work was quite different. Flavin actually fell in love with me because I wrote an article about the Dean Martin TV program. He used to love television. He actually got me together with Heiner Friedrich and Michael Asher to become part of Dia. I turned Heiner down, but I think Flavin realized we had a similar sensibility. Also, it was his intuition. His birthday is the day after mine. He had an intuition that there was something there in my work. Actually, Michael Asher’s early work is really influenced by Flavin.
DGrau: After LeWitt, what other exhibitions did you put together?
DGraham: Since everybody then liked plastics, I thought of doing a show called “Plastics.” Smithson was in it, Judd was in it. Then there was another show called “4D5D” because there was a group of artists around who came to me. They were all doing LSD. I did it very blindly. Then I had some pretty bad artists. It was a fairly blind situation. I was going to show a very good artist called Leo Valledor. He was part of the Park Place Group, with which we did “4D.” Smithson really wanted to show him desperately, and we would have given him a show. Maybe it was the ambition of these other artists coming to me, pushing hard. I think it was partly total chance and partly just I liked the people because we shared other things with some of them, really. We shared a lot of ideas together about literature and cinema. I think everybody loved Godard at that time. I think we all loved magazine culture. But financially it was a failure. We sold nothing. I ended up losing a lot of money.
DGrau: As an artist, you learned a lot from those conversations…
DGraham: It is true. I learned a little bit from everybody. Smithson was into mannerism because he was gay. Gradually, I picked that up. With no education in art or architecture, I also picked up a lot about architecture from Sol LeWitt, who is an architect, and from Michael Asher — a love for architecture.
DGrau: What did you learn from having a gallery?
DGraham: I opened the gallery without knowing what I was doing. Then later, seeing, I learned. One thing I learned about the gallery: the way to succeed is to get advertisements. Then you get reviews and then the art takes on value. In my total idealistic fantasy, the idea was that I wanted to defeat everything. Then I became very anti-gallery and still I have a strange relationship to galleries. I don’t sell very much, but what I like about dealers is that they’re often intellectuals who are forced to have galleries. Sometimes they’re very troubled intellectuals. I also learned that artists not only should write about other artists, but also that, if you’re a young artist, you have to show with other artists in group shows. Now everybody is after him or herself, it’s about one’s career. Flavin, who actually is one of my heroes, was generous in the beginning and took part in the organization. Many artists started having galleries because it was a way to do something and to do something for your friends.