Daniel Buren began as a painter, was soon drawn to abstraction and Minimalism and with that gradually exchanged canvas and independent surfaces for temporary murals, for site-specific and architectural construction. The drive outward; from self-contained two-dimensional works is typical of Minimalism and as works engage surroundings through more striking bases and supports, the emphasis upon strict pattern and colour by pigment or coating also changes. The work applied to wider grounds is no longer about painting, but pattern belonging to other materials and three dimensional structures and on a scale and integration that soon belongs to architecture.
The temporary, repeated or repeatable nature of many of Buren’s works also coincide with Conceptual Art, with the emphasis upon the work as an event or performance, record or plan, upon the terms of the pattern as something like a script or score (see also Posts 33 and 62). Buren’s work is a key part of the French Supports/Surfaces group of the late 60s. As the name suggests, the group was intent upon spelling out the relation between the work and the surface or support upon which it appeared. But this concern was shared with many Minimalists, if less explicitly, and the trajectory of such work demonstrates an important consequence of the broader style. This post traces Buren’s career as a prime example.
The artist’s development was rapid. From initial works in 1964, reflecting an acquaintance with CoBrA, the artist steadily abstracts his pictures to approximate symmetries and a strong linear bias. By 1966 parallel lines or stripes establish an area or fill for looser shapes, are strict, for masking tape, straight and vertical. The additional boundaries then fall away, leaving the work nothing but stripes, of an impressive scale and colour uniformity.
Painting can project such patterns to novel scale, materials and situation, but under Minimalism, it no longer seeks to invent them, but rather re-deploy them. Basic symmetries in stripes, grids, and less obviously, monochromes, are tested against novel materials and technique. But which patterns allow more radical applications, which techniques preserve such patterns (see also Posts 24, 47, 52 and 81), essentially establishes the scope of the project, the ambition of the artist. Differences within the style are sometimes divided between artists dedicated to process, as opposed to system (or pattern).
In Buren’s case he is content to let stripes drive applications, rather than consider the inverse. He occasionally resorts to grids or monochromes, but is not attracted to more elaborate recognised pattern, even of the kind used by colleague Claude Viallat, much less the radical pigments and techniques of contemporaries such as Linda Benglis, Larry Poons or Jules Olitski. Neither more adventurous pattern nor pigment recipe tempts. Instead stripes and flat colours acquire architectural fixture and efficient duplication, yet by this, also lose some of their reference to painting. The project is smoothly exchanged for an interest in three-dimensional qualities, in lighting, transparencies, reflectance and events.
Stripes and grids still recur, but their significance has less to do with pigment, more with other materials and situation. It is this dissipation to one arm of abstraction that occasionally led critics to suppose painting had been replaced by the 80s, or that abstraction no longer needed painting. But this is to exaggerate the impact and impetus of the project, to ignore rival developments in abstraction and painting.
Buren can preserve an interest in colour definition, but that does not necessarily make the works about painting or abstraction. Typically, his work has been applied to public thoroughfares, to paths, gateways, stairs and viewing points, and these situations influence the meaning to the colour. Not that colour ultimately resides in architecture, of course, but such work underlines the surfaces and supports to areas of herding or channelling the public. Egress colours the colour. They signal not just an abstract sense of motion and masses, but also an anonymous conformity or compliance, perhaps alienation. Indeed, the all-encompassing integration of many of his works can feel either stifling and almost coercive, or so subtly pervasive as to hardly register as more than the trivial, to sense the work all but dissolving into mere formula. At times, Buren’s work recalls that of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in this respect.
These are the standards against which to measure the site-specific and work of temporary or multiple instances. While they might commence as a projection from painting or sculpture, the impetus to counter projects, not least from architecture, ultimately stalls or traduces them, absorbs them into larger civic concerns. It leaves painting and abstraction other routes, ultimately leaves Minimalism exhausted.