New York

Daniel Buren

John Weber Gallery

Daniel Buren’s work is political in that it openly embraces—and is in this sense fundamentally about—self-contradiction, and is ideological in its commitment to anonymity. Buren, like Duchamp but at the same time utterly unlike him, is engaged in part in an exposure of the museum that has the form of paradox, insofar as both Buren’s and Duchamp’s prominence derives from an assault on “uniqueness” as a guide to “value.” To me at least—and perhaps only temporarily—Buren’s thinking seems at the moment to be more to the point than Duchamp’s, because where Duchamp is concerned with a private, hermetic language, which can make a Readymade stand—at least for part of the time—for the voice of an individual psychology, Buren is not. Buren is topical because of the Maoist affinities of his thinking, which, like Maoism, suggests that individualism is out-of-date. His importance is confirmed by the enormity of the confusion generated by his work, a confusion which is ours as much as his, and elaborately paradoxical. Buren has found a way to make art that is only publicly accessible, which is a paradox first of all because it must be apparent (in, as it were, the prerevolutionary situation) that such work is now exclusively representative of Daniel Buren’s signature. Again, this is reminiscent of Maoism, and of the inevitable emergence within it of a cult of personality around Mao himself. It also draws attention to a humanist assumption which may have lost the automatic credibility once supposedly attached to it (but about which a commitment to materialism would make, perhaps, for more rather than less ambivalence), the idea that statements have meaning only when they can be attributed to a particular source, implicitly, to an individual psychology. Buren is explicitly concerned with undermining that assumption, and in this important respect his objection is political in a larger—an esthetic—sense. Buren: “Whether [the artist] signs ’his’ work or not, it nevertheless remains anonymous.”

Buren’s is a disturbing and, therefore, significant comment on the limits of art language, but one shrouded in an inevitable ambiguity. This emerges in thinking about the high price he’s paid for his commitment to anonymity and public accessibility. This price is “only” the loss of the work’s function as a personal record, i.e., it’s a price Buren is eager to pay. But in what sense has he paid it? In using, for six years, nothing but banners that bear vertical stripes 8.7 centimeters in width, Buren has made sure that the traditional signs of development don’t occur in his work. But, at the same time, Buren eschews bourgeois individualism in a way that’s so aggressive as to appear almost “imperialist” and his work, instantly recognizable as it is, certainly doesn’t escape being unique. Buren’s installation at the John Weber Gallery, which consisted of 18 banners on a line that stretched across the gallery and continued out through a window—the gallery’s on the fourth floor—across to the other side of West Broadway, dominated the entire area as I’ve never seen it dominated before. After a few weeks of that, a Buren that stretched all the way around the world on a continuous line—hanging still in every building through which it passed, blowing in the wind in every open space, and always four stories off the ground—could seem only faintly excessive. That’s what I mean when I say his work embraces self-contradiction: after all, there could only be room for one line that encircled the globe at the height of four stories. Similarly, as Buren has presented his ideas through an image—one is tempted to say a soliloquy—of anonymity, so his persistent assault on the support system of art as a bourgeois industry has been made possible by museums and dealers on two continents. Indeed, the locale of the piece discussed here is one that can, in a sense, stand for the world at large, since it’s just about the focal point of the art world as such.

Trotsky said there was no such thing as bourgeois art, there was just art. Buren might reply that where there’s art there’s just the bourgeoisie. And because of this Buren’s main contribution is to the “stimulant” art which he attacks. For one thing, there scarcely was ever an art as impersonal as Buren’s, and Americans have been talking about the impersonality of their work for some time. Buren’s banners, made of canvas pictorially subdivided and standing as objects in the real world, suggest that an art of absolute materiality—an art that is thoroughly depersonalized—will necessarily become an art that is exclusively about the support system of art as an institution. In this, Buren demonstrates—and not quite by default alone—that there is nothing more “stimulating” than the reduction of art to the zero degree, and, likewise perhaps, no ambition more rationalist in intent and romantic in effect than one which results in an artist who has a reputation for anonymity. Buren’s art is as political and as “personal” as Godard’s, and both artists provoke our awareness of the innate commitment to individualism which pervades the American avant-garde. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that from time to time.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe