Restoration Drama


Not being a fan of Daniel Buren’s work, I expected to dismiss his Titanic-scaled mirror-covered boat prow of an installation at the Guggenheim Museum as an overblown folly, a boring last gasp from an over-the-hill “institutional critique” artist, and too little too late from this troubled museum. Instead, I experienced something paradoxical and revealing. “The Eye of the Storm: Works in Situ by Daniel Buren,” as this show is clumsily called, suggests that “institutional critique” art—work that 40 years ago was ideologically adverse to the spaces it inhabited—has lately transformed from something accusatory and oppositional into something more exploratory and user-friendly.

The 66-year-old Buren once claimed to be “a virulent opponent of the institution.” Now he says, “All artists are part of it.” This doesn’t mean his art has turned docile or that he’s a toady. It means he recognizes that today institutions are ubiquitous, and not the authoritative, privileged places they once seemed. Artists now treat museums like gallery spaces and relish the larger audiences. The walls have fallen between the inside and the outside of the institution. As Olafur Eliasson recently remarked in Artforum, “There is no outside anymore. Artists and institutions are linked together.”

Buren is known primarily for his stripe paintings, which he calls “visual tools”—amalgams of Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella by way of Matisse and readymades. Since 1966, Buren has installed these “tools” in museums, train stations, bus stops, or wherever. Essentially, Buren branded himself before there was branding. But his main claim to fame is for something that happened at the Guggenheim in 1971. That February Buren unfurled a gigantic 66 x 32 foot “visual tool” where his mirrored structure is now. Except it was a group show and a number of big-gun artists flew into a rage, including Donald Judd, who lambasted Buren as “a paperhanger” and an “outlaw,” and Dan Flavin (whose own work interfered with that of others, but never mind), who referred to him as “little Buren,” xenophobically dismissing his “French drapery” as “a ruthless negative gesture intended to advance his marginal career.” Buren once talked about “crossing the Maginot Line” of art. Although he probably meant something purely academic, in 1971 he did cross a line, and the guns turned on him. Judd and company demanded that his work be removed. It was. The public never saw the piece. Buren’s heart was broken, but his name was made.

For his return engagement, Buren picks up exactly where he left off, yet he’s completely changed tacks. Constructed of chain-link fence and metal piping, Around the Corner, as the installation is awkwardly called, reflects and completes the museum when you view it from any of the ramps. On each level you can walk behind and through the scaffolding. As simple as it is, Around the Corner does a number of remarkable things.

First, it functions like a time machine. Because the exhibition is so pared down and empty, people shy away from or actually shun it, preferring the galleries where the permanent collection is installed (the museum will munificently refund admission fees to disgruntled visitors). Thus, the main space of the Guggenheim is often only sparsely peopled. This takes you back to a time before museums were tourist attractions and circuses. It reinstates some of the specialness and poise of a museum. You can have quiet moments here and lingering looks rather than only elbowing your way through the throng. Around the Corner reminds you that museums are places where we go to experience our senses more fully. In some way, they’re sex machines.

In the Guggenheim, your eye is usually drawn away from the art to its soaring center space. Buren reverses this in a very John Cage way. Having the walls empty creates a void that the eye and mind fill. Unexpected things come into high focus: cracking walls, paint swellings and serrations, dust bunnies, and missing and broken panes of glass. The Guggenheim comes alive in new ways, entropy emerges as an aesthetic quality, and the whole museum turns into a living Thomas Struth photograph. You can make out where parts of “The Aztec Empire” exhibition recently were, or where Matthew Barney climbed the parapet. Not only is this fairly thrilling and wistful, it makes you recognize how every detail is crucial in the delivery mechanisms of art that we call museums.

This heightened awareness comes into full effect behind the scaffolding, where you grasp the enormous effort involved in creating places for art, and behold the aspiring, ardent, absurd artifice of it all. Buren has always wanted art to be something that is part of life but that also heightens that life while exploring it. He says he wanted to create “an uninterrupted, beautiful symphony.” Here, he almost does that.

Buren’s gesture forces one other thing into prickly consciousnesses. Probably no other New York museum would host a show so over-the-top, anomalous, vacant, and uninviting. It may rankle to admit it, but sometimes it takes a museum run by a kind of gangster to allow art to return to its outlaw roots.