French Painter, Sculptor, Conceptual Artist
Summary of Daniel Buren
Daniel Buren has predominately been painting 8.7cm-wide vertical stripes for half a century. However, unlike those by many of his contemporaries, Buren's stripes are political. Pasted on top of adverts, plinths, and installed antagonistically in royal courtyards, his work remains critical of a world construed of images and hierarchies of power. He has taken abstract painting, Conceptualism and Minimalism out of the galleries that these movements are so dependent on, democratizing abstract modernist art practices, which, particularly in the 1960s, relied heavily on controlled, 'pure' museum encounters. He often works with other artists and architects in an unusual fashion - not collaborating with existing creative, but rather inserting his work into a relationship with established architectural spaces. In this way he asserts the idea that no artist works completely independently, but rather exists in defined geographies and histories.
- Daniel Buren valued repetition, abstraction, and even boredom and made work that was non-representational, and even anti-representational. He believes that viewers' encounters with forms, shapes, and color, could be more meaningful than encounters with naturalistic or semiotic images and aims to allow a freedom of interpretation and enjoyment in his works.
- In French theorist Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1967) Debord writes that everyday social relations between people have been supplanted by relationships between images. This image-based life follows the regression of subjects under capitalism from being (humans) to having (commodities) to appearing (as representation). In his early work, Buren literally effaces images of commodities in advertising, by pasting over them with abstract (non-representational) stripes.
- The imperative of 'art for art's sake' is central to Buren's practice. This idea states that art exists in and for itself and its viewers, and doesn't need to be made in the service of emotional, moral or didactically politically ideals.
- Despite the above assertion, Buren's anti-establishment sensibilities found its way into his art, which often intentionally disrupts respected spaces, for example his gigantic hanging fabric in the middle of the Guggenheim's spiral, and his squat geometric striped columns in the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris.
Progression of Art
Daniel Buren's Affichages Sauvages (savage/wild posterings) is a series of temporary works created by the artist in Paris 1968 and 1969. Buren produced printed sheets of paper bearing his signature 8.7cm-wide stripes. He then posted them in public places, often over existing billboards or other fly-posted advertisements, or on public buildings.
Here Buren acted without the permission of the authorities, challenging the limits of creative freedom and freedom of expression. His techniques reformulated the city as an endless canvas and exhibition space, indicating his detachment from the traditional art system and market, and challenging the institutional conventions for the 'proper' viewing and appreciating of abstract art. Buren's minimalist vandalism of advertisements (pasting stripes over entire billboards) demonstrated a particular desire to shift the way that people engage with the city environment; making people aware of the bombardment of images in public in the service of consumerism, and literally disabling this capitalist relation. Buren himself was involved in the 1968 student protests at the time of making these 'wild posters' and the piece shares tactics of détournement commonly used by protestors -turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.
The image used to represent this work is what Buren called a "photo-souvenir", something that documented his work in situ, which is the only place in which he believes it has an existence. He insists that the photograph is not the work of art, but only a "souvenir" of the original work, now lost. Taking abstract and conceptual work into the public realm using the DIY technologies of fly posters and advertisements remains an important, original, and highly influential practice, which can be seen in artists such as Jenny Holzer's posters a decade later.
Printed paper, temporary
Peinture Acrylique Blanches sur Rissu Raye Blanc et Vert
To create this work, Buren took a found standard piece of striped awning canvas (that also features his 8.7cm-wide stripes), and painted the outermost white stripes with white paint. The work is an important example of Buren's conception of 'Zero Degree Painting', in which he fundamentally challenged the premises on which painting is traditionally based.
In some senses, the work has the feel of a readymade, since Buren is simply displaying a pre-produced piece of awning canvas, of the type that was used to shade Parisian cafes. Initially, the work defies a relationship with painting, for example in the way that it is hung limply from the wall and not stretched over a frame like a traditional canvas. However, by presenting the fabric on the wall out of its original context, Buren draws the viewer's attention to the graphic qualities of the stripes, and to the indeterminate relationship between 'ground' and 'foreground' (is it white on green, or green on white?).
As art historian Guy Lelong further argues, "as soon as its outer stripes are painted over, the striped fabric necessarily evokes painting since it is directly confronted with it. A subtle dialectic is therefore established, since on the one hand the striped fabric evokes the painting partially covering it and, on the other, the form of the painted areas is 'dictated' by the ground's design."
White acrylic paint on white and green striped fabric - Collection of Alice and Lawrence Weiner, New York
In 1971, Buren was asked to take part in an exhibition at the Guggenheim, which invited artists to produce work in response to the building's unusual architecture, focusing on the central spiral designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Buren felt that Lloyd Wright's ascending design promoted a hierarchical 'top down' approach to the art on view, and his proposal was intended to challenge this relationship.
He produced a 20 x 10 meter canvas printed with blue and white stripes, which was hung in the middle of the rotunda and divided the space into two equal parts. Being closely integrated into the Guggenheim's architecture, Buren's work redefined it by blocking out the visitor's view of artworks on the other side of the rotunda as they travelled round it while going up the rotunda's ramp. Thus, his work uses easily perceived vertical stripes to produce a more horizontal viewing experience, with viewers being forced to move around each level carefully in order to see the work on show. As well as intervening in the existing gallery space, Peinture/Sculpture also aimed to challenge the viewer's traditional relationship with a work of art, as its placement forced the viewer to see the piece from every angle, taking up most of the visual space before being reduced to a single line when viewed from the side.
Art historian Guy Lelong argues that this relationship with the viewer became a key aspect of Buren's practice: "This double integration of the role of the viewer, leading him [sic] on the one hand to move around within the work instead of adopting a fixed point of view and, on the other, to visually perceive and therefore understand with a minimum of outside information the work's mechanisms, has remained a constant feature of Daniel Buren's work."
However, the public never saw the work, as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin argued that it obscured their own contributions, and under pressure, the Guggenheim removed it before the opening demonstrating the controversial character of Buren's site-specific stripe works.
Temporary work in situ - Guggenheim
For this project, Buren produced a 10cm-high length of red and white striped fabric, which he stuck around the top of the plinths of all the public statues in the city of Lyon. Called 'punctuations', the intervention aimed to draw the city-goer's attention to each sculptural monument, and also to the apparatus through which it is displayed.
As art historian and curator Ann Temkin argues, the pedestal of a public sculpture is intended to "stress the importance of a given painting or sculpture by means of furniture that is meant to go unnoticed". Temkin suggests that Buren uses the bold red and white stripes to draw the visitor's eye to this invisible furniture of display, both emphasizing and undermining its role. Buren's stripes emphasize the plinth's role as a facilitator of each statue, and the ideologies that the plinth literally upholds, or enables; sculptural monuments in a city can be read as contested sites of historical 'truths' as told by those in power at the time of their production.
Buren's intention is to force pedestrians into an encounter with both the statue or monument, and with his own artistic intervention, which highlights the political and artistic functions of the plinth itself. The fact that these 'punctuations' were spread throughout the city meant that viewers would often encounter versions of the work in different unexpected places, emphasizing the multi-faceted nature of the art experience in different environments.
Temporary work in situ - Lyon, France
Les Deux Plateaux
Les Deux Plateaux is a controversial large-scale installation in the inner courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris. The space used to be a car park, and the work was designed to conceal a number of ventilation shafts in the ground. Buren divided the space into a grid and placed columns of various heights in the center of each square. The columns are covered with Buren's stripes in black and white.
The shape of the columns reflects those used in the classical architecture of the surrounding building, encouraging the viewer's eye to switch between the modern installation and classical architecture. Les Deux Plateaux encourages visitors to reflect on the concept of architectural space and plays with ideas of depth and perception; utility and decoration. Part of the installation also continues underground, where water runs around the bases of some of the columns, which intersect grills.
The work was controversial because some critics felt that the incorporation of a large-scale contemporary work of art would distract from the architecture of the space, and that Buren's unserious striped columns were improper for a royal space. However, this is part of the meaning of the work. By inserting his work into a seat of royalty and subsequently of government, he encourages viewers to consider the bureaucratic functions of the Palais Royal and how art relates to these functions. As the historian Wim Denslagen puts it, the success of Les Deux Plateaux is "due to the fact that Buren, as a Marxist, was in full revolt against the establishment."
The work prompted a debate about how contemporary art should be allowed to interact with historical architecture - a debate that continues to be relevant to this day.
Site-specific installation - Palais Royal, Paris
Défini, Fini, Infini
In 2014, Buren was invited to create an installation on the roof of the Cité Radieuse, also known as the 'Unité d'Habitation', a building in Marseille designed by modernist architect Le Corbusier. The work is a key example of Buren intervening in spaces designed and created by others, and creating dialogues with other creative practitioners and histories.
Buren took over this liminal space and turned it into an environment in which visitors were encouraged to re-examine their encounter with both Le Corbusier's building, and with the city visible on every side. The installation is an important example of a shift in Buren's later work in which he began to incorporate other elements alongside his signature stripes, such as colored glass and mirrors.
In an interview, Buren compared the setting to his important work at Palais Royal: "It's like the Palais Royale, an eighteenth century building. There's a risk of being overshadowed by a masterpiece." However, Le Corbusier's architectural vision is in stark contrast to the Palais Royale, with the architect famously designing residential buildings towards a socialist utopia.
Buren has claimed that his work is never autonomous, arguing that it cannot exist without its context. Défini, Fini, Infini explores the concept of site-specificity, emphasizing Buren's radical point of view: "Maybe I am the only artist who insists on this condition because all the art that was produced from the beginning of time is declared to be autonomous. And for good reason, because if the artist does not believe in his work's autonomy it is not that interesting. But I take the liberty and risk to say - my work is not autonomous. My work is a part of everything around it and it has the power to transform everything around it."
Temporary installation - Cité Radieuse, Marseille
Biography of Daniel Buren
Daniel Buren is an artist who likes to keep his personal life private and insists on the separation between his autobiography and his work. Consequently, he shares very little about his private life and we know almost nothing about his childhood, except that he was born in Boulogne-Billancourt in France in 1938.
When asked how he goes about eliminating himself from his work, he replied: "That is a very personal, almost ethical position I developed when I was very young and one I feel is still very valid. Of course, I exist like anybody else, but I always try to put aside any personal elements from my practice. It's actually not tricky at all - I will always separate biographical information from what I am trying to say with my work. It doesn't inform it at all. If you ask me about childhood memories or what my favorite restaurant is, I won't answer. My taste is irrelevant."
He continues, "I could say anything. I could say my parents were great painters or they could be tennis stars..."
Early Training and Work
Buren studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers d'Art in Paris, graduating in 1960. In the early 1960s, he began painting as a form of conceptual art, dubbing it a "degree zero of painting". However, in 1965 Buren spent a year on Saint Croix, an island in the Caribbean, where he had been commissioned to produce frescoes for the Grapetree Bay Hotel. During this time, he eschewed traditional figurative or abstract painting in favor of creating work composed of 8.7cm-wide vertical stripes in white and one other color. This has been the main compositional component of almost all his work since.
Buren received considerable early success in Paris, winning both the Grand Prix at the Paris Biennale and the Prix Lefranc de la Jeune Peinture (prize for young painters) in 1965. Soon after this, he started working with Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni. Together, the four painters formed the group BMPT, whose aim was to disrupt and challenge traditional notions of authorship and exhibition. They also sought to produce paintings that were without extrinsic meaning or art historical references, focusing on the works' objecthood as paintings and attempting to eradicate the mystique and aura of art. Although he had already adopted his signature stripes when he started working with the group, BMPT's theories and approaches helped to develop and strengthen the logic behind his choice. He later explained that he selected this signature technique because "stripes are boring... the reason I use the stripes is because it is absolutely meaningless."
BMPT wanted to challenge the concepts of artistic talent and originality, as well as the genius of the individual artist. They did this by signing each other's work and by staging unexpected "happenings" (or "manifestations"); in one, the paying audience was forced to sit for an hour looking at four paintings which had ostensibly been hung as a backdrop to a conference that then never took place. Marcel Duchamp is said to have been impressed by how frustrating the experience was for the audience.
Buren's first major solo show was held at Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in 1968, during which he blocked the entrance to the gallery with his stripes. In May 1968, he also took part in the influential student demonstrations in Paris, sharing the protestors' anti-establishment feelings.
In 1969, Harald Szeemann curated the groundbreaking exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in Bern, Switzerland, in which process-focused and Conceptual artists were given the freedom to present avant-garde and experimental work in an institutional setting. All of Buren's artist friends were involved and although Szeemann had visited his studio while researching for the exhibition, he was not invited. Given that the premise of the exhibition was artistic freedom, Buren felt that he should be able to contribute despite this and so arrived in Bern three days before the show's opening to see how he might intervene. On arrival in the Bern Kunsthalle, Joseph Beuys asked Buren where his work was, and on discovering he had not been invited, offered Buren a section of Beuys' own large exhibition space to show his striped papers. On consideration Buren thanked Beuys, but instead made a statement outside the walls of the institution and covered billboards around the city in his signature stripes the night before the exhibition opening. His antics caused him to be arrested and he had to flee Switzerland to escape the authorities.
He says of this encounter: "I had the great help of two friends artists, Berndt Lohaus and Lawrence Weiner. With the little car I was renting to do so for the night, we covered the full city with striped papers white and pink. [...] Around three o'clock in the morning, I dropped my friends at their hotel and went back to mine. Around four o'clock, sleeping deeply, some heavy knocks shake my door. I wake up and stand up in front of two policemen in civilian clothes with pistols pointing toward me. They push me against the wall of my room and check under the bed where they find my striped papers and at the foot of my bed the bucket with the remainder of the glue and the brushes, which I hadn't yet washed. They took everything, asked me to dress myself and to follow them to the police station where they put me inside a cell! Then in the morning around nine o'clock some other policemen started to do an interrogation: what are you doing? Who are you? Why these papers? Why are they white and red? In fact, they were white and soft pink. Etc, etc".
A lawyer friend then helped secure Buren's release on the condition that he removed all of the pasted up stripes from the city, however he fled Switzerland without doing this, and eventually the case was dropped.
This was part of a series of guerrilla-style artistic interventions in public spaces made by Buren, who in the earlier stages of his career rarely had permission from the relevant authorities. In the late 1960s, for example, he embarked on a campaign of fly-posting posters of his black-and-white stripes around Paris (a series he described as affichages sauvages - "savage/wild posterings"), and in 1970 he illegally painted his stripes on benches around Los Angeles.
In 1971, Buren was invited to take part in a group show at the Guggenheim, which was intended to allow artists to explore unconventional aspects of the building. Buren created a large banner (66 by 32 feet), which was hung in the central space of the museum. However, artists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin complained that the work obscured their own pieces, and the piece was removed the day before the exhibition's opening. Buren later said in an interview, "That was bad for me", although he added, "It also turned against them." By this, Buren meant that although it was bad for his career to be excluded from the Guggenheim show at the time, his later success meant that Judd and Flavin were widely criticized for asking that Buren's work be removed.
In the 1970s, Buren engaged in a number of solo and collaborative performance pieces. These included a boat race in which all the yachts had sails were decorated with Buren's stripes, and a performance in Berlin alongside Jannis Kounellis, Wolf Vostell and other artists as part of ADA - Aktionen der Avantgarde.
By the 1980s, Buren was more focused on creating large-scale installations in public spaces. The most famous of these was his 1986 work Les Deux Plateaux in the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris. In the same year, Buren exhibited a solo pavilion for France at the Venice Biennale, and was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion award for his installation.
In recent years, Buren's work has become more interested in the architectural and in creating spaces that are both architectural in their own right and respond to the surrounding buildings. His later period has also been characterized by a series of permanent installations, including at Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.
In 2007, Buren contributed work once more to the Venice Biennale and also curated a selection of work by the younger installation, performance, and conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, for the French pavilion. Buren continues to make art, often working in public spaces. For example in 2017, Buren created a permanent site-specific installation in Tottenham Court Road London Underground station.
The Legacy of Daniel Buren
Buren's work has been influential on a wide range of artists. In particular, his espousal of a single artistic component throughout his career (the 8.7cm-wide stripe) has given confidence to other artists working only with a single technique or style over their careers, such as Rachel Whiteread and Bridget Riley. Buren's use of non-figurative stripes, and his methods of challenging the traditional ground-figuration relationship in painting, also influenced the Op artists.
His site-specific, large-scale installations in public spaces and in galleries are important models for installation and public art, for example the work of Richard Serra, as well as more contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson. Buren also effectively conveyed his ideas through his extensive writings, which were published collectively under the title Les Écrits in 1991 and 2012. These texts are often aimed at dismantling or dissecting the art establishment, for example by challenging the function of the museum; an idea that has since been influential on a number of later artists such as Sophie Calle.