Daniel Buren

Musée des Arts Décoratifs

More than a year after the polemics that marked the important work conceived by Daniel Buren for the Cour d’honneur of the Palais-Royal here in Paris, and despite the recognition that he brought to the French pavilion at the last Biennale in Venice, his position in France remains paradoxical. Although Buren’s international reputation has long been firmly established, his work as a whole—often reduced to the cliché of stripes, which for the artist is nothing but a simple visual device—continues to be unknown in his own country, even though just about everyone is familiar with the name of the author of the striped columns at the Palais-Royal. This state of affairs began to change last fall after the Nouveau Musée in Villeurbanne invited Buren to create an exhibition that, although not a retrospective (obviously impossible in his case), would provide an overview of his work. “Comme lieu, situation 2” (As site, situation 2), the recent exhibition in Paris at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a prestigious and unaccustomed context for contemporary art, constituted, as its title indicates, the second version of the Villeurbanne show.

At the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Buren installed about 60 works, all specifically adapted to this site (even the reconstructions of pieces already realized elsewhere). The show began with a spectacular installation, Soixante-cinq marches (65 steps, 1987), a grand staircase covered with stripes, of course, through which Buren attempted to deal with the specific problematics of the museum’s architecture. Reaching from the street level to the second floor of the museum, this staircase functioned both as an introduction and as a way of directing the viewer’s gaze from the entrance hall to the show itself. At the top of this staircase was Diagonale en bois, tissu et peinture pour quatre oculi (Diagonal in wood, cloth and paint for four oculi, 1987), a large diagonal that broke the symmetry of the vast room where it was installed. A bit further was another installation, intended to comment on the architecture of the site, La Galerie de papier collé (The gallery of papier collé 1987), but which instead served to highlight the symmetries of a large room that more or less represented the geometric center of the entire show.

While these works focused on the architecture of the site, other works played on the functional nature of the museum and at the same time demonstrated the decorative dimension claimed by the artist for his work. Croisements (Crossings, 1987) was an arrangement of green-striped plates on a white ground and white-striped plates on a green ground, displayed in a glass case. Pièce pour deux pièces dun appartement (Piece for two rooms of an apartment, 1986), which was inspired by the furniture exhibits in the museum’s other rooms, created an interesting mirror effect between, on one side, a completely striped bedroom (with the exception of a rectangle left blank above the bed) and, on the other side, a living room decorated with the missing striped rectangle from the bedroom. Other works were reconstructions of installations that had been shown elsewhere. Such was the case of one of those cabanes éclatées (burst cabanas) that the artist has been making for several years now, and which can be adapted to a diversity of places, especially the very beautiful Déambulatoire (Ambulatory, 1987), originally conceived for the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven during the group exhibition “Don Giovanni” in 1985 and reproduced quite closely here, although the slides that were a part of the first version of this work were replaced by slides taken in the rooms of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs.

This exhibition has finally given the Parisian public a sufficiently developed idea of the oeuvre of one of the greatest of French artists, as it has provided an opportunity to see a broad selection of his works, including several from the period preceding the debut of his famous stripes. Nevertheless, Buren was careful not to present these works from the early ’60s as such, but as an element in the reconstruction of Exposition d’une exposition (Exhibition of an exhibition, 1972), his famous installation at Documenta 5. These skillfully executed abstract paintings have above all a documentary value for the artist and were thus hung in a room whose moldings had been covered, as at Kassel, with white-on-white striped paper. It is now clear that, without any decline in its initial, indisputable force, Buren’s work has been for quite some time in a phase that could be considered that of its maturity, where the purely critical dimension of his art is wed to an extraordinary luxuriance of plastic invention.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.