New York

Daniel Buren

New York City, sponsored by John Weber Gallery

Since 1966 Daniel Buren has been painting identical vertical stripes, varying only the colors which alternate with white and the location in which the work is presented. A specific work, Seven Ballets in Manhattan, was performed around the city on seven successive days last May and June. Five “dancers” walked in line, carrying picket signs of printed paper vertical stripes (all equal size). The stripes covered both sides of the sign, their colors shifting from day to day, sometimes from sign to sign. Looking at the piece, I ask what is there? Vertical stripes. Yes, I can see that, but what does that mean? (a question reverberating throughout the city, although to a noticeably lesser extent in SoHo). And it is this question that intrigues me. An explanation (answer) would provide a category with which to see. As if to say, ah-ha, click, understood—i.e., the thinking’s done . . . but is it?

In participating in the piece what interested me was the reaction outside the art context. Unlike some of Buren’s earlier work, the piece demanded attention. Walking (marching) with picket signs forces a confrontation. Indeed most people saw the work first as a demonstration, strike, protest. Again and again their voices echo the essential question—what is your cause? What does it mean? Several people even pursued us down the street, trying to understand. Others, though, laughingly, simply accepted the stripes. The lunch hour crowd on Wall Street burst into applause. Everywhere the piece elicited response, and that may indicate its import. One assumes a reason for something happening, implying that intention circumferences meaning. But if one doesn’t know the intention, the meaning doesn’t necessarily disappear. How then does one define what one sees?

For me, this is the essential question posed (not answered) by Buren’s piece. True, I could cite Buren’s writings on the political implications of his work vis-à-vis the art-certifying system. But that is to contrive a statement out of the question. Or I might describe Buren’s work as an exposure of the minimal criteria necessary for something still to be painting, yet another reductivist attempt. But that is to confine it a priori within the domain of art, to formulate an answer by assigning a known category and thus to bypass the question of what it is. No, it is the question of how one thinks about what one sees that stands out, not the answer.

—Susan Heinmann