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For almost forty years, Daniel Buren has challenged the dominant systems of cultural production and reception, mounting a two-pronged attack consisting of an ongoing series of in situ works that reveal the often-invisible institutional framework that structures cultural experience, and his voluminous body of writings, an independent project of theory, philosophy, and commentary on art. The rigor of his project is exemplified by his continual employment of what he terms his “visual tool” (vertical 8.7 cm stripes on either a clear or white background). This rigor has made Buren’s work among the most interesting and important of the neo-avant-garde; it is a critical investigation that can be interpreted not simply as a negation (the end of art), but rather as an attempt to create a new form of art, through installations, demonstrations, and writing, that would be critical, self-reflexive, and revealing of its own institutions.
Buren’s most recent work was featured in a major exhibition, originally called a retrospective, entitled Le Musée qui n’existait pas (The Museum That Did Not Exist), which ran June 26–September 23, 2002, at the Musée d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Buren is one of the most well-respected and widely exhibited contemporary French artists, and has represented his country in several official exhibitions, including the 1986 Venice Biennale, where he won the Lion d’Or, but this was his first solo show at the Centre Pompidou. In many ways Buren is an odd choice for a retrospective exhibition, as his work, a practice of institutional critique that subverts the market through in situ installations, denies the collectable object, the very foundation of most retrospectives. Yet Buren was certainly overdue for a reevaluation, particularly now, in light of recent conservative shifts in art production and a wave of highly publicized museum expansions.
For this exhibition, organized by Centre Pompidou curators Bernard Blistène, Allison Gingeras, and Laurent Lebon, Buren reconfigured much of the museum through visual and sound installations designed to challenge the conceptions of a retrospective and of the museum itself. As Buren wrote in the accompanying brochure, “The exhibition emerges from visible and invisible limits (the museum’s architecture, its division into different sections, its signage; the museum and its history, its collections, its administrative rules, its budgetary constraints…).” The majority of the show was on the sixth floor, where Buren plotted the 2,500 square-meter space as a matrix of seventy-one units, on which he constructed the walls and dividers for a series of sixty-one “cells.” This system of cells, which Buren termed “the device,” continued beyond the designated gallery space to include Philippe Starck’s outdoor restaurant and the museum terrace. Several cells contained films, projections, or installations (including his celebrated les cabanes éclatées and les cabanes implosées); others were left unoccupied. The viewer was allowed to wander among the constructed spaces, many of which were either connected by doorways framed in stripes or blocked by mirrored surfaces. Buren’s labyrinth denied the possibility of a passive viewing experience, as it forced the viewer to actively navigate the museum space now made unfamiliar. The mirrors (and the optical illusions they produced) made the spaces resemble more a game-board or a funhouse than an art institution. However, several of Buren’s installations immediately undermined this levity. Particularly striking was a sterile, white room, bare save for a wall of monitors and an office chair. Upon closer inspection, one could see that the screens were displaying museum visitors live from tiny cameras hidden in the corner of each cell. The knowledge of this surveillance was especially disconcerting, as this room was encountered approximately midway through the exhibition, leaving the viewer to stroll through the remainder of the spaces with the knowledge that every movement was being transmitted. Appropriately, there was also a retrospective of the work of French filmmaker Jacques Tati in Paris at the same moment as Buren’s exhibition; as one wandered the cells, it was impossible not to feel like Monsieur Hulot in Playtime (1967), disoriented and attempting to navigate through a labyrinth of white cells.
Buren’s signature stripes were presented as projected images and decorative touches spread among doorframes, borders, and ornamental sections of various installations. In fact, the exhibition was dominated by color—large, bright sheets of color, both transparent and opaque—that created an almost overwhelming decorative effect. However, these pieces transcended mere visual pleasure to reflect a deeper examination, perhaps expressing an engagement with a particularly French history of art. As the light filtered through the transparent blocks of color, leaving multihued shadows on the polished white ground, Buren’s work recalled the stained glass of Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres or, more appropriately, Paris’s Saint Chapelle, while also evoking the Impressionists’ concern with optics, Georges Seurat’s investigation of color and light, and a Fauvist’s love of color contrast.
Perhaps the strongest piece in the exhibition was Autour du retour d’un retour (1988–2002), in which Buren addressed the controversy that surrounded Les Deux Plateaux, his 1985 sculptural installation at the Palais-Royal. For this newer work, Buren reused sections of the wooden barricade that had surrounded the construction site at the Palais-Royal to create an installation of stacked rectangular forms. While the interior of the piece consisted of the signature red and white stripes that had lined the barricade, the exterior was the plain wood still covered with graffiti that expressed opinions on “Buren’s columns” (as the piece came to be known), ranging from support for the project, to aesthetic criticism, to violent condemnation of Buren and Jack Lang, the Socialist Minister of Culture who had commissioned the work. Buren brilliantly exposed the virulence of much of these judgments in the installation, which included an audio track of various voices reading selected commentary from the height of the controversy from sources such as the journal Le Figaro (which had led the opposition), art critics, government workers, and the metaphorical “man on the street.”
On the lower level, Buren created an installation, entitled Le Parking—a pristine indoor parking lot full of brand new, highly polished Renaults—through which the viewer was invited to walk or to witness others doing so from either the main floor or via the video screens placed at the information desk, which transmitted a live surveillance feed. Perhaps the most enigmatic installation at the Centre Pompidou, Le Parking evoked recent commodity-driven museum exhibitions and, quite possibly, was also a witty reference to Les Deux Plateaux, once again, as that controversial work occupies the former site of a government parking lot.
The exhibition was not limited to the museum and continued throughout Paris itself, reflecting Buren’s practice of working both inside and outside of the institutional sphere in order to make the its framework visible while also allowing the possibility that outside of this frame his work could be freed from an artificially imposed viewpoint. With the reconstruction of Les couleurs: sculptures, a work from 1975–77, Buren’s signature stripes were planted as flags atop some of the most famous rooftops in Paris—including La Bibliothèque Nationale, Le Grand Palais, Le Panthéon, Le Musée du Louvre, Les Galeries Lafayette, L’Université Paris VI, and the offices of Le Figaro. From viewfinders installed on the museum’s top floor, one could take in a panorama of Paris with Buren’s flags fluttering beside “les couleurs”—the official French flag. In addition to Les couleurs: sculptures, the work Les formes: peintures (1976–78) was recreated for the exhibition and installed among the permanent collection on the third and fourth floors, where Buren’s striped canvas was cut to scale and placed behind celebrated paintings such as Theo Van Doesburg’s Peinture pure (1920), Francis Picabia’s L’Oeil Cacodylate (1921), and Jackson Pollock’s Painting (1948), hidden from the viewer save for a sliver of material visible beneath the frame and a wall label that indicated its presence. The only pieces previously exhibited, Les couleurs: sculptures and Les formes: peintures served an important role in the exhibition, acting as a linchpin between Buren’s earlier works that directly engaged painting and those that expressed more architectural concerns, such as the cabanes éclatées, begun in 1975.
Like the exhibition, Mot à Mot, the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, defies traditional expectations. Rather than the standardized format of neatly divided sections composed of curatorial essays, illustrations, a timeline, and an index, this book is structured as a lexicon containing excerpts from texts, photographs of works, reproductions of personal letters detailing the production and installation of projects, reprints of newspapers, installation shots, and exhibition announcements. Mot à Mot strictly adheres to this nonchronological, nonhierarchical system of organization, running from Affichage (Posters), which is subdivided into entries on famous works such as his affichages sauvages, hommes-sandwichs, and papier collé 1967–1999, to Zigzag, the last entry. A notable exception to the system is the dedication at the beginning of the catalogue to the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose notes for a proposed “intervention” to accompany the exhibition are included under the heading “comprendre,” meaning both “to comprise” and “to understand.” The dialogue between Bourdieu and Buren would have been an important one, not only for Bourdieu’s insight into the artist’s creations, but because both men’s work has been structured by an attempt to investigate, to reveal, and, ultimately, to challenge the dominant role occupied by “symbolic capital” in the cultural field.
Buren’s method of classification and categorization not only implies an “official” system for filing information, but it is perhaps as good a method as any for allowing an understanding of a career that has been characterized by a continual challenge to the systems and codes through which culture is processed. Initially, the catalogue’s arrangement can be frustrating, as guides—such as a master index, bibliography, or a table of contents—are absent, forcing one to navigate the book in an unconventional manner. But with this organization, Buren effectively challenges the concept and effectiveness of a retrospective catalogue or any career survey, showing instead the impossibility of adequately explaining almost forty years of complex work through a single book or source, however large. In the place of curatorial essays, Buren supplies fragments of text (both his own and others’, some published, others previously unreleased), reproduced photographs, and exhibition announcements. Ultimately, Buren makes visible the power of the institution while providing a radical new possibility for a retrospective catalogue that would minimize institutional control and allow both the artist and the reader an increased autonomy. Navigating this book, one notices the continuity of Buren’s concerns and practices, such as the critique of institutions, the exposure of the mechanisms of culture, and the empowerment of the viewer, to name but a few, while simultaneously appreciating the range of his career.
Department of Art History, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York