Daniel Buren - Biography and Legacy
French Painter, Sculptor, Conceptual Artist
Biography of Daniel Buren
Daniel Buren is an artist who likes to keep his personal life private and insists on the separation between his autobiography and his work. Consequently, he shares very little about his private life and we know almost nothing about his childhood, except that he was born in Boulogne-Billancourt in France in 1938.
When asked how he goes about eliminating himself from his work, he replied: "That is a very personal, almost ethical position I developed when I was very young and one I feel is still very valid. Of course, I exist like anybody else, but I always try to put aside any personal elements from my practice. It's actually not tricky at all - I will always separate biographical information from what I am trying to say with my work. It doesn't inform it at all. If you ask me about childhood memories or what my favorite restaurant is, I won't answer. My taste is irrelevant."
He continues, "I could say anything. I could say my parents were great painters or they could be tennis stars..."
Early Training and Work
Buren studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Métiers d'Art in Paris, graduating in 1960. In the early 1960s, he began painting as a form of conceptual art, dubbing it a "degree zero of painting". However, in 1965 Buren spent a year on Saint Croix, an island in the Caribbean, where he had been commissioned to produce frescoes for the Grapetree Bay Hotel. During this time, he eschewed traditional figurative or abstract painting in favor of creating work composed of 8.7cm-wide vertical stripes in white and one other color. This has been the main compositional component of almost all his work since.
Buren received considerable early success in Paris, winning both the Grand Prix at the Paris Biennale and the Prix Lefranc de la Jeune Peinture (prize for young painters) in 1965. Soon after this, he started working with Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni. Together, the four painters formed the group BMPT, whose aim was to disrupt and challenge traditional notions of authorship and exhibition. They also sought to produce paintings that were without extrinsic meaning or art historical references, focusing on the works' objecthood as paintings and attempting to eradicate the mystique and aura of art. Although he had already adopted his signature stripes when he started working with the group, BMPT's theories and approaches helped to develop and strengthen the logic behind his choice. He later explained that he selected this signature technique because "stripes are boring... the reason I use the stripes is because it is absolutely meaningless."
BMPT wanted to challenge the concepts of artistic talent and originality, as well as the genius of the individual artist. They did this by signing each other's work and by staging unexpected "happenings" (or "manifestations"); in one, the paying audience was forced to sit for an hour looking at four paintings which had ostensibly been hung as a backdrop to a conference that then never took place. Marcel Duchamp is said to have been impressed by how frustrating the experience was for the audience.
Buren's first major solo show was held at Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in 1968, during which he blocked the entrance to the gallery with his stripes. In May 1968, he also took part in the influential student demonstrations in Paris, sharing the protestors' anti-establishment feelings.
In 1969, Harald Szeemann curated the groundbreaking exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in Bern, Switzerland, in which process-focused and Conceptual artists were given the freedom to present avant-garde and experimental work in an institutional setting. All of Buren's artist friends were involved and although Szeemann had visited his studio while researching for the exhibition, he was not invited. Given that the premise of the exhibition was artistic freedom, Buren felt that he should be able to contribute despite this and so arrived in Bern three days before the show's opening to see how he might intervene. On arrival in the Bern Kunsthalle, Joseph Beuys asked Buren where his work was, and on discovering he had not been invited, offered Buren a section of Beuys' own large exhibition space to show his striped papers. On consideration Buren thanked Beuys, but instead made a statement outside the walls of the institution and covered billboards around the city in his signature stripes the night before the exhibition opening. His antics caused him to be arrested and he had to flee Switzerland to escape the authorities.
He says of this encounter: "I had the great help of two friends artists, Berndt Lohaus and Lawrence Weiner. With the little car I was renting to do so for the night, we covered the full city with striped papers white and pink. [...] Around three o'clock in the morning, I dropped my friends at their hotel and went back to mine. Around four o'clock, sleeping deeply, some heavy knocks shake my door. I wake up and stand up in front of two policemen in civilian clothes with pistols pointing toward me. They push me against the wall of my room and check under the bed where they find my striped papers and at the foot of my bed the bucket with the remainder of the glue and the brushes, which I hadn't yet washed. They took everything, asked me to dress myself and to follow them to the police station where they put me inside a cell! Then in the morning around nine o'clock some other policemen started to do an interrogation: what are you doing? Who are you? Why these papers? Why are they white and red? In fact, they were white and soft pink. Etc, etc".
A lawyer friend then helped secure Buren's release on the condition that he removed all of the pasted up stripes from the city, however he fled Switzerland without doing this, and eventually the case was dropped.
This was part of a series of guerrilla-style artistic interventions in public spaces made by Buren, who in the earlier stages of his career rarely had permission from the relevant authorities. In the late 1960s, for example, he embarked on a campaign of fly-posting posters of his black-and-white stripes around Paris (a series he described as affichages sauvages - "savage/wild posterings"), and in 1970 he illegally painted his stripes on benches around Los Angeles.
In 1971, Buren was invited to take part in a group show at the Guggenheim, which was intended to allow artists to explore unconventional aspects of the building. Buren created a large banner (66 by 32 feet), which was hung in the central space of the museum. However, artists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin complained that the work obscured their own pieces, and the piece was removed the day before the exhibition's opening. Buren later said in an interview, "That was bad for me", although he added, "It also turned against them." By this, Buren meant that although it was bad for his career to be excluded from the Guggenheim show at the time, his later success meant that Judd and Flavin were widely criticized for asking that Buren's work be removed.
In the 1970s, Buren engaged in a number of solo and collaborative performance pieces. These included a boat race in which all the yachts had sails were decorated with Buren's stripes, and a performance in Berlin alongside Jannis Kounellis, Wolf Vostell and other artists as part of ADA - Aktionen der Avantgarde.
By the 1980s, Buren was more focused on creating large-scale installations in public spaces. The most famous of these was his 1986 work Les Deux Plateaux in the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris. In the same year, Buren exhibited a solo pavilion for France at the Venice Biennale, and was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion award for his installation.
In recent years, Buren's work has become more interested in the architectural and in creating spaces that are both architectural in their own right and respond to the surrounding buildings. His later period has also been characterized by a series of permanent installations, including at Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.
In 2007, Buren contributed work once more to the Venice Biennale and also curated a selection of work by the younger installation, performance, and conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, for the French pavilion. Buren continues to make art, often working in public spaces. For example in 2017, Buren created a permanent site-specific installation in Tottenham Court Road London Underground station.
The Legacy of Daniel Buren
Buren's work has been influential on a wide range of artists. In particular, his espousal of a single artistic component throughout his career (the 8.7cm-wide stripe) has given confidence to other artists working only with a single technique or style over their careers, such as Rachel Whiteread and Bridget Riley. Buren's use of non-figurative stripes, and his methods of challenging the traditional ground-figuration relationship in painting, also influenced the Op artists.
His site-specific, large-scale installations in public spaces and in galleries are important models for installation and public art, for example the work of Richard Serra, as well as more contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson. Buren also effectively conveyed his ideas through his extensive writings, which were published collectively under the title Les Écrits in 1991 and 2012. These texts are often aimed at dismantling or dissecting the art establishment, for example by challenging the function of the museum; an idea that has since been influential on a number of later artists such as Sophie Calle.