Long Beach

Daniel Buren

Aggressive, overbearing and inappropriate for the viewing of most art, the University Art Museum in Berkeley functions in the anti-art architectural tradition of the Guggenheim. The cast concrete, bunkerlike edifice holds six galleries whose bays project over a vast central exhibition hall. Ramps rising upward connect the gallery spaces that surround the central area.

For six consecutive months installations by Daniel Buren, Robert Irwin, Carl Andre and Maria Nordman dominated this museum. Under the direction of Mark Rosenthal, the “Space As Support” program seems very much an attempt at positive transformation of the museum’s public image through artists’ didactic responses to the structure. Conforming to neither the neutral white gallery environment favored by the ’60s Minimalists, nor the slightly raw alternative ’70s space, the University Art Museum poses a unique set of problems, and in turn elicited some provocative solutions.

While “Space As Support” cannot be termed an unqualified success, it does offer provocative insights into the philosophical and logistic problems artists face in a non-neutral environment. The University Art Museum is a seductive space, implicitly theatrical, and Buren, Irwin and Nordman, in coping with this aspect, were forced to extreme positions. Particularly in the case of Buren and Irwin, their installations posited ideological conflicts to their previous works and writings. With Nordman the problem was merely one of scope, the artist working in an environment where less control adversely affected the style of her work. Andre, on the other hand, avoided most of these issues by remaining within sculptural boundaries.

“Space As Support” represents a unique set of circumstances, and in turn generated responses that rather than having signature status, will probably be considered for the qualities that make them atypical in these artists’ works. For viewers, “Space As Support” was a positive and sensitizing experience, a sometimes ironic but intelligent merging of anti-art architecture and space-oriented art.

DANIEL BUREN’s Stalactic/Stalagmitic, A Drawing in Situ and Three Dimensions, was the first work installed, and the one which most reflected the architecture. Blue and white bands were placed on the edges of ramps and bays, and even extended out of the building to where the bays form terraced areas. Vertically placed bands reiterated the axes on which individual bays were constructed, while solid white stripes affixed to the floor of the central exhibition space noted the points where the visual axes remained implied rather than realized.

Contrary to the static ubiquitousness that seems endemic to many of Buren’s works, this piece was positively exuberant. The variety of positions and perspectives offered by the museum’s vantage points yielded visual diversity and formal complexity. However, the political nature of Buren’s work, concepts of context and framing that the artist has written about for the past decade, were absent here. This space is such that Buren’s stripes were fairly isolated from other works of art, negating an important dialectical aspect of his work. In addition, the non-neutral, overbearing environment forced Buren to a position where his piece functioned as protagonist rather than antagonist to the space proper.

Since the mid ’60s Buren has employed the same visual device and basic methodology to comment on ideas of space, context and the nature of the object. American critics of his work earlier in this decade tended to view his pieces from a formalist or conceptual perspective, ignoring the social and political implications that the artist expressed. Ironically, the strongest aspect of Stalactic/Stalagmitic is its visual or esthetic formalism. In retrospect, the socio-political concerns were more apparent in earlier projects that were maddeningly monotonous, but, as in the 1970 Guggenheim exhibition, blatantly confrontational. In an interview at the time of this installation, Buren characterized the museum as “pretentious” and “pompous.” Nevertheless, Stalactic/Stalagmitic, rather than drawing critical attention to this fact, seems to celebrate it. Out of architectural confusion Buren fashioned a visually seductive piece that transformed the museum’s negative attributes, at the expense of his own ideology, into a positive experience.

Hal Fischer