Daniel Buren

From the opening salvo of his mammoth exhibition “Le Musée qui n’existait pas” at the Centre Georges Pompidou—a giant square of red-and-white-striped canvas hung in the entry forum—one had the feeling that, unlike the Museum that hadn’t existed, this is the Daniel Buren that always was. Not only were the artist’s signature stripes everywhere to be seen, reflected by a seeming infinity of mirrors on walls and ceilings, but the “cabane éclatée” (exploded shack), Buren’s anti-architectural ploy, was the material support for the parodic museum. A labyrinthine network of shantylike cubicles, all exposed studs, was made to fill the top floor of the Pompidou, each either containing a small construction—looking like a piece of de Stijl furniture—or bearing a sequence of projected images on its interior walls. However, once one reached the far corner of the labyrinth and a cube punctuated by a beige-and-white-striped trellis—the little diamond-shaped interstices between the lattice ribs having been cut out and pasted to the side walls in a pattern of light and shade, with solid lozenges sprinkled against a luminous ground—the nickel dropped. Luminosity was, indeed, the theme of this room, in a clever takeoff on Vuillard, or for that matter any other Nabi painter.

It was with this association that one realized the labyrinth was itself a riff on the modern museum as a sequence of little one-man shows, each providing a separate cell and each giving onto the next. The opening “room,” a set of brightly colored wedge-shaped wooden slabs, mimed an Ellsworth Kelly, while the colored walls of some of the other cubes produced a halo that seemed to announce the presence of Dan Flavin. In still another cube, colored circles projected on the walls sent up Robert Mangold, and throughout, Buren’s own signature stripes made reference to the general theme of Constructivism. In one moment of humor there was even a play on décollage—a set of graffiti-covered plywood panels lifted from the protests against Les Deux Plateaux, 1985–86, Buren’s sculptural intervention in the vaunted courtyard of the Palais-Royal.

It undoubtedly struck the observer as peculiar that, given the opportunity for a retrospective exhibition—the dream of virtually every artist—Buren would withdraw in favor of the presentation of the core images of other artists. This was indeed an aspect of Buren’s famous generosity. For example, in 1974, in the context of “PROJEKT 74” at Cologne’s Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, there was an attempt to censor Hans Haacke’s work charting the fate of Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus, 1880, from the French artist’s studio through the work’s acquisition by Jewish collectors and artists to its eventual purchase in 1968 by the Wallraf-Richartz-Kuratorium (the addition spearheaded by Hermann J. Abs, whose role as a prominent banker in the Nazi era was also documented). For his contribution, Buren reacted by stealthily installing the panels that make up Haacke’s work on top of his own striped patches of wall, in effect ceding his position within the show to Haacke.

There is nothing Buren appears to enjoy more than entering into such collaborative efforts. On July 5, the Paris daily Libération issued a special number of the newspaper merrily striped in green and white with the centerfold a series of four striped columns each ending in a photo of the artist himself staring ferociously outward, arms akimbo. From the sly attack on Libération to the Palais-Royal intervention, Buren’s collaborative bent jibes with developments in official French arts policy. In the ’80s, Jacques Lang, the first minister of culture for the Socialist government, made the collaboration between contemporary art and historical monuments, including Buren’s Les Deux Plateaux, an important part of his cultural policy. Even though this project triggered protest, the convictions that led to its commission seem unshaken and widely shared by the French: that art is and should be everywhere, a right of every man and woman on the street, and is not to be incarcerated within museums. (Mayor Bertrand Delanoe inaugurated the city-sponsored “Paris Plage” this summer, dumping tons of sand and installing potted palms to create an ersatz Riviera. Cars were banned from the streets along the sides of the quais, leaving the Seine to strollers, bicyclers, skaters, and, yes, sunbathers. One imagines the intervention would have been replete with stripes, had Buren thought of it first.)

In Buren’s Pompidou gesture, the museum is a dizzying encyclopedic collection, nothing omitted but nothing explained. This is also the museum as a place that discourages reflection on any single work but simply pressures the spectator to continue, to follow out the historical narrative from beginning to end. This is the museum as it exists now, and Buren clearly views it with considerable contempt, even though it has not only generously commissioned and housed his expensive work but has also published a monumental if at times baffling 576-page catalogue. Indeed, the layout of the cubicles, which produced what Buren calls the exhibition’s dispositif (operational device), resembled less the galleries of a museum than the interconnected booths at an art fair. In this purposeful confusion Buren engendered yet one more metaphor of the culture industry: the museum removed from the notion of art as the realm of disinterest, and thus a place of retreat from a life of instrumentalized striving, and instead turned into just another competitive marketplace.

Rosalind E. Krauss is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University, New York.