PRINT February 1981

The Works and Writings of Daniel Buren: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Contemporary Art

1. DB’S WORK EVIDENCES certain specifics that are well-known at this point. His work can be called a minimis (but not minimal). His materials have remained constant since 1965: vertical stripes of canvas or paper, alternately white and color, or alternating stripes of white and transparent plastic, each 8.7 centimeters wide. The height, breadth and shape of each piece varies according to site. The materials are either attached to a structure or are free-floating (paper on walls, on stairs, on banisters, on billboards, on warehouse loading docks, on roadsigns, on facades, on skylights, on train doors, on the pedestals of sculptures, on mirrors, etc.; vertically or horizontally suspended canvases in a museum, a gallery, outside; canvases raised like flags on poles, rigged like sails on masts, like restaurant awnings, etc.). The fact that the materials are in color tells us that DB’s gambit concerns the nature of painting (and of painted sculpture): it assumes that for as long as it looks, the eye that sees painting is, at the very least, able to distinguish among colors. The work addresses itself to that looking. Far from putting visual sensibility in parentheses, the work calls upon the eye’s full discriminatory capacities. The question addressed to that eye is: you who can see colors in a painting, can you see these? If not, why not? The fact that the materials remain constant, and are industrially produced, tells us that their manufacture—in other words, the expressiveness of the painting (or sculpting) agent—is not pertinent to this gambit. The fact that one or two of the white linen stripes are painted over (industrial paint) by hand tells us that the issue raised by DB’s work is not that raised by the Ready-made or the assisted Ready-made. The fact that at the end of an exhibition the material is often destroyed tells us that it is worth nothing in and of itself, but is only of value in situ.

2. It is, in effect, work in situ. Buren comes to a site to examine the characteristics of site: the placement of a gallery or museum, of a billboard, of structure in general, within the urban environment, within the architecture of the artplace, within the disposition of rooms, of exits, of staircases, of windows, of windowpanes, of hallways, with regard to local habits of installation, local traffic rhythms and directions, lighting, in the end all elements that from close up or from afar spatially determine the course of vision. Each of these variables differs according to site. The installation of the piece is subordinate to an awareness of this constellation of variables, that is to say to the awareness of site. It follows that no artwork of DB’s is portable. Each installation is particular and particularizing, one could even say monadic. By drawing attention to the site, installation rescues site from obscurity, shows it as an auxiliary to the work; it is shown to inflect value upon the work without declaring its own visibility. DB’s work questions the situational conditions which affect the way art is seen, but he questions them situationally, and through an eye that is itself conditioned by situation.

3. The work is tempore suo and follows its own temporal laws, forcing them to confront the laws of traditional presentation. Time acts upon an exhibition through several parameters. An exhibition can be permanent or temporary: DB’s are always temporary; when work is bought by a museum, contractual clauses, with utmost precision, dictate the conditions, especially the temporal conditions, under which the work is to be shown. The same applies to the acquisition of any of his works, as he made clear to prospective collectors in an Avertissement of 1970. Something which is temporary can be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. One work was shown in Brussels for 44 months (from 1/74 through 8/77); but the opening, which took place at the end of this period, had to last exactly two hours. Within the period of an exhibition, it is also necessary to consider the ramifications of the kinds of shifts in intensity that are associated with installing, opening, dismantling, different days of the week—all of which can affect the way in which a work is seen. All of these are socio-cultural variables, independent of the work since it, at such times, is thought of as completed. Counter-rhythms arise in the work during the course of an exhibition: modulations of pigment, of placement, of place. Modulations of this sort, by affecting the materials themselves and therefore the way they are perceived, on specific dates, impose a melodic curve upon the viewing of the material that stretches throughout an exhibition period. Combined with the quantitative meter of the presentation of the exhibition, this curve elicits rhythms, rhythms that disrupt and reconstruct the viewing process. They reveal the degree to which viewing art is subject to chronic, usually unconscious conditions.

4. These three properties sufficiently show that DB’s work deals with the way that works of visual art are seen, or, to be more precise, deal with the “conditions” of viewing them. Exactly what is meant by “deals with”? In terms of language “dealing with” means “having as a referent.” We know that within a syntactical universe the position of a referent is determined according to whether the referring sentence is cognitive, descriptive, fictive-descriptive, narrative, interrogative, prescriptive, etc. In allowing the hypothesis that DB’s work (the temporary installation of DB’s materials within a context) is analogous to a sentence, or to a group of sentences referring to this context, to what play of sentences does the work lend itself with regard to the conditions of viewing art? Does it prescribe something with regard to these conditions, does it describe them, define them, etc.? Answering this question requires that one analyze in detail, and for each “installation,” the way which DB’s work situates the condition of viewing in the context of the “installation.” Beginning with the very use of the word “condition,” we can assume that DB’s game is one of discovery. Its premise is to render visible the conductors of the viewing of art.

5. DB’s work measures itself in relation to these conditions by means of a general paradigm that seems to belong to the realm of pragmatics. In this work, the conductors affecting viewing are always those that guide a transmission (the exhibition) of a message (the work of art) from the transmitter (the artist, those responsible for the exhibition) towards a receiver (the public, the critics, the aficionados, the collectors) through a cluster of channels (form, pigment, support, location, cultural paradigm . . .). All of which brings to mind a problematic raised, in 1939, by the Office of Radio Research at Princeton University (Lazarsfeld, Lowell et al.): Who says what to whom in what channel with what effect? DB’s work derives from an analogous problematic. There is one important difference. One is struck by the absence of the referential factor that permeated the O.R.R.’s keynote question: the question addressed here is not about what? In DB’s work that which is said (what?), is largely ignored, while the referent itself is given prominent consideration (the “givens” of situs). Furthermore, the question with what effect? has already been answered by Buren: the effect of art. This so much so that the question raised by DB’s work should, instead, be formulated as follows: Who is painting, for whom, about what, on what channel and is it in order to produce the effect of painting?

6. In making this comparison between DB’s work and the O.R.R.’s research, I am suggesting an answer to the preceding question: the “sentences” which would make up the work would be contingent on time, in other words interro-negatives. The game played by DB’s work with the context of its referents, would consist of the question: isn’t the actual condition of site a pragmatic conductor for the effect of painting?

7. The conditions that are being addressed are pragmatic, not formal. Therein one can see that the question of signification (what?) has been neglected in DB’s work. That difficulties might arise in decoding the pictorial message, in other words in understanding its significance, seems inevitable when the code being used by the transmitter is unfamiliar to the receiver. That is precisely what happens when the work of art being shown is exotic or “innovative.” When the aggregate of rules that govern the lines and colors on a supporting structure is not known or wrongly known by the novice, transmission is difficult to achieve. What we are talking about here is a problem relating to communication codes (or to language, or to esthetic perception, etc.). One might have thought this to be the problem, par excellence, of painting. In Buren’s view it would be tantamount to locking oneself up in a semiotic abstraction. I believe his hypothesis to be more along these lines: the transmitter can always manage to decode a pictorial message if he places himself within the pragmatic conditions of its transmission. Indeed, only those conditions can make clear to the novice that a given assortment of colors, such as they are, means such; and it is only such a message if, whatever its specific significance, it always declares: I am a pictorial work. Because of this the institutional conductors, thanks to whom an assortment of colors plunked onto a supporting structure signals a “painting,” are the conditions necessary for any decoding.

8. However, by pragmatic conditions of the transmission of the message, which are also those conditions that posit the transmission as work of art, one has to understand a great deal more than the possession of a common code by the transmitter and the receiver: such possession is strictly a condition of communication. Any investigation of materials, pigment, tools, manufacture, support, frame and, of course, subject matter, will only yield insight into a small aspect of the pragmatics of viewing art. It will focus attention on the object, both visual and signifying, which constitutes the work of art. In so doing, it would omit invisible and subliminal conductors. On the side of commentary: esthetic theory, iconographic research, iconographical study, and semiotic readings, any discovery of the artwork’s pragmatic is screened out. The same is true for the other side, the artworks themselves: Ready-made, performance, land art, video, concept art, etc., each confronts only one or another of the conductors that produce the effect of painting. This is why artworks that emerge out of these techniques and schools could not possibly know how to free themselves from their market: the pragmatic conductors that have remained unthought, affect them as they do all others. The entire pragmatic, in all of its complexity, must be questioned, says Buren.

9. To this extent DB’s work is about inquiry. It is made up (hypothesis no. 4) of a play of interro-negative “sentences”; these sentences situate their own referents, those conductors deemed conducive to painting’s effect, as opportunity to discover (or to invent). Each installation is an experiment on a supposedly efficient conductor. Here follows an incomplete breakdown of these conductors of art-viewing: inside/outside, present/absent, now/before-after, recto/verso, above/ below, high up/low down, vertical/horizontal, not yet/already more, stationary/in motion, durable/ephemeral, unique/serial, free/anchored, enveloping/enveloped, centered/aside. . . . I leave it to the reader to recognize which of these is/are examined in any one or another of DB’s interventions. These interventions consist of making a mark, through the means of minimal materials, upon whatever option, be it included or excluded, that these conductors allow. The art institution, from the point of view of pragmatics, consists of an aggregate of choices, made explicitly or implicitly, out of an aggregate of conductors: does one install the piece in a gallery or outside (or both)? Will it be static or mobile? Will it be fixed or free-floating? If it is to be free-floating, will it be anchored on one side or several, stretched out flat or vertically suspended? Etcetera. The inquiry exists in locating the conductors, in locating the alternatives which they posit and the choices they allow. The inquiry proceeds by means of DB’s markings on time and place. It is “systematic” not because it follows a strategy, but because, from one site to the next, it taps out a new conductor: no intervention is identical to another, each newly-discovered conductor is distinct. DB’s work, therefore, at the mercy of circumstances attained through intervention, establishes a kind of general catalogue of the conductors of art-viewing.

10. If, now, we want to raise accurately the issue of the relationship between DB’s visual work and DB’s writings, we will have to first return to the hypothesis formulated in no. 4, according to which DB’s work (temporary installation of DB’s materials in a site) can be considered an analogue to a sentence referring to that site. The conductors questioned by DB’s work can modify the properties of an “object” situated in space-time because they are themselves of a spatio-temporal nature. Not logical conductors, not even language pure and simple, can transform “objects,” which themselves pertain to language (see no. 20). Certainly language can express the modifications of an object in space-time; it relegates to this end a large number of conductors, particularly those words which were listed in no. 9. But the faculty of language should not lead to a confusion between the linguistic sentence that addresses itself to modifications and the plastic “sentence,” such as that which comprises DB’s materials, even if it refers to the same modifications. By limiting oneself to the most simple (minimal) level of articulation, one sees that the linguistic sentence exists within a phonemic arrangement, or one of graphic unities, which belongs to the code of language, while the plastic sentence (notably DB’s materials) exists within an arrangement of visible unities (within the occurrence, the stripes alternating white and color, or transparent and white, each 8.7 centimeters wide) that belongs to what, by analogy, we refer to as the code of visual perception.

11. But these two kinds of unities contain entirely different statutes in spite of the analogy that links them in the description. It has been demonstrated that a blue, a red, a straight, a spiral, a point, a horizontal, a slant, isolated as perfectly as possible, that is to say sensorially stripped of the iconographic and iconological connotation (in Panofsky’s sense) that normally accompanies them, immediately induce kinesthetic effects and coenesthetic effects (which have to do with the sensations by which one is aware of one’s bodily state) on the body of the viewer. The linguistics of spoken language, on the other hand, has taught us that phonological units which enter the code of language don’t, or virtually don’t, possess intrinsic value—that they are received not for their sensate quality, each in the singular, but for their potential for differentiation. For example a “p” is “perceived” by an English-speaking locutor not as a function of its sound properties, but to the extent that it is pertinent to the code of the English language, and that pertinence consists of its not being able to enter the syntactical chain in the place of a “t” without modifying the sense of the sentence (pest/test). Of course, it retains the sound properties (phonetics) which belong to it and which can be assimilated, starting from an analogy proposed by Saussure, into its value in usage; but as an element in a communicational code, the value that matters is that which results from its interchangeability or lack of it against other phonemic units, that is to say its phonological pertinence, which would be its exchange value. The ear does not “consume” the phoneme sensorially; it recognizes it by comparing it to the units which might have been in its place.

12. According to this structuralist and regrettably trivial description, the “givens” that make up the oral linguistic sentence are not sensorially immediate givens. They are the results of filtering audible material through the phonological structure of language. It is this filtering which makes the linguistic sentence not identical to a “sentence” in music, although it makes use of the same raw material. If one examines written language, one sees that the same difference separates the grapheme, symbol of writing, from graphism, the visible linear given, though both insert themselves into the same space of visual perception. The result of this is that reading and seeing—seeing in the sense of exploring the visible, of grazing amidst it, as Klee used to say—are two distinct activities that cannot be substituted for one another. When we speak of reading a drawing, we are pointing to a decoding of iconographic and iconological grids, which, to (again) speak like Panofsky, by eliminating certain possibilities other than that which has been traced, in fact endows it with certain meanings; but in so doing we neglect the value of the “immediacy” of what has been drawn, its direct incidence upon the eye and over the whole body of the viewer. Yet if this immediacy were to disappear altogether, the drawing would become a grapheme whose whole value would pertain to exchanging information or to communication. The fact that it hasn’t must be because the receptivity of the viewer’s body is elicited by the spatial disposition of that which is drawn. We find once again the spatio-temporal conductors with which DB’s work is preoccupied. Only Buren stretches their application: he discovers that they modify not only the space of the sheet of paper but the entire space within which that sheet of paper is situated, because the effect of the drawing does not result only from the aggregation of lines that form it but from the aggregation of lines (architectural, sculptural, literary, urban) in which it exists. But in expanding thus the application of linear conductors, DB’s work loses neither the efficacy nor the value of the drawing, as far as the viewer’s sensate body is concerned. The same holds true for color.

13. By extending the visible delineation as far as the lines which envelop the work “proper” (and color as far as the chromatic scheme in which it is situated), DB’s work distances itself so little from that which is visible that, on the contrary, it evokes a property that distinguishes it in an essential way from that which is legible, in that the viewer and that which is visible are involved in one same field within which they are poles. One can envision the space-time posited by a plastic work and a neutralized space-time around the viewers’ body as transitory and localized projections emanating from a field of visibility. If they confront each other within the polarity of the viewer and the viewed, it is because that field exerts itself upon everything within it in which it can find characterizing factors, factors of the sort that Merleau-Ponty called chiasmatic or specular. One can recognize the effect of this factor within this known property, which is that the person seeing is visible (and, no doubt, is seen). To simplify: a museum or a gallery visitor is seen, for instance, by the director. But if the director can see the visitor in the act of looking, it is because the director himself is visible. DB’s work makes the director visible in the act of looking while also making the viewer visible; so, the work restructures the director as a visible and observing element. The gambit of DB’s work thus is not a sociological one, but is rather an ontological one, pointing, as it does, to a space-time of vision that isn’t, first and foremost, that of a subject (viewer or director) situated outside of that space-time, able to read, from the outside, an object (artwork, viewer), but instead to a non-subjective, non-objective experience wherein places and moments are anonymous conductors that situate viewer and the viewed as complementary occurrences. DB’s work, in struggling against the “boundaries” imposed on vision by the art institution, attacks the assumption, which is in the very make-up of the institution, that looking can remain unseen, that a systematization of the visible and the viewer could occur out of an invisible instance; that there could, in short, exist a non-site and a non-instance. Beneath its arrogant, read choleric, exterior, DB’s work beckons to the humble immanence of sight, to the anonymous vision.

14. But, one could ask, if DB’s work draws from the sensate, and if it is true that the fabric of the sensate cannot be substituted for language, why designate this work, the way we did in no. 4, with the word “sentence”? We have shown in no. 1 that Buren uses a minimum of materials. It is a minimum in relation to the potential of visual sensibility. The only line used is straight and vertical; the only chromatic system is that of an opposition of white to blue, or red, or green, or brown, or yellow, or grey, or orange, or purple, or pink, (or transparency), in industrial pigments and without considering the colors of context; the color fills the entire surface of the stripe; the width of the stripe is invariable. The organizing principles are thus few and simple to formulate. The sequence of these elements follows a simple and unique principle. If one were to formulate a DB sentence, one could ignore all the elements, which, being invariable, bring with them no information and retain only the chromatic variable determined by the conductor of sequence. One would articulate it as follows: color then white then color then white etc. wherein the word then indicates only that whatever is to the left in the sentence is analogously to the left of a vertical stripe in the work, and, likewise, that which is to the right, is to the right. This sequential model is comparable to Gertrude Stein’s canon “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” wherein is takes the place of then. The two formulas are identical if for Buren white is considered a color, and if for Stein the rose is always of a color, and if two roses in succession aren’t necessarily the same color. The neutralization of variables brings into evidence a procession (rose, rose, rose; color, color, color) and a chain (is, is, is; then, then, then). Painting and literature are variations on this simple fabric, variations which differentiate the evidence, as the pulsations of life, for Freud, were naught but brakes that, for the ego, mitigate the precipitous pulsations of death. Stein formulates and Buren demonstrates the quasi-indifferent, the just before-differencing. He evidences the same structure in the sensate and in writing. The visual material which makes up DB’s work, although visible and not legible, can be called a “sentence” because it is the result of the simple and immutable laws of formation and sequence. It is legible as a syntactical, and not semantic, axiom.

15. But this legible “sentence” is situated in a place and in a moment. Buren likes to say that it is never autonomous. It has intrinsic laws of formation and sequence, but its occurrences are relative to spatio-temporal situations that are themselves arbitrary, and that are, in each case, results of the art institution: galleries, museums, urban spaces. The “sentence” is thus pitched into a field of vision that is organized by the conductors that we have previously mentioned. It touches upon art history, in other words the sedimentation of the choices presented by the alternatives allowed by those conductors. This kind of spatio-temporal situation of the “sentence” questions those choices. It is not because the “sentence” “says” that the question occurs, but because of its situational occurrence. Because it doesn’t “say” anything. It doesn’t function by meaning but by position. It doesn’t signify anything, but refers to. An element of DB’s work refers itself to the window of the gallery by addressing itself to it, or by going through it, or by framing it, in each case assuming it as a referent. In this manner it designates the effect of such a spatio-temporal choice: by placing itself within it; in other words, by having recourse to this doubly heteronomous immanence, that of the sensate visual field and of its chiasma, that of the art institution and its choices. DB’s work is the placement of the element or the “sentence” in space-time. This situated “sentence” marks off institutional space-time (the museum, the gallery, for example) as resulting from exclusive, limiting choices; it does so by referring back to sensate visual (ontological) space-time in its infinite specular power. This is Cézanne’s strategy, but extended from the space-time brought into play within the painting all the way to the space-time that bring the painting into play. The effect of this weak (discreet) “sentence” thus does not ally itself to language, but to that which is sensate.

16. Herein lies the difficulty. DB’s work questions the operations that by situating a visible object, make it into a work of art to be seen through an art-oriented eye; but the work is itself spatio-temporal, and consists of the installation of a visible element; this element is visually weak (discreet). Here, then, is the dilemma, which is often commented upon. If DB’s work does not elude the viewer, this latter could take it for an artwork among others; the effect of painting therefore plays against DB’s work by allowing its assimilation within the art-vision. If, on the contrary, the properties of the work are such, because of choices made by Buren affecting the conductors, that confusion with the work of art is not possible, the work then runs the risk of eluding the viewer: the effect of painting still plays against DB’s work, in excluding it from the field of art-vision. The viewer then must either accommodate or be blind. And consequentially, either DB’s installation is not seen for what it is, or it is not seen at all. In both cases its “weakness” makes it succumb to institutional space-time and pragmatics.

17. From here on, those who object believe they can derive the vicarial function from DB’s writings: they serve, they say, to forewarn the spectator (who does not see) as to what the spectator should see. Indeed, they add, only through understanding DB’s work can one see it. The text, therefore, serves as “frame” to the work. But if this were the case, this text that brings to the work the additional intelligibility without which it might be misunderstood, itself functions as a conductor that guides the direction of sight. The catalogue, the flyer, the guide, the tract, the leaflet, the paper, the recording that the visitor may consult in artplaces, are, in effect, no less conductors of art-viewing than hanging, gallery layout, lighting, support, the moment, etc. In the case of DB’s writings, then, it is no longer the gallery director and/or the artist who guides the visitor’s vision, but Buren the writer. Where is the difference? From Buren’s point of view, there is no difference, if the writing (at the least) addresses the conductors of language that it applies to DB’s work no more than the traditional exhibit questions conductors of space-time that it applies to the work in general. For in this case, the writing, de facto, finds itself outside of the field of inquiry implied in DB’s work, such that it eludes this inquiry at the very moment that it clarifies it (or frames it).

18. I’ve summed up, in nos. 16 and 17, the group of objections that seem pertinent with regard to DB’s work. The others are negligible because they are not pertinent. This alternative is an example of irrelevance: either DB’s work signifies in and of itself whatever is in play, and the text adds nothing; or, if the text does not perform double duty with regard to the work, it is because the work does not achieve its goal and it is preferable (or adequate) to read the text rather than look at the work. The assumptions of such an objection (and it’s a common one) are: 1. that the work (visual and written) has only one premise; 2. that it must be shown, not said; 3. that if it can’t be shown, it should be said; 4. that saying can be substituted for showing salva verita. This group of assumptions supports the common image of the artist-painter in relation to the thinker-critic: one paints, the other writes; one is the body, the other the mind; one offers sensations, the other ideas. It would be tedious to refute this argument. One could consult several of Buren’s texts on this issue (see the bibliographic note at the end of this article).

19. One could refute the group of objections formulated in nos. 16 and 17 in the following way. To question the conductors of art’s institution of seeing by means of a visible “sentence” that refers to it by referencing itself (through position, and not by meaning) is necessarily paradoxical. These conductors are not seen, being rather what guides and blinds art-vision; the elements installed in their place in their moment run the risk of being as invisible as they are. And if they are seen, they run the risk of not being understood, since they refer to these conductors only by spatio-temporal referencing: what Buren calls the non-autonomy of his work. Such referencing, marking, is necessarily equivocal: placed around a door frame, for instance, do the striped elements ornament, criticize, underline, or symbolize it? Buren says that they question it. Rather, they question the spectator. But the spectator, if limited to the single work, without the help of language, has no way of dissipating the equivocacy of the piece, in other words of answering the questions posed about the relation of the elements to the door frame. On the other hand he can always allow himself to be questioned by DB’s work, because the visible cannot answer questions, but can make questions, can disturb, can “develop thought by obfuscating the seeing organ.” It is this specular (reflecting) or chiasmatic power of sight, through which the visible questions the viewer, that DB’s work invokes and awakens (like Cézanne’s work, but on a different level). If the work fails, it is because the art-institutional conductors have managed to anesthetize the eye and have taken hold of the spectator’s mind. Such is the gambit of the war that Buren wages on the viewing of art. To say that it’s a lost cause from the outset, is to conceive of the effect of painting in purely sociological terms. Buren carries this out ontologically.

20. Reading the text helps the spectator to resolve the question posited by the work. The writing refers itself to the conductors of viewing art the way the work itself does, but from two different vantages: 1. the work refers to the conductors alone, while the text refers to those conductors, to DB’s work and to the relationship between them; 2. the work refers to the conductors through spatio-temporal situating, while the text refers to its own referents (conductors, work and their relationship) through the reference of language. And so language’s referring to a tangible object implies:
a. That the object is no longer situated in space-time, but instead is situated by linguistic conductors, including spatio-temporal ones, in a sentence universe. The actual object to which the linguistic sentence refers is not in the here-now; it is said to be here-now; it is referred to as being present, by being stated as here-now; but this here-now is thus a named property with which the object is tagged. Herein one can distinguish between here-now (sensory given) and the here-now which is the “image” in the sentence, the way one can distinguish Shut the door, an order directly addressed to me, from the/— Shut the door / that addresses the protagonist of a book I’m reading.
b. The substitution of the linguistic conductor for sensory reception is accompanied by other conductors which do not have sensory equivalents: mode, voice, quantity, quality, relationship, etc. These permit one to conceptualize perceptions, to organize them within a universe of thought, and in so doing to dilute the equivocacy of the work. All of these substitutions correspond to what we know as verbal elaboration.

21. Buren, especially in his most recent interviews, often states that his work is not sociological. This means, according to him, that the sentences that result from the kind of elaboration we’ve just described shouldn’t allow themselves to be formed and to follow one another through means of the conductors that articulate sociological discourse. He responds thus to the objection raised in no. 17, according to which the text would itself constitute a conductor (by “framing” the work) that, by remaining unquestioned, would automatically cause the work to miss the mark completely. This would indeed be the case if the writing drew its words and therefore its concepts from an institutionalized discourse such as that of sociology. For then, received words and concepts would be acting in relation to writing and to its reference, the work, in the same way as the spatio-temporal conductors of the art institution act in terms of the artwork. And this, even more irremediably than in the work, since the writing remains, while his plastic works in general disappear. And so one can observe that the conductors of the text, and therefore the way in which Buren perceives his work, have changed over the years. Grosso Modo, the critique of ideologies, which derives from a Marxist sociology, has ceded its place to experimentation on vision through plastic games. Without going into this in depth, it suffices to bring up this transformation: it proves that in the writing, as in the realm of sensibility, the conductors, no longer spatio-temporal, but pertaining to language in general, never stop being questioned by DB’s body of work, so much so that that body of work asks not only: what is painting? but what is thinking (painting)? If the philosophical discourse is one whose main conductor is the questioning of the conductors of discourses (its own included), it follows that DB’s writing belongs to the genre of philosophical discourse.

Jean-Francois Lyotard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII (formerly Vincennes.) He has written several books on the philosophy of art.

This article was translated from the French by Lisa Liebmann.

These words appeared in English in the original French text.

Translator’s note: Wherever the author used the word “operateur” in the original French text, I have used “conductor,” to signify the active, vehicular agents that effect the conditions of viewing art and the conditioning of the viewer. In this context “conductor” has a compound meaning, and in different instances can connote factor, current, and/or catalyst.


Note: Each of the sentences in this study finds its support in one or another work or writing of DB. It was not possible here to refer to each individually. It will have to suffice to mention those most useful in relation to the problems discussed (date and language of first publication are listed between parentheses after the title):
Five Texts, New York: John Weber Gallery, and London: Jack Wendler Gallery, 1973. Contents: “Preface: Why Write Texts, or: The Place from where I Write,” English,1973); I. Beware (German ,1969); II. It Rains, It Snows, It Paints (English, 1970); III. Standpoints (German, 1970); IV. Critical Limits (French, 1970): V. Function of Museum (English, 1973); Bibliography (1973).
“The Function of the Studio” (English) October 10, Fall 1979, pp. 51-58.
“Exposition d’une exposition” (Ex-hibition of an exhibition) (French and German, February, 1972), catalogue of Documenta 5, 1972, pp. 17-29 (with biography and bibliography of works by DB).
“Function of an Exhibition” (German, August, 1973) Studio International, December, 1973.
“Notes on Work in Connection with the Places where It is Installed, Taken between 1967 and 1975, Some of Which are Specially Summarized here: (English, September-October, 1975), Studio International, September-October, 1975.
A partir de là (From here on) (German and French, September, 1975), Brussels: Daled et Gevaert, and Mönchengladbach: Städtisches Museum, 1975.
Rebondissements (April, 1977), Brussels: Daled and Gevaert, 1977 (Also published in English as Reboundings)
With Jean-Marc Poinsot (English), Art and Artists, July, 1973, pp. 22-26.
With Daniel Cornu (French), Art Press 41, October, 1980, pp. 14-15.

1. Untitled, white acrylic paint on black-and-white material, November, 1965.2. Untitled, in Prospect 1968, Düsseldorf, West Germany, glued white-and-green paper. 3. Sandwich-Men, Paris, April 1968. 4. Papiers collés blancs et verts, Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerp, Belgium, January 1969. 5. “Summer Show,” organized by Seth Siegelaub, white-and-pink paper, glued one piece each week all summer, 1969. 6. Untitled, in IV Guggenheim International, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, blue-and-white linen, visible recto-verso, 60 x 30’, January 1971. Work censored before the opening: never visible to the public. 7. Peinture Suspendue, Sperone Gallery, Turin, Italy, April 1972. 8. Act III, the New Theater, New York, sponsored by the John Weber Gallery, orange-and-white linen, January 1973. 9. Permutation: 7 Days, 6 Panels, 7 Colors, Granville and Buckingham Streets, Halifax, Nova Scotia, April 11-17, 1973. 10. Big Wheel, from “Part 2,” Coney Island, Brooklyn, N.Y., sponsored by the John Weber Gallery, white-and-pink paper, April 1973. 11. Fragment 1, Mezzanine Gallery, Halifax, April 12-23, 1973. 12. Within and Beyond the Frame, John Weber Gallery, New York, 19 pieces, black-and-white linen, October 1973. 13. Transparency, Art & Project Gallery, Amsterdam, Holland, white ink printed on transparent vinyl, March 1974. 14. Passage of Color, from “Three Passages,” Grada Gallery, Zagreb, Yugoslavia, paper, April 1974. 15. Kunst bleibt Politisch, in Projekt 74 show, “Kunst bleibt Kunst,” Kunsthalle Cologne, West Germany, black-and-white paper, July-September 1974. View of the work defaced by the censor. 16. Untitled, in “Aktionem der Avant-Garde,” Berlin, 3 works done in three days and three colors (grey, brown and green), in situ and in public street, September 1974. 17. Corridor-Passage, in “Eight Contemporary Artists,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, black ink printed on transparent vinyl, October 1974-January 1975. 18. Gottico I and Gottico II, Banco Gallery, Brescia, Italy, 8 colors of paper, November-December 1974. 19. Balle is in Manhattan, New York, done in 7 colors, 7 times, in 7 different locations in the city, sponsored by the John Weber Gallery, May 1975. 20. Including the Walls, Cusack Gallery, Houston, Texas, brown-and-white linen, May 1975. 21. Voile/Toile-ToileWoile, Wansee Lake and Akademie der Kunst, Berlin, 2 part work, September-November 1975, Selman Selvi Collection. 22. Suite No. 2 Nello Spazio Dato, Sperone Gallery, Rome, Italy, December 1975. 23. Ici, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, orange-and-white linen, April 1976. 24. To Transgress, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, red, green and black paper, September-October 1976. 25. Untitled, in Prospect 1976, Düsseldorf, red-and-white linen, October 1976 26. Avec L’Arcature II, Samangallery, Genoa, Italy, red-and-black paper, November 1976. 27. In Situ, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, England, red-and-white paper, November 1976. 28. Place and Placement, Milwaukee Art Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 120 flags of green-and-white printed linen, June 1977. 29. Chez Georges, Paris, France, white acrylic paint on awning, September 1977, Collection of R. Mazarguil. 30. Step by Step, Up and Down, In and Out, work in situ, in “Europe in the Seventies,” The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, green-and-white paper, October 1977. 31. Passages from Door to Door, 5 pieces fragmented by 10 different locations, in “Europe in the Seventies,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California, blue-and-white paper, June 1978. 32. Stalacticl Stalagmitic, a drawing in situ and three dimensions, in “Space as Support,” University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, blue-and-white paper, January 1979. 33. Painted Bunting, 5 1/2,” color photograph. 34. Fragmente Einer Rede Uber Die Kunst, works done from 1965-79 at Konrad Fischer Gallery, Dusseldorf, several different colors of striped linen, March 1979. 35. Upside Down, in Sydney Biennial, Sydney, Australia, black-and-white paper, May 1979. 36. Du Faux Comme Modèle, Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Liége, Liége, Belgium, red-and-white paper, December 1979. 37. Modulo, Modulo Gallery, Lisbon, Portugal, red-and-white paper, February 1980. 38. With Portugese Ceramics, Lisbon, done in several different locations in the city at different times, red-and-white paper, March 1980. 39. Voile/Toile-Toile/Voile, Lac de Lucerne and Kunst Museum, Lucerne, Switzerland, 9 parts, 5 colors of linen, April-May 1980. 40. 95 Chairs, 7 Colors, in International Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, painted chairs, May 1980. 41. 3 Passages Bis, in European group show, Ghent, Belgium, black-and-white linen, June 1980. 42. Watch the Doors Please, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, blue, green, red, purple and yellow painted vinyl, October 1980-October 1981.

All photographs, unless otherwise indicated, were taken by Daniel Buren.