Daniel Buren: The Eye of the Storm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 5th Avenue (at 89th Street), New York
March 25 – June 8, 2005
A version of this article first appeared in Gay City News, Volume IV, Issue 15 | April 14 – 20, 2005.
“I don’t believe in the existence of work that has no audience. Only once it is viewed can a work be said to exist.”-Daniel Buren, 2005
Early in his career, Daniel Buren had an inspiration to paint on a French-manufactured striped canvas sold at Parisian textile markets circa 1966. Used for café awnings, its blue, green, red, or orange stripes on plain cloth were always the same width, 8.7 cm or about 2 inches each. Buren conceived of this canvas as a kind of readymade, a painter’s version of the Duchampian found object. He made a decision to orient the stripes vertically but the sizes and proportions of stretchers were permitted to change. What little paint Buren applied was always white and confined to plain bars at the edges, or perhaps a scalloped pattern at top and bottom or side to side. This highly schematic approach was Buren’s response to the ethos of modernist painting as it stood in the late 1950s.
In time, Buren began to think of the stripes as a portable concept, his “visual tool”. Instead of creating art works in the studio, he would venture out into the world with his concept, and make work in situ. This idea set his whole career in motion, quite literally, and over the next 35 years the artist developed simple yet conceptually incendiary projects for innumerable public spaces, galleries, and museums around the world. Buren had come to the conclusion that there was no such thing as an autonomous art object; it was nested within the ideology of the museum or gallery if indoors, and situated amidst the forces of police power if outdoors, in public space.
The notion of a nomadic studio combined with political gesture was very in tune with the mood of the 1960s, and was prescient in many ways of art to come. Other artists of Buren’s generation were involved in similar issues and real-time strategies, but the economy, versatility, and longevity of the “visual tool” has been remarkable. Inventive, sly, and visually arresting, his projects have infuriated spectators over the years (among them fellow artists who censored his project for The Guggenheim International Exhibition in 1971). Photographic documentation of Buren’s post-studio practice was done with great care over time and its collective title is “Photo-Souvenirs.”
The opportunity to conceive a project at the Guggenheim Museum as a mature artist, for a vastly changed art world and political context in 2005, presented a special challenge. Buren came up with something big: “The Eye of the Storm”. It consists of three installations displayed in different areas of the Guggenheim, individually entitled “Around the Corner”, in the Rotunda; “Wall of Paintings”, in the High Gallery; and “Color, Rhythm, Transparency, work in situ” in the Thannhauser Galleries’ annexes. Video displays of the Photo-Souvenirs are shown continuously in discrete nooks of the Rotunda.
Ready to see something momentous, visitors may think they have come to the museum on the wrong day when they first arrive at The Eye of the Storm. Just inside the dimly lit entrance, scaffolding extends from the floor to a tarp high above.
However, venturing around this obstacle, visitors find that the Guggenheim’s Rotunda is not only open; it feels unusually open and bright. The circular skylight at the apex of the museum takes on a stained glass window effect due to the presence of several magenta gels. Sunlight, tinted pink, filters down upon the spiraling white parapet, which has been embellished with stripes of shiny green-yellow paint. Yet there is more.
For Buren has further activated the soaring Rotunda space with a gigantic, mirror-panelled sculpture that juts a right angle into the central space of the museum. It’s supported by the network of poles and clamps seen at the museum’s entrance. The scale, size, shape, and position of this structure present a challenge to the museum’s very being; it’s as if part of a skyscraper has suddenly materialized in the Guggenheim’s ovoid environment, amplifying the existing light with its reflective angled surface area. It was created especially for daylight conditions and the approach of summer solstice.
The mirrored sculpture dominates the Rotunda yet also seems to disappear within it. Views of its front and back alternate as a visitor moves along the ramps, now on the bright side, now engulfed by industrial scaffolding on the twilight side. One finds that the mirrored facade actually spans across the ramps on each level and fastens itself to the exhibition bay walls like a treehouse. Chain link fencing in strategic places, minded by guards, foils recurring temptations to swing a leg over the parapet and explore Around the Corner from the back.
Buren made a well-calculated bet that spectators traipsing up and down the ramps would want to keep sight of the central space. Their view of the reflections and perspectives of this space – which includes their fellow visitors – changes step by step, level by level. Often, people stop to gaze into the Rotunda’s void. Sometimes, they seem to be in two places at once: doubled when they’re in view on the ramp as well as reflected in the mirrored walls. Because of the sculpture’s 90 degree angle, there is also the complication of seeing people from a perspective …. around the corner, moving in reverse.
Meanwhile, a spectator on the ground floor sees a line of heads continually bobbing along above the green stripes, the higher up the tinier. Buren is enthralled by the museum’s proportions, and what better way to bring them to life than by choreographing the visitors? The eye of a hurricane is the still center around which a storm whirls, and the ground floor of the Guggenheim is the ideal point for watching the spectators perform a walking ballet of everyday movement and benign surveillance around and around the ramps. Some visitors will be amused by this aspect of the installation; some might assume that the people-watching is incidental, if they notice it; and inevitably, some will think the whole thing is a lot of baloney. The bays where art works are usually displayed are completely empty.
At the ramp’s second level, the level-floored alcove called the High Gallery features Wall of Paintings, a seminal group of canvases that Buren executed from 1966 to 1977. These are some of the schematic paintings made of striped awning material and white paint. Reassembled from a private collection and hung salon style on the enormous walls of the High Gallery, they make a powerful visual statement. Reflected and gently distorted in the mirrored panels, their optical reverberations multiply and probably add subtle color effects to the Rotunda.
The third, 2-part work that makes up The Eye of the Storm is situated on the walls and windows of the cylindrical annex spaces adjacent to the Thannhauser Galleries. Window gels in bold colors and patterns are reflected in mirrored bars (at the signature width, of course) affixed to convex walls opposite them. Again there is a sense of play with the spectator’s changing position and the museum’s circle-themed architecture. The intention here was to play off a selection of paintings in the Guggenheim’s collection featuring works by Klee, Kandinsky, and other early modernist painters who split space and color into ambiguous perspectives within the picture plane. Although the distance between them and the bold graphics of the window treatments is too great to reconcile visually, the juxtaposition is revealing. Buren’s oeuvre is ultimately rooted in both modernism and early 20th century avant garde experiments in art, graphic design, photography, architecture, and politics.