Daniel Buren

Illinois Central Gulf Railroad and the Art Institute of Chicago

Since the 19th century, Chicago has been a transportation hub and has had to adjust itself to the network of railway lines running parallel to the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Daniel Buren’s Watch the Doors Please, “a work in situ and motion,” takes as its departure point the literal coincidence of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, a major commuter line. He uses the giant two-story window overlooking the tracks at the entrance to the Art Institute’s Morton Wing as the initial frame for his work (a situation that ironically makes literal the convention of painting as a window on reality). Buren’s now-familiar vinyl, printed with alternating white and colored stripes, has been glued to cover the exteriors of the central double doors of the 165 cars of the fleet. It appears only on the doors that face west—the side visible from the museum window. The colors are red, blue, yellow, green, and purple, appearing in random combinations determined by scheduling exigencies. A 5:05 express with five cars might have a sequence of red, blue, blue, yellow, red, while the 2:08 local might be purple, purple, a kind of visual two-liner that streaks by the window in seconds. Not surprisingly this new work, with its unlimited viewing and interpretative possibilities, refers to the constraints that condition the ways of seeing the museum.

The museum window Buren chose for his frame was previously covered by curtains and panels on which art was installed. By removing the panels and opening the curtains, one frame was substituted for another. This initial vantage point for Watch the Doors Please is further framed by labels with remarks of the artist and the curator, Anne Rorimer, and a train schedule. Although Buren has dealt with mobility, time, and space in other pieces, this work is unique in its emphasis on anticipation, the wait for the art. The situational reversal—viewers wait inside for art that is outside—forms correlative links with other, sometimes amusing reversals. Viewers check their watches anxiously; guards acting as “conductors” of the work are queried about train arrivals. Meanwhile, as they work on the platforms at individual stations, train conductors consciously or unconsciously announce the title of the piece and guard the painting as it travels. Looking through the museum window there is a sensation of filmic reversal. The window becomes an aperture on a series of horizontally moving cars; their movement is measured by vertical stripes that mark a succession of present moments. The minutes spent waiting—recently increased due to cutbacks in service—and the moment spent seeing are inversely related.

Installed in the entry hall between the galleries for oriental art and the Morton Wing, which is primarily devoted to temporary exhibitions on the first floor and to 20th-century European art on the second, Buren’s work has enjoyed a variety of artistic neighbors in its exhibition period. Provocative juxtapositions have occurred: “painting” by Daniel Buren and furniture by John Henry Belter, a 19th-century cabinetmaker; Buren and the Morton G. Neumann Family Collection of painting and sculpture by major 20th-century artists (including one small Buren on linen). During the latter exhibition, Watch the Doors Please appeared at the window passing between paintings by Miriam Shapiro and Lucas Samaras and facing a large painting by Julian Schnabel. By suffusing the museum’s so-called neutral spaces with contingent signification (painting), Buren’s work questions another esthetic rationale of the exhibition space.

At the train stations (there are a total of 51), one waits on the platform and then, attentive to the directive in the title, watches the doors slide open and the work disappear, steps into the car, and sees the doors close. Now the viewer/passenger becomes conscious of him- or herself in the privileged position behind the painting’s surface, peering out through the glass window of the door. The work also extends the possibility that the passenger/viewer might see the museum viewer, and vice versa, as the train passes the museum. The admonishing title, Watch the Doors Please, has dual implications: in the museum the polite plea signals anticipation; outside on the platform, warning.

The visual intersection of commerce and culture is historically reinforced as the trains make stops at Pullman, site of the 1894 Pullman Strike and still-active industries. The neighborhoods through which the train slices range from urban decayed to posh suburban, from university enclave to outlying working-class community. Buren’s painting also passes over viaducts embellished with murals and graffiti, unintentionally establishing the hegemony of high art over low.

The temporal aspects of Watch the Doors Please, as I have already suggested, are inexhaustible. Every unit for measuring time is called into play: the seconds the work is visible, the minutes of waiting, the hour-and-a-half round trip, the days the museum is open, and the months that are the duration of the exhibition. Individual passenger schedules, train schedules, and museum schedules overlap. The limited viewing of Buren’s work underscores the transitoriness of “now,” the absent presence of painting opposed to the permanence of art preserved in museums. As the work travels south, away from its museum frame, it is exposed like runaway art to the elements, to the seasons, and to the city’s increasing array of contexts. With more potential viewers than museum- or collection-bound paintings have, does this work, with its expanding context, lose its defining conditions so that what was barely visible in the museum becomes invisible in the community of Blue Island? Does it lose its esthetic aura only to be recharged as it returns to its point of origin, like a ball whose bouncing arc becomes progressively smaller until it is returned to the player who recharges or reanimates it? These temporal as well as spatial aspects of Buren’s work constitute discursive ensembles, deflecting us from the crucial question of whether and to whom the work is visible once it leaves the context and architecture of the museum. Although Watch the Doors Please repeats forms and questions that Buren has explored earlier, in this work his discourse reaches beyond an institutional critique to make visible the unique conjunction of museum and urban movement. It makes you smile to see the way the work decorates the urban fabric through which it travels, warning those who recognize it to “Watch the doors, please.” It incorporates positive aspects of public art without being heavy-handed or cast in bronze for eternity. It’s catch as catch can; if you see it it is pleasurable, and if you don’t it doesn’t matter. And if you do see it and it does introduce new viewing conditions and new associations, it questions its own premises and your position as viewer, audience, and public. This work is confident, sure of itself, and able to leave the very context that its author has called into question.

Buren has demanded “nothing less than abolishing the code that has until now made art what it is in its production and in its institutions,” a declaration cited in yet another call for the end of painting. Has Watch the Doors Please succeeded in weaning us from our addiction to painting? Having stripped away the “camouflage” of the museum’s function, it seems both fruitless and pedantic continually to catalogue the incriminating evidence that points to the demise of modernism. It would be more productive to decide where new codes can be discovered, ones that arise from the ashes of rupture to suggest options that, like Buren’s work, will form the basis for further visual investigation and new discourse. Buren will receive more museum commissions,will find new contexts and new vehicles of possibility extending beyond the cultural confines of those institutions that he addresses so joyfully in Watch the Doors Please.

Judith Russi Kirshner