New York

Daniel Buren

Leo Castelli and John Weber Galleries

Daniel Buren takes a page from Morse Peckham’s behaviorist esthetics and reiterates (in the catalogue for his recent exhibitions ’To Transgress“ and ”To Place“) the contention that a primary signifier of any work of art is its gallery or museum viewing context. Buren figures that if he can physically include this powerful signifier—the gallery—in his painting, his work will somehow include, like the cannibal who hopes to incorporate the courage of his adversary/dinner along with his amino acids, some of the esthetic, sociological or political power of the gallery space. He does this by literalizing the term ”architecture of painting" and equating it with the architecture of the building at 420 West Broadway.

The most impressive work, No. 5, is a three-story-high circle inscribed on the front windows and back walls of the Castelli and Weber galleries. The area within the grid of windows but outside the circle was described by red and white striped paper glued on the windows, the circle itself by the same paper on the back walls. Walking around in this space we are ostensibly walking between the foreground and background of a painting. It is interesting torealize that an arc on a wall is a fragment of a circle that is being completed two floors below. But this realization is prompted by the catalogue, not by the work itself. The actual experience of Buren’s work as a sort of supra-architectural painting fails, I think, because his work literalizes physically a critical metaphor, “architecture of painting” and takes as metaphor a painting’s physical fact, its two-dimensionality. Foreground and background create a tension in a painting because they contradict the physical plane of a painting surface.

Buren is asking us to take striped paper as a metaphor for this plane, look at the two elements of his paintings on opposing walls and feel that they want to come together in spite of their architectural isolation. It doesn’t happen. That the paper on one wall and the paper on an opposing wall 50 feet away are the elements of a single painting remains an academic proposition. The experience is of two galleries full of conceptually connected but spatially discrete paintings.

As individual works in dialogue with the walls on which they were mounted, however, the works had considerable impact. The striped paper is like a notation for the shading in the catalogue sketches (where the pieces seem more promising than they actually are). It performs elegantly and simply its function of activating one portion of the wall as opposed to another, the iconography of the stripes recalling those yellow and black striped highway signs whose sole function is to draw attention to themselves. But Buren’s ambition (stated in the catalogue) to be the first step in “the history still to be made (that) will take into consideration the place (architecture) in which the work comes to rest (develops) as an integral part of the work in question and all the consequences such a link implies” is yet to be fully realized.

Ross Skoggard