The Eye of the Storm:
by Daniel Baird
Works in situ by Daniel Buren
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Through June 8
Upon entering the ground floor atrium of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, its massive concrete ramps spiraling up toward the skylight, one encounters a towering mirror-covered cube supported by scaffolding elaborately rigged to one side of the museum. It is by turns a glamorous, kitschy, and awkward monument; a grandiose and aggressive obstruction whose grid of mirrors fragments and warps the museum’s ramps, on which have been placed evenly spaced bright green dashes. Even at first, light-dazzled glance, Daniel Buren’s “Around The Corner” clearly lacks the vaulting, utopian optimism of Tatlin’s famous tower: all mirrors and clunky plywood structure of the kind one might see during renovations, it is wholly unrevealing. On sunny days, splashes of rose-colored light descend from the skylight, which Buren has covered with gels. For The Eye of the Storm, Buren has emptied all of the Guggenheim’s central galleries except one, which he has filled with Murs de Peintures, a collection of the striped canvases he began working with in the mid-1960s and for which he is best known.
The Eye of the Storm can have an almost embarrassing loveliness, which has everything to do with the number and scale of the mirrors and the tender, rose-colored light, which evokes cathedrals and spring, and for that reason it more that flirts with being baroque and decorative. Who doesn’t respond to walls of mirrors, swarming reflections, and dapples of warm light? Yet as one moves up the ramps, one gradually, and perhaps with a certain amount of resentment, begins to sense that something else may be going on, that at the very least the intent underlying The Eye of the Storm might be far more ambitious. The green dashes are diagrammatic, accentuating the flow of the architecture and the charged emptiness of the galleries: there are brief moments when the Guggenheim begins to feel ephemeral, hallucinatory, less like a structure created by tons of poured cement and steel reinforcement, than an upward pulse of energy. And as one passes behind “Around The Corner,” one becomes acutely aware of how clunky and disruptive it is. Behind the woozy dazzle of the mirrors, which make the museum seem even higher and more expansive than it is, is really just ordinary, unadorned scaffolding, as though what holds the great illusion together is ad-hoc, unfinished, and ultimately unstable.
“Around The Corner” is an anti-monument that congests and confuses the monumentality of the museum, just as The Eye of the Storm as a whole is a kind of anti-exhibition that renders the exhibition space itself opaque. The title of the show alludes to the whirling motion of Wright’s architecture, indeed it emphasizes the fluidity and temporality of our experience of architecture, but it also suggests that museums like the Guggenheim are the temples of an art world that has less to do with art or thought or freedom, than with the alienated machinations of global capitalism. To this end, Buren deploys an unusual combination of austerity, emptiness, excess, and a subtle variety of iconoclastic aggression, and this places it firmly within the same idiom as Christo and Jean-Claude’s recent project in Central Park.
The Eye of the Storm is not Buren’s first experience working with the Guggenheim. In 1971, Buren created “Peinture-Sculpture”—an immense striped flag suspended from the skylight and reaching nearly to the floor—for the Guggenheim International exhibition. After the installation of the exhibit, a group of participating artists pressured the museum into removing “Peinture-Sculpture” on the grounds that its scale and position compromised viewing their work. Buren’s exclusion from the show—he was offered a two-week solo exhibition which would have followed the Guggenheim International, but he declined—inevitably sparked controversy. Carl Andre withdrew from the show. A letter of protest was written and co-signed by Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, and Robert Ryman, among others. Dan Flavin wrote a weird, paranoid letter to Buren, accusing him of being a cynical, careerist charlatan, referring to Buren actions as a “ruthless, negative gesture to advance your marginal career in pseudo-artistic controversy.” Buren interpreted the affair as an instance of institutional censorship (“Peinture-Sculpture” had after all been commissioned and approved in 1970), but the cool, effacing hostility some artists apparently sensed was surely present. Unlike Hans Haacke, whose work explicitly addresses politically sensitive subjects and whose 1971 solo exhibition was cancelled by the same museum director (Thomas Messer) who removed “Peinture-Sculpture,” Buren, while his work has for the most part an irreducibly visual character, negates the traditional relationship between the spectator and the art work.
Daniel Buren began his career as an abstract painter, combining stripes with awkward yet lyrical biomorphic forms. These accomplished works by a young artist are intriguing in part because of their aesthetic ambivalence, rooted as they are both in a style of abstraction that emerged from Surrealism and the early works of artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella, both of whom systematically resisted the subjectivity and intimacy of painterly touch. Then, in 1965, Buren, along with his frequent collaborators Olivier Mosset, Daniel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni, underwent a radical transformation, completely reversing his conception of art, which Buren claims was the result of philosophical reflections. “My position follows logically from theoretical reflections and is supported by the history of art and its apparent contradictions,” Buren told Georges Boudaille in a 1967 interview. For the Buren of the late 1960s, art works, whether they are portraits by Ingres or color field abstractions by Morris Louis, inevitably involve a kind of illusion and impose the artist’s will upon the beholder.
The “illusion” that Buren frequently refers to in his writings and interviews is not so much pictorial—Buren appears to have had little interest in Clement Greenberg’s call to eliminate every last vestige if illusion from the picture plane—but rather in the sense of “illusory” and therefore “false.” For Buren, works of art falsify reality by projecting a purely subjective vision upon it, and, especially in the context of a gallery or museum, they undermine the freedom of thought and perception in viewers by imposing a false, ideological illusion. On both of these counts, in Buren’s view, art making in its classical form is an indefensible activity.
One cannot underestimate how encompassing Buren’s conclusion was. Even Duchamp’s readymades are “objectively reactionary” because they still attempt to subjectively transform reality. The space that Buren carves out for himself to actually make work, defined as it is by a series of negations, is of necessity narrow. The work must be anonymous, its characteristics neutral, its nature specific to a place and a time. It must avoid articulating meanings, must not in any way propose a transformation or interpretation of the world, yet it also must create the possibility of concrete instances of authentic seeing, unencumbered by illusion. To this end, Buren and his collaborators undertook site-specific – the term he prefers is in situ—projects using pre-printed striped fabric or paper, typically hand painting a single white stripe in order to distinguish them from Duchampian readymades. He sealed off a gallery with his stripes on the doors and windows; he plastered striped posters over the urban landscapes of France and Germany; he placed striped flags at strategic locations across Paris.
The critique implicit in Buren’s work is at once classical and radical. Duchamp attempted to undermine an essentially romantic conception of creativity and to trouble the nature of the art object. Hans Haacke’s work exposes that hidden economic and political systems in which works of art and the institutions that exhibit them are enmeshed—Haacke’s cancelled Guggenheim show, for instance, involved research into the real estate dealings of some of the museum’s trustees. Neither artist seriously questions the legitimacy of the relationship between artists, works of art, and spectators. Buren’s argument, powerful because crude, closely resembles Plato’s polemic against the poets in The Republic. Poets like Homer, according to Plato, freely invent the often perverse and violent actions of the gods, promoting the illusion that they represent reality when in fact they knowingly falsify it. Buren’s position, by contrast, is less overtly moralistic, and does not depend upon a transcendent conception of reality. The illegitimacy of art works rests in the way they intrude upon the subjective autonomy of the viewer, the way, to take an example that appears in Buren’s writings, Cézanne’s numerous paintings of Mont St. Victoire in Aix-en-Provence makes it difficult for viewers to really see Mont St. Victoire—one sees it only through the distorting lens of Cezanne’s paintings. Buren’s sensibility matured at around the same time and in the same place Guy Debord published his seminal Society of the Spectacle, and Buren’s and Debord’s ethos seem related. Debord understood the degree to which the spectacle degrades human experience, and similarly Buren’s politics appears to be oriented, not toward community, but toward recuperating individual experience. For Buren, all art works are absorbed into the spectacle and are therefore part of what sullies human freedom.
The question that inevitably arises is whether Buren’s work in any way embodies his philosophical vision. I think at least a case can be made for this with respect to some of his earlier projects, ample documentation of which is provided on monitors in the current Guggenheim exhibit. In Affichage Sauvage – You are invited to read this as a guide to what can be seen (Part 1) (1970), Buren placed red and white striped posters in storefront windows in Soho, creating strikingly beautiful and inexplicable interruptions in what were then drab, gritty Manhattan streets. For the exhibit Within and Beyond the Frame at the John Weber Gallery in 1973, Buren had black banners with vertical white stripes suspended like laundry out the gallery windows and across West Broadway. And a few years later, in Watch the Doors Please! (1980 at the Art Institute of Chicago), Buren postered the doors of the commuter trains that passed in front of the large window at the Art Institute. As with Affichage Sauvage and Within and Beyond the Frame, the striped posters in Watch the Doors Please!, sliding past in various configurations in the large train yard outside the Art Institute or sailing over a bridge in the suburbs, are an uncanny and mysterious disruption. They are startling and anonymous, fortuitous and unrevealing, while at the same time having an intense aesthetic concentration. They are strange, irreducible glimpses. They awaken attention and seeing.
Part of the peculiar power of Buren’s best work rests in its blank literalness and the sense of its being an anomaly finely attuned to its context. The great difficulty his work encounters in an exhibit like The Eye of the Storm is that, within the Guggenheim’s imperious, curving walls, it is impossible to create an abrupt surprise, a sense of wholly unanticipated beauty. For that reason, the gestures in The Eye of the Storm—the green dashes, the monumental mirror, the gels on the skylight and on windows in the upper galleries—tend to fall flat, or, worse yet, degenerate into mere decorativeness. Too frequently used as a term of abuse, decorativeness is not in itself a problem—the decorations adorning Romanesque Churches and Medieval Mosques can have a fierce, demonic power. The problem is with creating a complacent viewer, a viewer no longer stirred to the task of actual seeing. One goes to the museum to look at Buren’s installation, to enjoy it perhaps, the way one goes to the museum to look at and enjoy any other work of art. And this is made more obvious by the fact that Buren does not fully occupy or appropriate the Guggenheim. The empty galleries have little impact, their emptiness is not activated, in part because one can wander off to contemplate the Guggenheim’s collection of Cézannes, Picassos, and Mondrians, or else go see Rikrit Tiravanija’s Hugo Boss Prize piece, or go watch Slater Bradley’s wonderfully melancholic Doppelganger Trilogy. In the end, The Eye of the Storm is easily absorbed back into the numbing spectacle. Buren’s art poses an important question about the relationship between interior freedom, vision, and works of art, but his approach seems helpless and even anachronistic. Perhaps for “a guide to what can be seen” one has to go to the drawing center and look at the small, intense drawings of Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin.