The Armory Show Plays Unlikely Host to a Daniel Buren Mini-Retrospective
“You could make a hundred different selections of my work from the last 50 years,” Daniel Buren tells me over the phone. “But when you make the selection, you have something special.” The iconic 76-year-old French artist, who is known for his endlessly iterative vocabulary of vertical stripes—purple, yellow, black, painted, sculpted, mirrored, in-situ, illuminated, and even carried through the streets of Manhattan on wooden placards in a famous 1975 performance—is in New York this week accompanying a mini-retrospective of his work, installed in the booth of Paris gallery kamel mennour, which is making its first appearance at The Armory Show in 10 years. “We were limited to the works that have the capacity to be presented in this setting,” Buren says. “[Non-site-specific] works like this represent less than 2–3% of my work, it’s a tiny minority of the work that I made.”
An art fair might seem an unlikely setting for an artist who considers his work to be altered once it’s removed from a site-specific context and sometimes destroys work after it has been shown, and who has consistently pushed at the limits of art and the constraints of presenting it in a white cube. The arc of Daniel Buren’s practice is nonetheless on show here, in the form of nine works created between 1965 and 2015. The earliest of these hail from the very beginning of Buren’s flirtation with stripes, Kamel Mennour says, beckoning me into a small chamber at the back of the booth, where three paintings display just a hint of the stripe, or “visual tool,” that would become Buren’s signature. In Peinture émail sur toile (1965), loosely rendered stripes in mild tones of yellow, green, and pink play the backdrop, rather than the central motif, to a curvilinear white form that bleeds off the edge of the painting.
“We are in the Caribbean, he’s 26 years old,” Mennour explains of Buren’s first stripe canvases. “At that point he found this graphic system of the stripe in painting. He was at war with painting then; he wanted to destroy the Paris school and destroy painting. These were made with paint used for boats—at that time he was very poor and starting his career, and he was using whatever he could find.” From there, Buren reduced his visual language down to stripes painted onto fabric. “Here we are in ’66,” Mennour continues, gesturing at two near-square compositions, one with vertical tan stripes, the other with orange and white in fields against a pink background, divided by very faint seams. “He bought fabric in a very famous French boutique. The fabric sheets were only small; his mother was sewing them together. These big paintings are an homage to the big American paintings, but you can see that they are hemmed together.”
Buren applied his minimal, 8.7-centimeter-wide lines to wood next. “I touched so many different materials over the course of my career,” the artist says, “we tried to represent as much as possible of the different materials. In 1965–66 I was working with stripes and linen, in a very systematic style of painting. Then I started to work in the street, gluing fabric to wood; later even working with graffiti. I kept the stripes as a visual tool, as a sign to lead your eyes to another spot in a space, for example.” Also on view in the booth is a work from 2010, a giant, wall-mounted aluminum circle bracketed by four triangles, all five elements adorned with white lacquer paint and black adhesive paint, and covered in a layer of orange Dibond, to form stripes along its edges. The most recent piece on view, created this year, is a square marble-and-granite slab covered in vertical black-and-white stripes, suggesting Buren has moved progressively toward immortalizing his motif in solid, sculptural forms, though he has worked with marble for some 30 years.
Kamel Mennour’s mini-retrospective might be viewed as the latest example of art fairs turning increasingly curatorial in recent years. “In 2011 there was a presentation at MoMA of its recent acquisitions, a big part of European minimalism that was missing from the collection,” Mennour explains about the conception of the Buren booth. “There was a full room of Daniel Buren from the ’70s. It gave me the idea to present something like this for an international audience. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but to give an entry point into where this obsession came from. A kind of promenade through the work of Daniel Buren.”