French conceptual artist Daniel Buren
Daniel Buren is a charming man: gently spoken, quick to smile, punctiliously courteous in the French manner. But he is also very stubborn. He refuses, for example, to speak about his private life: not even his childhood or what led him to art. “This is of no interest,” he says mildly. “I could say anything. I could say my parents were great painters or they could be tennis stars…”
Pushed, the grand old man of French art makes a statement: “My biography is very simple: Daniel Buren. Born 25 March, ’38. Works and lives in situ.”
His situ at the moment is Sydney, where he is installing a major piece at Carriageworks, called Like Child’s Play. On first approach, it looks like a children’s playhouse. Half of its geometric sections are painted in bright primary colours, the other half are pristine white. From one end you can look clear through the different little houses – through round portholes lined up at eye level and decorated on the inner rim with Buren’s trademark stripes in black and white – right down to the other end of the space.
The work was inspired by the ideas of German educationist Friedrich Fröbel, who invented the concept and name of the kindergarten and designed sets of building blocks for educational play. This is the fourth iteration of it: Buren has already built Like Child’s Play in Strasbourg, Naples and Mexico.
Presumably the workmen installing it have had different problems to contend with in each location. While Buren takes a break to eat a banana by way of lunch in the installation room, the supervisor tells me the uneven floor of this old building is worrying him. The geometric sections of each little house aren’t glued, but rested on top of one another. We share some black humour about them toppling off onto the head of a passing arts patron.
Buren may be mild mannered but he has been dogged by controversy throughout his career – through no fault of his own, he says. He was “sacked”, as he puts it, from his first invitation to show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1971 because Donald Judd and Dan Flavin were furious he was given a central position in the group exhibition. He had asked for the space in the very centre of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed spiral, which had only ever been used once before, for a small sculpture by Alexander Calder.
“It was mainly psychological,” he says now, getting worked up all over again. “How can very mature artists like Judd or Flavin – how can they in their own city, in New York, accept that a totally unknown French artist had more space than them? It was absolutely unbearable for them.
“You can read it in a text by Donald Judd,” he continues. “He was totally against European art, and mainly French art.”
The next furore came 14 years later, in France itself, and the politics were of a totally different order. He was commissioned to decorate the courtyard of the Palais-Royal. The result was Les Deux Plateaux (The Two Levels): black and white pillars dot the courtyard and, below ground, under grilles, water flows and a light show illuminates the columns at night.
For most visitors now, the black and white pillars that dot the space are completely taken for granted. They are popular with children, skateboarders, and selfie-takers. I can’t even imagine them not being there.
At the time, however, the controversy took two forms. One was from traditionalists outraged that a contemporary artist was going to desecrate a 17th-century masterpiece of Paris’s great architectural heritage. “Striped columns?” they gasped. Worse, the courtyard is flanked on one side by the Ministry of Culture. That it was commissioned under the auspices of the socialist president François Mitterrand, and his flamboyant culture minister, Jack Lang, didn’t help.
The other controversy was altogether more ghastly. Buren is Jewish. It was the first time, he says, that the extreme Right had raised its head and publicly expressed naked anti-Semitism since the Holocaust. “People said at the time, ‘Oh, Daniel, you are exaggerating.’ I said, ‘Show me when and where.’ Even among the graffiti in Paris, it had never been seen since the war.”
It was, he says, right at the time when Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front was gaining strength. It was also interesting that an artwork triggered it, not a political action. “And an artwork which said nothing, which was completely abstract,” he points out. “But they invent things, people like the Front National. They said, ‘You know it’s a homage to the deported people in Auschwitz.’ ”
And this because the stripes evoked the uniforms of concentration camp inmates? “Can you believe that?” he asks rhetorically. They were pushing that line even before the work was finished, and Buren feared the work would be destroyed as soon as the construction barriers came done. His fears weren’t realised.
“It was never vandalised and it is today one of the places in Paris that is most visited. It’s not even like something that just became anonymous and no one cares anymore. I think the public today would be the first to defend it if there was an attempt from any political group to say we have to get rid of it.”
Two decades later, in 2008, the columns were again in the news when Buren made a fuss because the work had fallen into disrepair. The fountain that had been elaborately constructed was no longer working. The paint on the columns was flaking. The traditionalists said, “Good, let’s take it down.” But again they were in the minority. The government, of course, wasn’t keen on spending money.
France’s law, le droit d’auteur, ensuring the “moral right” of artists over their work in perpetuity, came to his rescue. “You know, in France we have some very bad things, but also some good things,” Buren says. The moral right of artists is extremely well-defended, he says, adding: “So far.”
He compares it with the American system, where the dollar is king and buyers can do whatever they wish with their acquisitions.
He took the matter to court and the columns were refurbished and the fountain is still up and running.
Buren’s life work is about more than controversy. Since the very beginning, he has taken unorthodox paths. Yet the art itself shows lifelong preoccupations: with the abstract, with those stripes, with ways of seeing.
Buren is passionately a man of the Left, but he doesn’t believe in art that delivers political messages. The very act of presenting a work in public is a political statement, whether it has anything interesting to say or not, he suggests. But the incorporation of current political messages is nothing more than virtue signalling.
“Most of these works are much less interesting than what you can read in the newspaper,” he says. “When you already saw that six months before in a report by a journalist, and you learn a lot, and it might have a pretty strong impact which you retain in your mind … When you see these works, they don’t tell you anything new.”
He’s working himself up again, in his mild way. “It’s shit decoration for a bourgeois apartment,” he says.
Buren studied at the old École des Metiers d’Art, taking the pure painting course from a variety of applied studies. At the end of the three-year course, he applied to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and lasted two weeks: the place was stuffy, conventional.
He travelled the world. He spent a summer studying Mexican murals. He met interesting people. One of them owned a luxury hotel on a Caribbean island and invited Buren to paint murals on its walls. He was given a free hand: the owners didn’t even live there, he says. “I lived there for one year and I painted 20 big murals on wood. I think I really cleared my head for the rest of my life. I was 20 years old and I was able to do things that I would have taken years to understand were not so good.”
He returned to Paris and re-enrolled at the Beaux-Arts, with the ulterior motive of dodging the draft. France was at war in Algeria at the time, a war the Left was passionately against. It had just extricated itself from the war in Indochina. This was the lingering aftermath of France’s brutal colonial period.
Buren enrolled three more times at the school, but did not attend. It gave him three years’ delay to his military service and finally a military officer with an anti-war bent exempted him for good. Signing the paperwork, he told Buren, “Okay, I will exempt you from this stupidity.”
Buren did it, he says, because he didn’t want to go to war and he didn’t want to go to jail. “I did not want either one, but to waste your time in jail would be even more stupid than maybe to learn something if you went to Algeria.”
In the 1960s, he began guerilla interventions around his home town. He glued his famous stripes all over the place, sometimes on unlikely objects, sometimes obscuring advertisements. “It was a gesture against the inanity of the use of images of something to sell, which had already started to affect our vision everywhere in the world. Cuba is the only place that has no advertising images, and I can tell you it’s a relief to go there.”
He paused during the events of May ’68, which he supported, because he didn’t want to compete with what he thought were important political messages going up around Paris. He returned to his work when things settled and refined the parameters. Paris was his canvas, he says, and his stripes, made with masking tape and paint, have measured precisely 8.7 centimetres ever since.
In the ’60s he decided to quit the idea of having a studio and he hasn’t worked in one since. His installations may have become bigger, more beautiful, more expensive, and he is in demand around the world. He has exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale many times, and won its highest accolade, the Golden Lion, in 1986. But his preoccupations remain the same. He may not be making political statements, but his abstractions are intended to convey emotion.
“For me, colour is pure thought, and therefore completely inexpressible, every bit as abstract as a mathematical formula or a philosophical concept,” Buren once explained to the French curator-critic Jérôme Sans. “Colour is a huge problem. It seems to me difficult to apply rules to it. Are there any? At every moment, colour has to be invented. There are no safeguards.”
Last Saturday, at a keynote speech at Carriageworks, Buren talked through a slide show that took his work chronologically from those heady, experimental early days to the authoritative present.
Early on, he was invited to paint murals in galleries. In the ’60s, he sealed the door of Milan’s Galleria Apollinaire with his stripes. In the ’70s, he painted bus benches in Los Angeles. In 1980, he painted the doors of trains in Chicago: they were in situ and moving, he says, and people had five seconds to see them as they flashed past. “How long do we stand to see a painting?” he asks, by way of contrast. “No one knows how long you need.”
In 1982, in Dijon, he designed a backdrop to the local TV news: over a week, one square of stripes would be added each night to the wall behind the newsreaders, until the whole wall was covered. The following week it started all over again in a different colour. The female newsreader began to wear blouses that matched. “We said nothing to the viewers, and people rang to say, ‘What’s happening to the decor?’ ”
A recent work in China was a line of large, red-stripe-topped discs on stems, marching across the sea. A work of stripes in San Gimignano was meant to be taken down after the exhibition because of the strict heritage laws in the Tuscan city, but the locals liked it so much they decided to leave it intact. Some works with mirrors are pure visual magic.
Emerging from Buren’s lecture into the bright sunshine, into the racket of Carriageworks’ market day, is a shock. Things look different. Askew. Then you realise it’s the effect of that quiet man’s simple, geometric interpretations of the world: his vision is contagious.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Child’s play". Subscribe here.