This document is printer friendly, simply select "Print" from the file menu in your browser.

Performing the Frame:

Daniel Buren, Degree Zero Painting and a Politics of Beauty

by Charissa N. Terranova


All acts are political, and whether one is conscious or not, the presentation of one's work/production does not escape this rule. Daniel Buren, "En Regard"1

...I dare say that any work based on a strong main idea, one which is interesting and politically just, as well as one which poses a number of questions and without this being in any way a cause for worry on our part, an aesthetic success, a beautiful one. Daniel Buren, Interview2


daniel buren

Daniel Buren, The Rotating Square - In and Out of the Frame, 1989

The work of Daniel Buren, his craft both written and manual, is constituted by the dynamism of dialectical thinking, a certain to-and-fro of intellectual questioning that, while in the continual process of interrogation and the dismantling of the traditions of art history and art making, is nevertheless devoted to experiences of beauty. This is not to say that his work is not equally political. Clearly, his promise in 1965 to make only artwork composed of two-toned stripes, each 8.7 centimeters wide, for the rest of his career as an artist was a defiant act: a critique and recalcitrant rejection of institutional art and its supportive institutions, namely the museum and gallery.3 Yet Buren is an artist. His work has sensual effects and, as such, it is pleasing to the senses. For Buren, who has been hailed as a conceptual artist, that is, an artist whose work is invariably accompanied by theoretical writing, there is no sense, that is, sense in terms of touch and meaning, without thought. In short, it is a thinking body that experiences the pleasures of beauty. Beauty, either as it is the product of codification within the sacrosanct white walls of the gallery or as it is the disinterested effect of a discreet installation on the sidewalk, is always a political matter.

Beauty for Buren is thus also dialectical, occupying the space between his critique of institutions and the existence of his own work: that is, on the one hand, what Buren views as the concept of "beauty" that belies Art History's canonizing will to power and, on the other, his own work, of which he says little concerning beauty, but that nevertheless displays a lucid understanding of composition, architectural space and a certain visual splendor that is at once playfully ironic and poignant in its critique. There is thus a politics of beauty at work in Buren's work expressing itself through these two poles: a politics which is at once a discourse of words concerning how we define "art" and more implicitly "beauty" and production itself, that is, the act of making art. The driving force of this politics, Buren's penchant for critique through representation, is his unreconstructed belief in the creative act, or more precisely, acts of making which are freed from the prescriptions and proscriptions of institutional decree. His is thus a belief that there can be, that there must be, works of art outside the confines of artistic protocol, that is, beyond traditional conceptions of art that have been historically dominated by painting and its structural components: the practice of rumination while standing or sitting upright before a canvas framed and hung on a white wall.

In a similarly dialectical manner, one of Buren's earliest attempts to destabilize traditional notions of art took place within and under the auspices of a publicly sanctioned annual art exhibition, those of the gallery space of the Salon of Young Painters in Paris. There in January of 1967, a group of young artists - Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni - collaborated in an exhibition that would call into question the foundations of art, in particular by casting doubt on its premier form, painting. The show would not be a display of the artists' work per se, of the objects that they had made, but rather an exhibition of the absence of the artists' work. The showing had thus become precisely that, a showing, a performance of sorts, in which the artists painted their canvases in public, on site in the gallery, only to dismantle them during the opening night of the exhibition, leaving behind only white walls for the duration of the so-called show.4 The show was thus an statement of degree-zero painting. That is to say, the works that were made were anti-illusionist indexes pointing, in their presence and absence, to the materiality of the paint and the surrounding structure, both material and ideological, of the gallery. The paintings were minimal: Buren's two-toned vertical stripes; Mosset's small black circle centered on a white canvas; Parmentier's two-toned horizontal stripes; and Toroni's small stains of paint. They represented the final vestiges of painting as a form of high art. Yet ultimately the artists were not concerned with displaying these objects. It was instead the extraction of the work from the gallery space that would be the punctum of the show. Recalling the thinking of Louis Althusser, a philosopher who influenced Buren greatly at the time, the ultimate absence of the works revealed the ideological apparatus of the exhibition's envelope, laying bare what for Buren were the machinations behind any such legitimately accepted notion of "Art".5

Playing on the French term manifestation, meaning political demonstration and artistic statement, the show was called "Manifestation no. 1." And there, in this small artistic demonstration, they refuted tradition: the artists rejected the world of art conceived according to hierarchies, more precisely that hierarchy in which painting is seen as the most valuable and thus most true art. They certified their poetic rebellion in writing, in a collectively written poem composed of a litany of hypocrisies that, from their point of view, was constitutive of painting (that it is, for example, at once a tool of aestheticism and the Vietnam War). At the end of the poem, they declared "we are not painters".6 As such, they sought to transform the role of the artist from the proverbial artist-cum-genius to the anonymous, nameless anyman. The show was thus a collaborative yet anonymous effort, thereby making the work anonymous as well. The canvases were subjectless both in terms of representation, as they were without narrative reference to any other reality other than the paint itself and the social and intellectual structure of the gallery, and in terms of psychology, as the artist of each canvas was one of four collaborators, a team of anonymous makers without subjecthood.

In a time, the late 1960s, when political exigency determined the will of most acts of meaningful and collective statement, the exhibition sought to reveal painting's bad faith: that the traditional definition of painting as something sacred, autonomous, and separate from everyday life in the streets was not only morbidly obsolete but also in fact painting's greatest contradiction. Indeed such ignorance and denial on the part of traditional art was intentional, so Buren argued, as it was part of the logic of converting art from an everyday object to a sacred and commercially valuable object. And this is precisely what the absence of the works for the duration of the show was meant to underscore: that is to say, the foible of art, and thus painting's noyau of contradiction, conceived primarily in terms of its objecthood, to appropriate a word from Michael Fried, and thus also its status as a commodity. For Buren and his compatriots, the visual rhetoric of sanctity and autonomy within the realm of the museum and gallery as represented by the aseptic white walls and hollow spaces was but the means to increase the value of a given work of art within the market. As such, painting, and any art that participated in the system of institutional approval, became just another commodity, at base no better nor worse than the walkaday life of the city and streets from which it sought to distance and protect itself by way of the carapace of the gallery's white walls and hermetic space. The marked absence of art objects inside the gallery space was thus a silent declaration, a subtle prise de parole, that art should exist, and for that matter already did exist, outside of institutional space and approval. The empty space of the gallery pointed to the citizen and the streets of the city. Buren would carry this logic of art newly conceived to the streets, exiting the controlled and predictable spaces of the gallery for the hazards of public life within the streets.

Art for Buren thus became essentially urban in nature, a performance within the streets of Paris marked by a certain precarious duty to instantaneous action. In this early work, he conceived the city both in terms of place and action, the site of creative installation driven by political belief. And as such, his work from the time resonates with the work and political action of his contemporaries, that is to say, the artwork-cum-rebellion of the situationists, the neo-avant-gardist group of artists, architects and writers active in Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s, and the student riots in the streets of Paris in 1968. Paralleling the urban guerilla tactics of the situationists, Buren installed his "Affichages sauvages," his feral posters, in the streets of Paris, precisely on those walls officially sanctioned for advertisements. He used the streets for creative acts of détournement, a term that translates into English roughly as "highjacking" or "embezzlement." For the situationists, détournement was the rebellious process of taking something that has commonly held use and meaning, such as a comic strip or the streets of Paris, and reusing it in a subversive manner without public approval or legitimacy. Echoing the logic of allegory given to us by Walter Benjamin, the situationist act of détournement was constituted by a process of evacuation and reinvention, that is, the emptying-out of the original meaning of a given form and the refilling of that form with a new meaning.

Using parallel reasoning in April of 1968, Buren, with his "Affichages sauvages," pasted 200 striped posters in Paris without proper authorization on already existing billboards and other spaces specifically reserved for advertising. His defacement of the quotidian spaces of advertising with banal striped posters signified a certain refusal and negation of the status quo. And, as détournement, he used the spaces of advertising, arguably spaces of co-optation, for critique and refusal. His actions were at once against the proliferation of advertising in Paris and, in keeping with his critique of the traditional art institution, meant to illustrate the boundlessness of art when released from the confines of the gallery and museum. Freed from the realm of bad faith commodification, art would exist, for Buren, as experience, that is, as an uncommodified and unrequited event in the streets. As a site of action, the city was thus for Buren limitless, a new space of exhibition without frontiers or rules. No longer would painting be limited by the aforementioned strictures of tradition: those delimiting art to the putative categories of the traditional Fine Arts and those, in particular, binding painting to the tradition of quiet reflection before a square or rectangular canvas hung on a wall and held properly within its frame. In short, like the situationist act of détournement and the student riots, art for Buren would be an event, something happening in the streets.

His need to symbolically critique the status quo; his penchant to voice his refutation in the street; in short, his capture of language or prise de parole: these fervid beliefs and desires of Buren's resonate with Michel de Certeau's analysis of the events of May, 1968 in Paris. And it is here, in this comparison of the ideas of Buren and de Certeau, that we begin to understand Buren's conception of the city as something beyond the place of situationist game: that is, the city conceptualized in terms of political principle and ideal. The stripes thus become a signifier of a certain lived freedom, both artistic and civic in nature. In his political writings from the time, de Certeau describes the student demonstrations of May 1968 in terms of their ephemeralness, as they were but momentary lived events of language captured in purposive speech. As such, "the word became a symbolic place, designating the space created by the distance which separates the represented from their representations, the members of a society and the modalities of their association." 7 That is to say, the events of May, 1968 created a separation between structure and inhabitant, cultural mores and person: an Althusserian rift that revealed the ideological contingency of all that seemed stable and real. Similar to the revelatory capacity of the demonstration posters carried by the students, Buren's stripes on the streets revealed the structures of art, pointing to the limitations and prejudices at work within the spaces of exhibition and historiography, namely the museum, the gallery and the discipline of Art History.

His close allegiance to the logic of the speech act, that is, his investment in social critique in public spaces, would foster the emergence of one of the defining principles of his work, namely the importance of the site. While for de Certeau the word determines the place of annunciation, that is, the word articulates a certain intellectual topos, Buren's symbolic annunciation, his striped posters in the streets, are determined precisely by the place. For Buren the site - the street, the city, the gallery or the museum - make the work what it is: the singularity of the context determines the work, making it irreproducible, non-fungible, and an event functioning similar to de Certeau's notion of the capture of language [la prise de parole], that is, an evanescent event. No longer seen as an object separated from other objects in the pristine space of the gallery, the work of art according to Buren's intervention is contiguous with its site. As the source of artwork's limitation, the site becomes the frame. And as such, the frame ceases to be something that contains the art, that which is stable and calculable. Instead the work, as it is dictated by the site-as-frame, is in flux, constantly changing according to the transformations of the space in which it is installed. The frame, for Buren, is an event: it is a performance, in this case, on the street.8

The residual spaces of everyday life - the street, the sidewalk, and the city - frame Buren's work. And it is through this attention to the quotidian, and his re-invention and expansion of the frame therein, that Buren continues his Althusserian critique. He turns to the commonplace and seemingly simple to lay bare that which is profound and complex, namely, the ideological structures in which art is embedded. While his stripes, what he calls pragmatically "visual tools" [outils visuels], point in real space to the heterogeneity of the immediate surroundings of his work, they also point to the greater and more abstract circumstances of a given space that make a work possible: the network of social, economic, and political forces at play in any given context. To say that Buren has reinvented the frame in terms of circumstantial qualities, that is, its role as a performance or event, is thus, following his own logic, to say that the frame draws attention to the structural conditions of any given work. In other words, his work underscores the situatedness, to call upon the thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre, of the work of art. The frame so conceived, instead of pointing inside to what is contained, points outside the work of art, to its embeddedness in culture and society.

Returning to the opening question of beauty within the dialectical thinking of Buren, I would like to turn now more explicitly to the question of the body, in particular its five senses. Yet in such a turn, we never truly depart from Buren's ideas of politics, for it is indeed a thinking body, the body politic, that is active in the streets, whether protesting, experiencing his striped canvas, or just simply drifting through urban spaces. While the body both in terms of sensual experience in the city and the ideal of the body politic are central to his work, I would argue that vision, those acts of seeing and looking which are constituents immemorial of art, is nevertheless of primary importance to Buren. That seeing for Buren is never ex nihilo, that is, that the act is always already culturally embedded in a context, is to say that seeing, seeing well in fact, occurs necessarily with a certain critical attitude. It follows thus that his is an iconoclastic vision. In invoking the figure of the iconoclast, I would like to briefly revisit the etymology of the term. The word in its earliest form refers to the controversy among Christians of the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. The medireview Greek roots of the word, "eikon" for icon, or image, and "klan" for clast, or to break, signify quite literally "the breaking of images." The term thus refers to the historical event of the Middle Ages when Christians of Byzantium destroyed iconic images for worship as they believed that the incarnate representation of God or Christ, that is to say, spirits made figural and human-like, was blasphemous. Symbolically the term refers to a refutation of images, of vision and the act of seeing. In its modern definition, the act of seeing gives way to "institutions" and the modern iconoclast is one who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular institutions.9

Buren is indeed an iconoclast in the modern sense of the term. His penchant for stripes in the street is precisely that: that is to say, an attempt to overthrow existing institutions. Unlike other examples of iconoclasm of the 1960s, such as his predecessors the Lettrists who defied the act of seeing clearly by defacing film stills by hand or Guy Debord of the situationists who refuted vision by rejecting traditional narrative cinema, Buren's iconoclasm is limited to the modern definition of the term, and is thus, in fact, dependent on the act of seeing. And here we see once again an example of Buren's dialectical thinking as he criticizes seeing while maintaining its importance in defining art. That is to say, Buren rejects institutional ideologies of seeing - those of the white walls of the gallery that propound pure vision and the idea that art is autonomous from its social condition - while supporting the sensual act of vision central to any experience of art. Buren's iconoclastic vision is thus dependent on a certain type of vision, what he calls the "visuality of the paint itself." Which is to say that Buren fosters seeing that interrogates the very act of seeing: "the visuality of painting itself is [painting's] perpetual and constant effacement as something visible...It is finally its absence as paint, or rather its interrogation at the very moment where it appears, which can make one blind. The visuality of painting itself is the definitive disappearance of painting as something visual."10

In demanding that we understand painting and the act of seeing painting in terms of questioning, by beginning with doubt, Buren calls into question the very foundations of art: he queries the fixedness and flexibility of those categorical separations between the various media beginning with the most traditional, painting, sculpture and architecture; he destabilizes art by making it dependent on the event and participants of the event; and he redefines the essential components of art, precisely those of painting, such as installation and the frame. Buren's work is thus constituted by an ontological critique of art that is fueled by his desire to reconfigure the act which is fundamental to the experience of painting: namely, seeing.11 As such, the type of seeing discussed above, "the visuality of painting itself," is, to return to the exhibition of 1967, precisely that of degree-zero painting. It is, at base, a deconstruction of the foundations of painting and the act of seeing.

Buren's degree-zero painting nevertheless involves a certain purity of vision: an act of seeing that is rarified yet far from the ideologies of pure vision mentioned above, those of the gallery space and beauty. Pure vision, the experience of degree-zero painting, is for Buren the purity of the conceptual: vision in which the seeing eye becomes the thinking eye. Moreover, it is the eye that thinks painting without concern for original meaning or intent. To look at such painting is thus to see painting flattened, that is, without subjectivity and without reference to any reality other than the site itself. Buren's vision recalls the thinking of the French novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, in particular his essay written in 1956, "A View Toward the Future Novel" ["Une voie pour le roman future"].12 Here Robbe-Grillet calls for a modernization of the novel: the reinvention of the novel in terms of degree-zero writing, that is, non-metaphorical writing that departs from the nineteenth-century traditions of plot and character development. Following Robbe-Grillet, the novel newly conceived would be metaphorically flat, happily bereft of hermeneutical depth and meaning. Similarly, Buren "insists on the elimination of statement" in his work, demanding that the work be considered anonymous and non-metaphorical. As such, painting newly conceived is self-referential, that is it refers to "the visuality of the painting itself" and its placement in the site. While self-referentiality is a term normally reserved for discourses of formalism within the gallery, for Buren, it becomes a means by which to subvert institutional support and approval. He activates art's autonomy not in the institution, but in the streets, thereby reinventing art's autonomy in terms of a politics of visual provocation and ontological interrogation, or, in short, a politics of beauty. It is an autonomy concerned with the materiality of the canvas and paint and the heterogeneity of the site. Degree zero painting is thus painting laid bare: art in the raw.

We have seen the dialectical movement of Buren's thinking active in a variety of registers. His work is at once socially embedded yet autonomous and self-referential; it rejects tradition yet continues to arbitrate art's existence within the realm of historical definitions of art; and it is political yet nevertheless concerned with the experience of beauty. Moving between these poles, negotiating the dyads of critical thinking, Buren's work calls attention to Jacques Derrida's writing on the parergon, a term that means literally that which is outside and beyond the work of art. In referring to the term, parergon, Derrida deconstructs Immanuel Kant's third critique, the Critique of Judgement. And it is here, at the carrefour of the work of Buren and the philosophies of Derrida and Kant that I would like to close, as it is through Derrida's literary rituals of deconstruction and Kant's writings on aesthetics, mind you his thinking on the beautiful that is never too far from his thinking on the citizen, that Buren's oscillation between tradition and the new, the citizen and art - that is to say, his politics of beauty - evinces itself perhaps most clearly.

In turning to Kant's elaboration of the judgement of taste, Derrida deconstructs the traditional concept of 'work,' or ergon, precisely its primacy within disinterested judgements of beauty and taste in general given to us by Kant. By drawing attention to the limits of the work of art, or those more precisely of painting, in his discussion of the parergon, Derrida places in question the very properties of the work: the work's substance constituting nominally its 'inside' and its boundaries demarcating its 'outside'. Derrida queries "what is the internal limit? External? And the surface between the two limits?"13 While the parergon is that which "signifies...the exceptional, the unusual, and the extraordinary," it is nevertheless that which is also proper to the work of art. It is at once supplemental and necessary, what Derrida calls a "poorly detachable detachment."14 The perergon is dialectical in that it is at once inside and outside, the necessary interconnection between the frame and the artwork, what for Buren is the site and a series of anonymous stripes. Derrida explains the parergon in terms of art's accouterment, pointing for example to a building's facade and its columns: "what constitutes being en parerga is not simply the exteriority of their surplus, [but rather] it is their structural connection that carves a lack [rive au manque] internal to the ergon." It is "this lack," Derrida argues, that "is constitutive of the very unity of ergon."15 Further resonating with Buren's thinking, Derrida describes the perergon as it acts as an "encasing, a surface which separates not only, as Kant would like, from within, from the proper body of the ergon but also from without, from the wall on which the work is hung, from the space in which the statue and the column are erected, then further and further out, from all historic, economic, political frameworks in which produce themselves the impulse of authorship [la pulsion de signature]."16

In conclusion I would like to argue that Buren's work, his thinking that consists of the rethinking of art's foundations and the essential components of painting, is constituted by the logic of the perergon. That is to say, I repeat, his work is about the movement between inside and outside: "work" for Buren is the totality of the piece itself and the structure in which it is embedded. And within this totality, the frame of the site connects the contextual laminae of the work. Indeed an essential layer of this bed is that of time, the history that his work invariably carries: the history of art, but more importantly, the inheritance of aesthetics and the discourse of beauty. It is thus not only Buren's work that mimics the logic of the perergon. His thinking is as well en parerga as it is defined by the maintenance and subversion of tradition, a placing in question of beauty while being beautiful. Thus Buren's rebellious iconoclasm is by no means illustrative of the end of art and the impossibility of the beautiful. It marks, rather, the well-nigh renewal and resurgence of art and beauty outside the constraints of will-to-power institutional decrees - art and beauty that are nevertheless based on a certain connoisseurship of conceptualism and form.

Daniel Buren, De la Coureur de la Matière, 1945


1 Buren, Daniel, "En regard," Les Ecrits, Tome 3 (Bordeaux: CAPC, 1991) 208-209.

2 Buren, Daniel, Daniel Buren (Paris: Art Diffusion, 1986) unpaginated.

3 Lyotard, Jean-Francois, "The Works and Writings of Daniel Buren: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Contemporary Art," Artforum, February, 1981: 57.

4 Buren, Daniel, Photo-sourvenirs, 1965-1988 (Paris: Art Edition, 1988) unpaginated, images 15-19.

5 Buren, "Mise en garde no. 3," Les Ecrits, Tome 3: 123. Althusser's declaration that "theory" equates "a specific form of practice" captures Buren's sentiment precisely.

6 Buren, Daniel, et. al. Les Ecrits, Tome 1 (Bordeaux: CAPC, 1991) 60.

7 de Certeau, Michel, La prise de parole et autres écrits politiques (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1994) 38.

8 Buren expresses best the importance of site and the singularity of the work of art, its role as an event, in writings on [viz. his critique of] photography. He declares photography to be a "souvenir" of the work-as-event, but a mere approximation of the actual occurrence. His ideas of the radical singularity of the work of art could easily be mistaken for a certain Platonic ideology of authenticity. However, I would argue, his stance is better understood precisely as he is a member of the '68 generation. In other words, his insistence on the work as anon-repeatable singularity is similar to de Certeau's prise de parole in that it is both a rejection of the market place and rallying cry for individualism. See Daniel Buren, L'Ineffable: A propos de l'oeuvre de Ryman (Paris: Editions Jannink) and Photo Souvenirs 1965-1988, 4-7.

9 Oxford English Dictionary, 10th Edition, 1990: 1085.

10 Buren, 'Mise en garde no. 3," fn. 1, pg. 123.

11 Buren, Les Ecrits Tome 1, 45.

12 Robbe-Grillet, Alain, "Un voie pour le roman future," Pour un nouveau roman (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1961) 15-24.

13 Derrida, Jacques, La vérité en peinture (Paris: Flammarion, 1978) 73.

14 Derrida, 67.

15 Derrida, 69.

16 Derrida, 71.

end graphic

Charissa N.Terranova is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University.

close this window