An early practitioner of what would come to be known as institutional critique, French conceptual artist Daniel Buren, now 75, has an unassailable place in art history. In the mid-1960s, he joined with artists Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni to form the group BMPT. Seeking to make canvases that would exist solely as visual and material fact, each of BMPT’s members selected a single, reductive motif, which was employed in all of that individual’s works. For Buren, this motif was a pattern, based on awning fabric, of alternating vertical stripes (each exactly 8.7 centimeters wide) of white and a single color. He has used it in his art ever since.
By the 1970s, along with artists including Marcel Broodthaers and Michael Asher, Buren was making art that drew attention away from the object and toward the daily operations and physical spaces of museums and galleries, challenging their supposed neutrality. He began to use his signature stripes—in the form of pre-printed fabric or paper—to frame and pierce the facades and interiors of these institutions, putting the focus on their architecture and, by extension, the network of social, cultural and economic forces affecting the perceived esthetic and monetary value of the objects therein.
These days, Buren is an institution himself, a producer of large-scale public art, some of it grand, much of it grandiose, that frequently demonstrates how fine the line can be between conceptualism and kitsch. Both could be found in this two-gallery show in New York. Remakes of earlier site-specific works, most from the 1960s and 1970s, on display at Petzel were a revelation, while the show of more recent stand-alone objects at Bortolami was a disappointment.
At Petzel the pieces were largely installations of wallpaper printed with Buren’s trademark stripes. Black and white banding ran along the bottom of several walls like an overgrown baseboard. A large wall covered in sunny yellow and white stripes and lit with a theatrical spot conjured an empty stage. From doorways on either side of this wall emanated a pinkish glow, created by colored gels applied to a skylight in another room. Elsewhere, the rectangle of a doorway was echoed on the wall facing it by an identically proportioned section of blue-and-white striped paper, activating the space in between.
Buren’s days of radical social resistance seem long past. But, at Petzel, the older works remained fully operational. Here, Buren’s installations of gels and printed paper—expressionless in and of themselves—slyly underscored the ways that Chelsea gallery spaces evoke cathedrals, stage sets and grand, old-fashioned interiors, and thereby revealed the theatrics attendant to art’s purchase and presentation. By contrast, at Bortolami, rectangles of crumpled canvas, each overlaid with sheets of white-striped Plexiglas that selectively masked the canvases’ colored stripes, seemed confined and inert. Somewhat flashier, but equally cramped looking, were four sail-shaped banners, made of a fiber-optic fabric that lights up in blue and white stripes when an electric cur rent is passed through it. These seemed more like models for a larger project—perhaps a fleet of boats with glowing sails. On the evidence, making objects seems not to be Buren’s forte. He should stick to installations.
View of Daniel Buren’s Projection, Work in Situ 2013 (Ref. Gerry Schum Group Exhibition at Louisiana Museum Humlebaek, January 1972), printed paper; at Petzel.