This May, an artist of a different stripe
brings his outsized visions to the Grand Palais.
IN 1967—a year before rioting students barricaded the streets of Paris and brought the capital to a standstill—a rebellious young artist named Daniel Buren led his own all-out assault on the establishment. Just as the soixante-huitards would thumb their noses at authority, young Buren taunted the art world’s old guard.
Quietly and anonymously, he fly-posted large green-and-white striped sheets of paper on walls throughout the capital, covering posters summoning Parisians to vote for local politicians or catch a new movie. Buren’s mystery manifestos looked like wallpaper; at the time, no ordinary passerby would have mistaken them for art.
Forty-five years have elapsed. Buren—still deploying the same striped motif—is now a full-fledged member of the cultural establishment that he lampooned and France’s best-known living artist. Reflecting his standing in the art world, he has been invited to take over the cavernous Grand Palais this May with a site-specific commission as part of the five-year-old Monumenta series. (His forerunners: Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Christian Boltanski and Anish Kapoor.) Like his fellow artists, he will be given carte blanche to fill the space in the building’s expansive glass-domed nave.
“It’s one of the most complicated spaces that could ever be given to an artist,” says Buren. “And it’s a major risk to accept the invitation. You can make something that is extraordinary and seen by a huge audience, or you can make something that is a big flop—a very visible flop.” The challenge, he says, is not the size of the Grand Palais—that doesn’t faze him—it’s the building’s “strong visual and physical characteristics.”
The exhibition organizers seem confident that he is up to the task, citing his “capacity to establish a critical and visual dialogue with the places he takes over.” This quality, they say, makes him “an especially well-suited choice to respond to the unique challenges posed by Monumenta.”
While the Grand Palais project will no doubt attract considerable international attention, it is unlikely that this or any of his other installations will eclipse the fame of the zebra-striped marble columns he inaugurated in 1986 in the 17th-century courtyard of the Palais Royal. Viciously attacked by critics while under construction, the columns were quickly embraced by the visiting public and have since become a famous and beloved Paris landmark (see sidebar, page 43).
AT 74, BUREN remains something of a rebel, steadfastly honoring his iconoclastic artistic vision. Despite the dismissive sneers that his ubiquitous stripes have occasionally provoked over the years, he has stuck with them. Rather than reaching for paintbrush and canvas or producing shiny and expensive sculptures as some of his peers have done, he has stayed true to his fly-posting, soixante-huitard self, tirelessly taking over surfaces and spaces with his signature stripes. Since the 1960s, these have included staircases, train doors, windows, glass domes, awnings and even the waistcoats of museum guards. And Buren’s work has sprung up everywhere from Berlin’s Ministry of Labor to Tokyo’s Odaiba Bay and Beijing’s Temple of Heaven.
Known to Joe Public as “the stripe guy,” he has no shortage of supporters among museum directors and curators around the world. But he still has his detractors. “Buren’s work can cause irritation and even jealousy among those who never bother to take their feet out of their pantoufles,” says Anne Baldassari, director of Paris’s Picasso Museum. She knows the artist well, having published a book of conversations with him and, in 2008-09, hosted a Buren in situ installation at her museum. “Some critics’ reactions remind me of the comment made since the early 20th century about Picasso’s work: ‘Any child could do that.’
“Does painting mean working with a brush, a palette and a little bit of color? Daniel Buren’s answer is no,” she explains. “He has selected and created his own visual tool by working with an existing tool: inexpensive fabric. Once you realize that fabric is his can of paint, you focus on what he actually does with it. He questions and transforms the urban environment, gives us something different to look at.”
Buren himself would not put it differently. His aim, he says, is to take art off its pedestal, out of its museum or gallery “packaging.” No more idol-worshipping of an artwork or of its maker, no more banking on the object’s marketability: Buren’s art is site-specific and often ephemeral.
“Most of my work can exist only in the place it is made for,” says the artist. “Ninety-eight percent of what I’ve done can be seen, examined, consumed or destroyed only in that location. I put the packaging in the work, and vice versa.”
If viewers find his contributions monotonous, so be it. “To say that the stripes are repetitive is to conclude exactly what I intended, both in practice and in theory,” he shrugs. “It’s as if you said, ‘Jackson Pollock’s work is completely silly because he doesn’t use a paintbrush.’ Pollock didn’t invent dripping so that he could use a paintbrush.”
Decades on, he continues to reinterpret his preferred leitmotif in daring and unexpected ways. Last year, his exhibition at London’s 45-year-old Lisson Gallery included arrangements of wall-mounted rectangles and squares of striped fabric made from woven fiber optics, a technique he developed in collaboration with the famous Lyon silkmaker Brochier. Their blue, red, green and orange stripes cast a soft glow on the walls when lit; when turned off, they resembled sheets of simple white linen.
Buren is a familiar presence at Lisson, which has represented the artist since the early 1970s. “In the mid- to late-’60s, when I was still quite young, I became very interested in and attracted to conceptual and minimal art,” says gallery founder Nicholas Logsdail. “We invented a whole new set of rules and a brave new world, and Daniel was very much a part of that.”
Logsdail sold three of the Buren pieces in the recent Lisson show and points out that the artist’s early works now fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the in situ installation Buren mounted in the back of the gallery—a mezzanine-like construction with transparent panes of different shades casting pools of color on the floor and ceiling—may be sold to architects, who are thinking about incorporating it into a building.
“Throughout his life, Daniel has been like a dog with a bone, reiterating and reiterating his ideas and his position with his work, in a very un-rhetorical way,” says Logsdail. “It’s extraordinary what he’s done, and beautiful. It is the artists who have an authentic history, one that is not manufactured for commercial purposes, who are held in the highest esteem the longest.”
DANIEL BUREN was born in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt in March 1938—a year before the start of the Nazi occupation. His parents were stenographers. Buren discloses little, however, about his childhood and adolescence, insisting that his personal life offers no clues to understanding his oeuvre.
“About my childhood, I will say nothing,” he says kindly but firmly. “An artist’s life story is not very interesting compared with the work he does. What I object to most is that discussing an artist’s past puts the individual before the work; I’ve always wanted to promote the work over and above all else.”
Baldassari of the Musée Picasso empathizes with Buren. Excessive media exposure can be detrimental, she points out, as it was in Picasso’s case. “People will forever be talking about Picasso the child prodigy, Picasso the lady-killer and so on. And it’s rubbish, complete nonsense. It did a profound disservice to the understanding of his art. What Daniel Buren wants to convey through his analytical, transformational work is the knowledge that can lead to a better grasp of artistic practice. He refuses to pose as the omnipotent, omniscient artist dispensing words of wisdom.”
Buren does acknowledge that his talent got him noticed when he was barely out of his teens. Shortly after graduating from Paris’s Ecole nationale supérieure des métiers d’art, he was lucky enough to receive a special commission: to create wall paintings for the Grapetree Bay Hotel in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. An admirer of Matisse, Picasso and Léger as well as of Mexican mural painters such as José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Buren spent a year making giant figurative paintings of dance, music and sporting activities—and got the practice out of his system once and for all.
“In one stroke, I was able to shake off a whole way of expressing myself, of painting, of creating figurative works,” he remembers. “In one year, I was able to get rid of what otherwise, without that opportunity, would have taken me years to eliminate.”
Five years later, in 1965, the hotel’s owners invited him back to create large mosaics, which he did, using pebbles, broken plates, chipped ashtrays, discarded tiles and whatever else he could lay his hands on. (The works were all destroyed in a hurricane years later.)
He also began making paintings on large bed sheets—the only material he could find in sufficient quantity on the island. They, in turn, led him to the fabric that would change his life: awning canvas that he picked up at the Marché Saint Pierre in Montmartre in the mid-1960s. It came in different colors with stripes that were each 8.7 centimeters wide.
“I went looking for material that would be larger than the bed sheets, and that’s when I found the awning fabric,” he recalls. “I started working with it, and from then on, I never worked with anything else.”
THOUGH HE WON both the Prix Lefranc and the Prix de la Biennale de Paris in 1965, Buren found the art world ossified and ripe for change. Unable to overhaul the system alone, he banded together with three other artists: Michel Parmentier, Niele Toroni and Olivier Mosset.
Together they put on three happenings. In one, at the 1967 Salon de la Jeune Peinture, the trio played a tape recording that said “Nous ne sommes pas peintres” (“We are not painters”). In another, which took place in the lecture hall of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, they had a seated audience stare at four similar-looking square canvases. Buren’s was a piece of his favorite fabric with a couple of the white stripes painted over—in white.
By this time, Buren was aware of the work of his peers across the pond: Ad Reinhardt, who for years painted the same black paintings, and Robert Ryman, who produced only white canvases. The Frenchman was honored when in 1971 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York invited him (as one of four European artists) to take part in its Sixth International Exhibition—alongside the crème de la crème of American art: Ryman, Serra, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre and Robert Morris. Each was assigned an individual booth on Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling ramp.
Buren decided to festoon the circular building with his signature stripes by dropping a 60-foot banner from dome to floor. Another exterior banner would connect the two Guggenheim buildings. The selection committee approved the proposal. Yet the day before opening, artists Judd and Flavin declared they would walk out if Buren’s project wasn’t removed. Judd called Buren “a paperhanger,” and Flavin termed the installation “a ruthless negative gesture intended to advance his marginal career.” Buren bitterly withdrew, later recalling how hard it was for him to get another New York gallery show. (The Guggenheim would make up for it in 2005 by giving Buren a solo show.)
Buren continued his interventions in buildings and institutional sites until 1986, when his zebra columns went up in the Palais Royal courtyard. It was a watershed year. He also represented France at the Venice Biennale, covering the century-old French pavilion—inside and out—with thin mirrored strips that reflected the surrounding gardens; the installation won the Golden Lion award.
Over the years, Buren has occasionally stepped outside the framework of his in situ works. In 2007-08, he curated a thought-provoking exhibition in which Sophie Calle had friends react to a rejection letter from her boyfriend. In 2010, he designed a silk scarf for Hermès— an expensive item (about $7,000) created with an inkjet printer at the Hermès work-shops in Lyon. Buren went on to design 365 different carrés. While each is eminently frameable, the artist insists that they are meant to be worn.
After Monumenta, Buren will take his stripes on the road—or rails, to be more precise. Seven of his 8.7 cm bands, alternating in black and white, will run vertically down the edges of the sliding doors of Tours’s new tramway. Slated to go into service in 2013, the futuristic vehicle is being touted as “architecture in motion.” Overhangs above the rails in each station will have matching stripes, indicating to travelers where the doors will open when the next tram arrives. In 2016, British commuters will get their own Buren treatment: The artist has been commissioned to create a permanent installation inside the London Underground’s Tottenham Court Road station. Some 200,000 people file through Tottenham daily, making it an even more visible platform than Monumenta.
Monumenta 2012 will be held at Paris’s Grand Palais May 10 through June 21; monumenta.com.