Daniel Buren

Barring a last-minute reprieve—and none appears forthcoming, despite the efforts of local and national architectural preservationists—the building that has housed the Arts Club of Chicago since 1951 will be demolished in March. When that occurs, the only public interior space created by Mies van der Rohe in a building not of his own design will be destroyed. In his recent installation at the Arts Club, Daniel Buren sheathed Mies’ interior in what became a good-natured farewell to a paragon of Modernist architecture. Mies himself had broken up the severe rectilinear expanses in the exhibition area of the Arts Club by cladding its extensive walls in a grid of 40 eight-by-four-foot sheets of plywood, each topped by another four-by-four-foot piece, all painted white. Buren’s intervention modified Mies’ two-to-one paneling with a sequence of alterations and extrapolations that produced vibrant results.

Buren began Rigidity/Flexibility on the Grid, 1994, by adding a horizontal line dividing each eight-by-four-foot vertical panel into two squares, thereby creating 40 elements of three stacked squares. All of these were alternately painted a color or white, creating a chessboard effect, and in the 20 instances where a white square was in the middle, Buren installed a sheet of four-byfour- foot Plexiglas on which a sequence of his signature eight-point-seven-centimeterwide stripes was backpainted in white, slightly off-center. In 18 instances, Buren departed from the severity of the grid, installing the sheets so that they were tilted to one side or another, as if hovering near but not on the solidity of the square in Mies’ wall. The seemingly careless placement of these clear squares, in apparent violation of Miesian principles of modular thinking, was counteracted by the way in which the stripes were painted: they were painted so as to “compensate” for the slippage, reading as purely vertical while their support was somewhat akimbo; they reiterated the causal perpendicularity of the grid while the support undercut its most fundamental precepts. Buren covered four and one half columns in the space with sheets of mirrored Plexiglas, and also continued his gridding onto another “wall” in this space by painting his chessboard pattern onto the windows overlooking Ontario Street with yet five more rows of this ensemble, this time all in white.

This infinitely variegated intrusion was simultaneously an homage and an extension of Mies’ project. Buren activated and energized Mies’ architectural space, transforming a beautiful if moribund site into a cacophony of reflection and refraction, suggesting scintillating possibilities. Buren’s palette—wall paint in eye-popping shades of Sun Valley Yellow, Jewel Green, and Yama Light Blue—was so relentlessly upbeat as to seem almost bacchic. Reflected and re-reflected in his Plexiglas mirrors (slightly crooked by nature), Mies’ grid began to wobble and melt with festive fluidity. But the grid never fully disappeared. This installation stretched Miesian principles, rearticulating them rather than prefiguring the impeding destruction of the space. Buren spars with Mies’ legacy, extending the grid to its limit, and, as is the case with his own stripes, finding it capable of infinite application and unending permutation.

James Yood