New York

Daniel Buren

John Weber Gallery

The elevator opens on a corridor a bit more than body-width, with walls of blue-and-white striped fabric. One enters and walks 90 meters to a door marked Exit.

Exit: a work in situ by Daniel Buren: the title is a contradiction that suspends one. Is it a place or a non-place? A work of art? But where? If “Exit” here is a noun, is absence made a thing, a presence?

One walks into Exit . . . a paradox that can’t be helped, and is not merely semantic. Or, rather, it precisely is semantic—the work questions the semantics of cultural space. One walks in and is framed—one “narrates” the work, as in a film where one’s body is the image, one’s movement the motion.

Let me put it another way. Inside, one becomes the content in an otherwise empty work. It is empty because its beginning collapses into its end. There is no middle. Or, rather, there is nothing but middle: one enters and exists in medias res. The walls are like equal signs that cancel “Entrance” and “Exit.” One walks through a work that never properly begins—until it ends.

Then and there, literally outside the work on a wall, is the content, a description by Buren: “A corridor is built from the entrance (elevator) directly to the exit (staircase). A passage at the end permits one to see the piece (corridor) from ‘outside,’ i.e., from the gallery.”

Inside Exit, one is “outside” the gallery; the work is its own space, its own container. And inside the gallery, one is “outside” Exit. The question is: does this hold true when the idea is extended? Outside the gallery, are we still inside Exit, still free of cultural space? Or, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, are we never able to leave the stage?

In a sense, this is Buren’s question, asked mutely again and again, with much the same materials—striped banners—and much the same titles— e.g., Within and Beyond the Frame, 1973, and Ici, Désormais, Ailleurs, 1976. It’s a question of what frames, and how and why; a question of cultural forms, their power and its brokerage, from niche to museum, prince to patron. How they define art and what or whom they represent as they do so. It is a formal question (but one not restricted to “formalism”) of figure and ground, inside and outside, object and place.

In the past, says Buren, three kinds of place—studio, gallery, and museum—have informed art thoroughly. The first defines art’s production, the other two its promotion, distribution, and consumption. Most art refers to these places indirectly: Buren makes his refer directly. Insofar as Exit is produced in situ, i.e., insofar as it is its own situation, its own place that does not last, it succeeds negatively—the only way it can. Rather than be enunciated, rather than speak of other things in its own name, it says nothing. This is the eloquence of the man who cuts out his tongue lest he blaspheme and be damned.

To write nothing, so as not to be written—I wonder how neutral such work can remain? How empty can a sign be? Banners, flags, these are Buren’s forms—that exist as signs to become emblems. Do these blue-and-white stripes refer nowhere? Buren literally crosses these signs out in protest. But do they not then become signs of protest, of Buren? He is the non-academic artist par excellence. They could become the flag of the Academy of the Non-Academic.

Hal Foster