Intersecting Axes: A Work in Situ
Daniel Buren has used striped material printed with alternating white-and-colored vertical bands, 8.7 cm. wide, since 1965. The radical decision to reduce the elements of his work to vertical stripes has played a major role in enabling Buren to redefine, and thus expand, the previous parameters of art. His countless exhibitions here and abroad since 1968 bear witness to the multiple possibilities of visual variety which his work engenders. The consideration of several major works accomplished over the last decade and a half suggest the range and nature of his particular artistic concerns.
For Buren the striped format is the means to an end, not an end in itself. It is not the stripes alone but the way in which they operate in relation to their placement which accounts for the meaning of each piece. While the repetitive, vertically striped pattern remains a constant feature, varying only with respect to color, each piece is unique, determined in every case with specific reference to its allotted context. The vertical strip itself offers no message, no expression, no painterly materiality. The commercially prefabricated material, thus spared the personal, interpretive touch of the artist, functions purely as visual fact.
Two works done in Paris during March and April of 1968 are seminal to Buren’s development and also are among the earliest pieces conceived outside the studio or outside the confines of the traditional exhibition space. For the first of these works, Buren adhered rectangular pieces of white-and-green striped paper to some two hundred billboards typically found in Paris and its environs, randomly placing the striped rectangles over or next to advertising images. In speaking of this work, Buren emphasizes that he did this piece anonymously and without prior permission—“without invitation without commercial support and without a gallery.” (1) The work existed, therefore, quite literally, outside the usual boundaries of art, as it was contained neither within the edges of a canvas stretcher not the conventional display system. Most clearly, the work bought the traditionally accepted methods of exhibiting art into question by deliberately circumventing the museum or art gallery structure.
The other work of this time similarly took issue with previous art practice, but functioned in direct connection with an existing institution, Le Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Having glued a large vertically-striped piece of paper, approximately fifteen feet high and fifty-four feet long, to the museum wall inside as his contribution to the Salon de Mai exhibition, Buren, in addition, hired two so-called “sandwich men” (frequently seen in Paris in those years, but no longer existing) to walk around the neighborhood outside the museum wearing their rectangular signboards. In place of the usual publicity—advertisements for shops, announcements for films, etc.—which they customarily transported through the streets above the heads of passers-by, Buren’s sandwich men wore signboards covered with the same green-and-white material used on the wall inside the museum. This work, which could be observed on the exterior of the museum as the striped signboards circulated anonymously through the streets, contrasted drastically with the static, labeled work inside. It pointed to the different conditions influencing the meaning of a work viewed on the premises of the museum as opposed to one viewed in the streets outside.
In an extraordinary diversity of ways in all works since, Buren has sought to analyze the dichotomy between the work of art and its non-art surroundings. To this end, each work by Buren is governed by factors found in the existing reality. Explaining, for example, the way in which he arrived at an early piece for the Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerp, in 1969, Buren described how pieces of striped paper the size of the poster for the show were applied to the flat plinth outside the gallery building. The stripes followed the contours of the plinth from a hydrant, which interrupted it at one end, to the entrance door at the other end, and through and into the gallery itself. Buren concludes, “The situation inside the gallery is thus dictated by the situation of the piece outside which uses the only space available as a result of the architecture given.” (2) The work extended outside of and beyond the normally designated art space, being based on, and inserted into, the context of a selected external situation.
Voile/Toile, Toile/Voile (Sail/Canvas, Canvas/Sail), a later work done in Germany in 1975-6, further illustrates how a given situation chosen by the artist determines the form each piece assumes. On September 20, 1975, a regatta of nine boats rigged with vertically striped sails of different colors—white and yellow, blue, green, red, orange, etc.—was launched for a race on the Berlin Wannsee. Propelled by the wind and steered by children, the sailboats could be watched from shore “carrying painted canvas sails.” (3) At a later date the striped sails were exhibited for a number of weeks at the Berlin Akademie der Kunste. Evenly spaced on one long wall, the sails were hung in the order in which the boats had arrived after the race. As Buren points out, “the form of this work is defined by the functions of the canvas in its capacity as sail.” (4)
Once on exhibit in the museum, the sails presented themselves as art works. Dependent on the existing reality, Buren’s work is freed from the limits of the framing edge and from the proscribed limits of the museum or gallery space. Like the earlier work at the Musee d’Art Moderne, Voile/Toile… simultaneously underlined and bridged the gap between the art and non-art context, between the interior and exterior of the exhibition area.
Every work of Buren both defines and is defined by its context, with which it is inextricably allied and from which it cannot be disassociated. The work may take place or be located in a public, non-art context, like the Paris billboard work, or, like the Berlin sailboat piece, may dialectically connect an art and non-art environment. Otherwise it may be physically contained within the traditional exhibition space itself. In each instance the work interacts with its setting, drawing attention to the nature of the given site with its accompanying set of circumstances.
A one-person exhibition at the Stadtisches Museum Monchengladbach, Germany, in 1975, offers one example of how contextual considerations provide work by Buren with its meaning. This work, A partir de la (Starting From), in a certain sense functioned as a retrospective, not of Buren’s work (a necessary impossibility) but of the museum’s own exhibition history dating from its opening on the former premises of a large private house in 1967. For this exhibition Buren used white-and-blue material on the ground floor, white and brown on the staircase, white and red on the floor above, applying the material to the walls of the individual gallery rooms of the museum. Wherever a painting—selected by Buren from any of the museum’s prior exhibitions—had actually been placed on the wall, Buren cut a rectangular section to scale out of the striped material, allowing the bare wall behind to become visible. By means of photographs documenting nearly a decade of exhibitions and with the help of Johannes Cladders, the director since the museum’s founding, Buren was able to distinguish a consistent pattern of approach to installation that the museum had followed and, by taking a cross-section of works from various shows, to derive a composite pattern of rectangular voids.
The Monchengladbach piece, in essence, foregrounded the background walls. The absence of the paintings created an awareness of their former, formal presence while the negative “unseen” spaces of the supporting walls behind became a dominant visual feature, the very subject of the work. (5) The work represents one of Buren’s many investigations into the traditional artwork’s framework and support, one of the many ways in which he has succeeded in questioning and revealing the hidden context by drawing this context into the content of a totally new work.
Buren maintains, “It is not a question of ornamenting (disfiguring or embellishing) the place (the architecture) in which the work is installed, but of indicating as precisely as possible the way the work belongs in the place and vice versa, as soon as the latter is shown.” (6) In addition, “the object presented and its place of display must dialectically imply one another.” (7) Intersecting Axes: A Work in Situ opens up a dialogue with the architectural space of The Renaissance Society. Wall partitions made by stretching white-and-orange, vertically striped fabric on a wooden framework extend from all four corners of the gallery’s outer shell, following the lines of an outlined X-shape of two bisecting corridors. The work, which must be entered to be viewed, possesses an independent architectural presence. It presents new architectural elements at its points of intersection while it depends nonetheless on the structure of the original, given space. The striped fabric walls interrupt the two parallel, free-standing white walls of the gallery while they also are themselves interrupted by them. The striped walls of Buren’s work foster a strikingly visual interchange with the two preexisting walls by challenging their former neutral backdrop status. The work cannot be seen as a single entity but must be experienced from many points of view—as must the space of which it is an integral part. Like all of Buren’s work, Intersecting Axes affects a reciprocal interdependence between the artwork and its place of being.
Daniel Buren in Discordance/Coherence, ed. Rudi Fuchs (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Holland: 1976), 4.
Daniel Buren in 9 ARbeiten von Daniel Buren: Voile/Toile, Toile/Voile (Berliner Kunstlerprogramm (DAAD) und der Galerie Folker Skulima, Berlin: 1975-76), n.p.
Daniel Buren, “Notes on Work in Connection with the Place Where it is Installed, Taken bewteen 1967-1975, Some of Which are Specially Summarized Here for the September/October Edition of Studio International,” Studio International, Sept./Oct. 1975, 124.