Daniel Buren

A puzzling one-sidedness informs much of what has been written about Daniel Buren since the mid ’60s, puzzling because it corresponds to neither the variability nor the richness that characterize his oeuvre despite the constant recurrence of certain features. Students of his work have preferred to focus on its element of critique, emphasizing its negativity without considering its sensuousness or perceiving the generative power intimately connected with deconstruction. Similarly, Buren’s multidimensional art has often been exposed to one-track interpretation; the subject of his critique has been said to be painting, or the institutions of politics, or the museum. That the losses resulting from such narrow-mindedness are enormous was made obvious by Buren’s La Place des Colonnes, an installation in the “New Gallery” of this museum. Its sensuousness and the richness of its multileveled analysis are less reminiscent of a one-track approach than of a network—or a fabric, like the prefabricated striped cloth Buren used here. The supply of piece goods at the moment of purchase determined the colors (red, blue, orange, and black, on white grounds).

Buren’s starting points were the 96 square light panels in the ceiling, around half of which he erected semitransparent columns of cloth. As one stepped through one of the four entrances of the big rectangular room, was embraced by illuminated, ruggedly sensuous colonnades, and crossed airy open spaces only to feel the space again close around one in an austere welcome, one realized that this room was not created according to the principle of seriality, as its preconditions might imply. Buren had complexified his work: La Place des Colonnes was a classical composition.

An open triangular space, which shared the show’s title, was coterminous on one side with another space named les Quinconces, also triangular, its columns “planted” in accordance with a classical principle often encountered in, for example, gardens and parks. The square formed by these two sections left a rectangle in the space which was titled les Péristyles. As the name suggested, the 24 columns here referred specifically to the most classical of all structures: the Greek temple. Through the pronaos, the visitor entered the cella, in whose center (the normal place of the god’s image) was a solid pillar of mirrors; here one saw oneself seeing, saw one’s movements in the filmic fragmentation of the striped mirror. Placed in the center by the mirror, one was made aware (here the classical pattern was broken) of one’s decisive role in the piece. Once more the mirror assumed its centuries-old role in the self-reflection of painting.

The harmonious composition of the show (whose components were increased by a voice speaking from four of the pillars against a background of soft avant-garde rock) was disturbed by the asymmetric relationship between two discrepant elements: a single column at the center of la Place des Colonnes, its red stripes painted by hand, and the pillar of mirrors. This last was the only element whose position was independent of the strictly spaced light panels in the room’s very conspicuous tin ceiling. This industrial ceiling is an architectural failure which has posed constant functional and esthetic problems. It is also a reflection of the defensive, slightly embarrassed stance characteristic of the museum in the face of the difficult art politics of the mid ’70s, when the gallery in question was built. Nevertheless, even this brand of “democratic” industrial architecture bears within it, as Buren showed, the colonnades of the classical space—and, by extension, the idea of the museum as temple of art.

Lars Nittve

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.