Action Française

New York

Left: The scene at the opening. Right: Daniel Buren and Alison Gingeras.

Daniel Buren’s exhibition “Eye of the Storm: Works in Situ” opened Thursday night at the Guggenheim, with a three-tiered scale of exclusivity: ultra-privée at 6:00, when director Thomas Krens made his opening remarks, hailing this as a “great night for France;” 7:30 (my ticket); and 9:00 for la foule. It seemed that the entire French art world—or at least that of a certain generation—had turned out for the US apotheosis of un trésor national. The charming Lucien Terras served as my chaperone through Frogville, introducing me to Pompidou director Alfred Pacquement and Buren himself, who was attired in a black-velvet Mao jacket—a sartorial echo, perhaps, of les soixante-huitards? “I don’t know who is left in Paris,” Terras remarked. “They’re all here.”

Among the notables: Pompidou president Bruno Racine, Suzanne Pagé of the Musée Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and Gilles Fuchs, the president of the Agence pour le Dévelopement International de l'Art Français, which each year administers the Pompidou’s Prix Marcel Duchamp. Fuchs is widely known on the French art scene for rallying collectors to concerted actions for the aggrandizement of contemporary French art, and he was likely a moving force in bringing so many of them to New York for Buren’s triumph. Orlan—art-world precursor to Extreme Makeover—was in full force, with silver-glitter bumps in her forehead and a veritable turret of parti-colored hair.

The exhibition, curated by Lisa Dennison, Susan Cross, and Alison Gingeras, is beautiful and works differently depending on whether it’s seen during the day, when the magenta gels with which Buren covered the skylight give the rotunda a warm, diffuse ambiance, or at night, when the sharp white lighting creates an antiseptic, echt-modernist look. But Buren’s “return” remains inescapably ironic regardless of all the celebratory oohing and aahing. His mirrored tower is a response to his first, disastrous experience at the museum, the Sixth International Guggenheim Exhibition in 1971. To refresh your memory: In October 1970, Thomas Messer, then the museum’s director, sent a letter to twenty-four artists from around the globe, inviting their participation in the show, which was overseen by associate curators Edward Fry and Diane Waldman; twenty-one accepted, among them Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Mario Merz, and the young Buren. The most striking part of Buren’s contribution to the show was an immense cotton canvas with alternating blue and white stripes, suspended just a few feet below the museum’s skylight and extending down the rotunda to just a few yards from the floor. But before anyone had even seen the show (which was to prove a resounding failure with the critics, who much preferred “Information,” Kynaston McShine’s roughly concurrent international survey at MoMA), museum officials had removed Buren’s piece without informing him, much less asking for his consent. “The censorship was particularly curious considering that the organizers had previously fully approved of Buren’s installation,” Alexander Alberro wrote in a detailed essay on the fracas in October a few years back. “[T]he same [Guggenheim officials] that identified avant-garde art as work that ‘questions previous art styles, particularly those that directly preceded them’ (as Waldman wrote in the exhibition catalog) were now ‘eliminating’ Buren’s installation because it was 'in direct conflict with the work of other artists in the exhibition.'” All but five artists in the show signed a petition objecting to the removal of Buren’s work: Andre withdrew his piece in protest. (The five nonsigners were Flavin, Kosuth, De Maria, Judd, and Heizer.)

Left: Amalia Dayan and Stefania Bortolami. Middle: Ramon Gilsanz, structural engineer of Buren's mirrored tower. Right: Melia Marden.

I asked Buren whether the show is a kind of triumphal rejoinder to the 1971 imbroglio, and he replied, “Yes, one could see it that way.” I don’t know how else to see it; the very title of the exhibition reads as an allusion to the old controversy, with the museum’s rotunda as the “eye of the storm,” past and present. Unlikely that this historical background was on many of the revelers’ minds, though, as they swilled glasses of the Australian “champagne,” Jacob’s Creek. “C’est vrai que le champagne est australien?” Terras queried one of the (French) bartenders. “Oui, c’est vrai,” he answered with a shrug. “Il n’est pas cher.