Dan Graham’s Reflections of New York City

I exited the gates of Fordham University and headed toward the D train to make my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a sunset viewing of the “Roof Garden Commission: Dan Graham with Gunther Vogt.”  A New York transplant, Dan Graham was born in Urbana, Illinois in 1942. Generally, his art consists of the glass and mirrored pavilions that he has been crafting since the seventies. Graham’s signature highlights the relationship between architectural surroundings and the people residing within this architecture.

Although I am not someone who is elaborately involved in the arts, I am ready to take any excuse I can to get to the city, and to explore the vast phenomena that Manhattan offers. Being from a rural town nestled deep in the countryside of Massachusetts, I am astonished by the buildings that transcend the clouds and the people that are as vibrant as the clothes that they don.

While on the Fordham University campus, it is quite easy to forget that I am in the Bronx. On campus, I am surrounded by students who come from about the same type of upper middle class neighborhoods that I grew up in. The lawns are mowed clean, the flowers are lavishly planted in intricate patterns, and the hedges are neatly organized in a perfect row along the walkways. Leaving the enclave of Fordham University, I began walking up East Fordham Road, taking in the people and the businesses that surrounded me.The moment that I step out of the gates, everything changes. I am confronted head on by poverty that lines the streets surrounding East Fordham Road. Unlike Fordham’s campus, the sidewalks are littered and unkempt. Contrary to the sheltered students I see sauntering across campus with no worries except their performance on their “big” exam, that middle class privilege is exposed when walking down East Fordham Road. At the train station, there are numerous homeless folks sleeping under the entrance and on the benches. Peoples’ faces seem to tell the stories of struggle and tribulation, and just by glancing at them one can see that they have had a difficult life.

Although I have walked up “the hill” to the D train countless times before, the sense of awkwardness is still as prevalent as it was the very first time I took the pilgrimage to reach the subway. I realize that I am uncomfortable when confronted by the poverty surrounding Fordham. Climbing the hill to the D train, Spanish music blasts from the electronics store, and New York-grown rap plays from the innumerable sneaker stores that line the road. I feel as though everyone that passes me looks at me strangely, as if I made a wrong turn and ended up far off of my intended path. This feeling of discomfort is only heightened by the sexual commentary spewed out of a surprising amount of men.

As we inch closer to the D, the catcalls only begin to intensify. I find myself being dubbed “white girl” by the various men lining East Fordham Road. One man amusedly names me “snowflake.” It is easy to imagine my uneasiness. Being attacked for my gender is not something that I am used to facing on an everyday basis inside Fordham’s gates. When we finally arrive at the subway station, relief radiates from me.

I feel markedly more comfortable once I sit on the train. On the subway, everyone seems to be responsible to each other. In such close quarters, if abuse of any sort is observed, many feel obligated to step in and prevent it from continuing. The train builds a sense of comradery among passengers that is not present on the open streets.  Outside, anonymity protects the catcallers.

While being watched by people was the root of my earlier discomfort on the walk up to the subway, I find myself committing a variant of this same voyeuristic misdemeanor once comfortably on the train.  Indulging in the delight that is “people watching” on the D, I observe a sea of different commuters. There is an old Latina woman reading her book, seemingly trying to escape from the here and now. I see a young couple embracing, completely oblivious to the world around them, perfectly enamored with each other. I see a wild little boy cantering from one side of the train to the next trying to entertain himself by flying back and forth at the speed of light. I find myself wondering where his parents are, and why they aren’t taming their unruly child. As the subway travels further and further away from the Bronx, the demographics within the train noticeably shift.

I reach the exit at 86th street, excited by the prospect of being surrounded by a throng of contrastingly different peoples. A businessman sprints by me, clad in an expensive suit and fancy shoes, looking as if he were late for an extremely important meeting. A tall, thin, beautiful Norwegian-looking model-type casually strolls towards the subway, seeming as if the commotion does not phase her slightly. I now am confronted with the opposite of what I encountered on East Fordham Road: extreme wealth. Those walking around the Upper East Side are completely impartial to those around them, unlike those who lined the streets of the Bronx. While people commented on my presence as I walked up to the D train, as I stroll down Park Avenue, I am easily ignored by those who have “better” things to worry about.

I clumsily (but not unexpectedly) trip on the sign of a homeless man sitting on a street corner hoping that someone will donate a few dollars. I am struck by the sadness that I feel when this happens. In the Bronx, it is impossible to ignore the poverty that is present because of its high concentration. On the Upper East Side, poverty is so simple to ignore, because of its disparity. It literally took my tripping upon a homeless man to notice the poverty present on this side of town. As I neared the entrance of the Met, I found myself thinking about this striking contrast.

As I attended the “Roof Garden Commission: Dan Graham with Gunther Vogt” event on the rooftop of the Met, I was prepared to be mesmerized by the art and the eclectic views of the city. My friend and I made our way up to the Dan Graham event, and marveled at the gorgeous Roman busts and Hellenistic statues that pointed us towards the contrastingly modern elevator that took us up to the rooftop.

When the elevator doors slid open and I stepped outside their doors, I was spellbound by the jaw-dropping views of the city. I had never been atop a building in New York City before, and the sheer perfection of the view was striking. As I looked out over the verdant Central Park, I was astounded that centuries-old trees and expansive foliage could be framed so perfectly by the industrially crafted skyscrapers. The Park represented the peace and tranquility that is comparable to my small hometown of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The skyscrapers and buildings represented industrialization and the magnificence of the modern urbanized world.

Dan Graham’s artwork reflects the image of the city, magnifying its beauty. For the past 50 years, Graham has connected architectural pieces with the forms of life that surround them through writing, photography and video. Beginning in the late 1970s, Graham began to migrate s to create sculptural pieces that shape and reflect the area around them. Graham’s sculpture at the Met consists of curves of steel and two-way mirrored glass. Gunther Vogt, a Swiss landscape architect, aided Graham in designing the landscaping layout for the area surrounding the piece to optimize Graham’s point of view. The sculpted artwork creates somewhat of a maze, paving a way for the viewer to walk around the rooftop and gaze at the image of the city that surrounds the structure. Sheena Wagstaff, the Museum’s Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, describe’s Graham’s work as  “a new form of quixotic landscape architecture that combines nature and community within a city environment.”  The art is sleek and futuristic. Just as its modernized finish reflects the industrialized city that it is located in, its mirrored walls quite literally reflect the gorgeous New York City skyline.

As my friend and I took a few steps forward, we could clearly see ourselves, marveling at the “take your breath away” backdrop of the New York City skyline spanning out wide behind us. This piece of art, in simple terms, made me think. It made me recall upon my awkwardness earlier in a crowd of people unlike myself. It made me recount the people whose lives seem to be poles apart, sharing a subway seat. As I looked at my reflection in the mirrored walls of the installation, surrounded by hundreds of people vastly different from myself, I wondered why I ever really felt like an outsider within this city. If it reflected hundreds of the same type of person, there would be no intriguing colors, or shapes, or patterns to observe. Graham’s artwork takes advantage of the diverse population of New York, and utilizing the mirrored walls, makes it possible for the viewer to reflect on oneself within the urban jungle. It highlights the differences in class, and in a much more beautiful way, blends all classes together into an image that seems much more cohesive than walking the streets of New York may feel.

Dan Graham’s Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout finds its splendor in the beauty of its surroundings. The magnificent sculpture does not rely solely on itself to be an interesting form of art, but draws upon the exquisiteness of New York and its people to stand out among the rest. The Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout is an installation that makes the observer ponder their life and the way that they look at things. As I gazed at this creation, I began to think about my own life and my point of view on everyday affairs. Should I feel uncomfortable being different in any sort of environment?

 

Cited:

http://www.lissongallery.com/artists/dan-graham

http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2014/roof-garden-dan-graham

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