In the late sixties, Artforum and other specialist magazines began increasingly to publish ‘installation shots’ of artworks that showed not only the piece itself but the exhibition area within which it was located. Minimalist works by artists such as Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin—neither paintings nor traditional sculptures on pedestals, but structures that shared a space with the viewer—could hardly be depicted otherwise; especially in the case of Flavin’s neon light pieces, where the work transformed the perception of the surrounding environment. The ‘installation shot’ led to a new use of the term ‘installation’, which came to refer not merely to any work of art located in a gallery but to a new form: installation art. Artists such as Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke gave this practice a political turn. Installation art became an investigation of the art context not merely in a spatial sense, but also in an institutional one. In brief: the Minimalist phenomenological investigation of space gave way to a post-Minimalist critique of institutions and power structures.
Daniel Buren’s early work also participated in this shift but, in contrast to most post-Minimalist installation art, Buren’s practice is rooted in painting. In the late sixties, he reduced his formal vocabulary to equally spaced stripes, 8.7 centimetres wide. There would always be an alternation of white and coloured stripes, with only a single colour employed in any one striped plane. Such an approach was part of a wider rebellion in sixties’ art against traditional painterly values: in a 1967 manifesto, Buren and three colleagues declared that they were no longer painters, as ‘painting is to apply (consciously or not) rules of composition’. Buren’s stripes soon travelled from canvas to less traditional media such as posters, the walls of exhibition spaces and printed matter. Unlike modernist painters such as Barnett Newman, with his ‘zips’, Buren used his ‘zero sign’ as something with no intrinsic value. Rather, its worth derives from the ways in which it points to and acts in its surroundings—as in the ‘affichages sauvages’, posters Buren glued onto advertising hoardings in Paris and other cities in 1968 and the years that followed. While the evenly spaced stripes were obviously not compatible with the commercial imagery normally seen there, they might have appeared to be mere formalist gestures compared to the more overt political engagement of other posters of the time. However, Buren’s affichages were a very precise way of questioning advanced art’s ambiguous public status. He took his stripes outside the usual art-world media—galleries, magazines—to create a situation where they were all but invisible to unwitting viewers; one had to be informed about Buren’s work and its location in order to notice it as art. Buren thus emphasized art’s reliance upon its official context, even if the piece appears to exist ‘outside’. Not unlike Robert Smithson with his site/non-site works, Buren set up a dialectic between various non-art sites and art media. A work may exist in ‘public space’, but it only becomes public as a work of art, as opposed to a gratuitous physical object, through its inclusion in the media of the art world.
One can find the affichages sauvages under the letter ‘A’ in Daniel Buren’s voluminous Mot à mot, published on the occasion of his recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Le Musée qui n’existait pas. The book somewhat resembles a massive Filofax, complete with alphabetical dividers. Under each letter—only K, W and X are missing—there are one or more headings, with accompanying images and texts—press cuttings, letters and extracts from previous writings by Buren. Thus, under ‘M’: manifestation / masquer / miroir / monument / mouvement / mur / musée. The resulting documentation of his career, though not in chronological order, is not as arbitrary as the alphabetical principle might suggest. The material under ‘centrifuge/centripète’, for example, essentially continues the previous section, ‘censure’. Here Buren documents one of the most notorious results of the politicization of art in the early seventies. For a group show in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Haacke had made a piece consisting of a reproduction of a still life by Manet, with texts detailing the history of the work and of the people involved with it: once owned by the Jewish German painter Max Liebermann, the painting, viewers learnt, had been acquired in 1968 by the Wallraf-Richartz-Kuratorium, chaired by Hermann J. Abs, a powerful banker in postwar West Germany whose services had been vital to the Third Reich’s war economy. When the Wallraf-Richartz authorities prevented Haacke from exhibiting this work, Buren pinned up reproductions of the piece against a background of his characteristic stripes, accompanied by a text with the heading, Kunst bleibt Politik. In a Nacht- und Nebelaktion, the museum’s directorate then pasted white sheets of paper over the reproductions of Haacke’s work.
Another case of censorship, in the ‘centrifuge/centripète’ section of Buren’s book, involves a tackier instance of art-world politics. For the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition in 1971, Buren hung a huge drapery with green stripes in the enormous spiralling interior of the Guggenheim; this was to be complemented by a blue banner across the street outside. Once again, Buren was exploring the dependence of art in ‘public spaces’ on art media such as the museum. But some American artists whose works were shown on Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral ramp felt upstaged by the French ‘decorator’, and the Guggenheim curators had the green-striped fabric taken away. The whole affair is documented in Mot à mot with various texts, including a letter from Flavin to Buren, which ends with the words: ‘Also, be assured that somehow, I simply don’t want to spare the effort to dislike you.’ The new interest in the art context, while drawing greater critical attention to the ideological underpinnings of the institutions, also led to a situation in which such squabbles were deemed worthy of documentation.
In work like Haacke’s early seventies’ pieces one can see a sociologization of art: artists became interested in the workings of the art world, in its power structures and how these are shaped by economic and political leverage. Buren’s Mot à mot is an outcome of this process, documenting not just his work but his trajectory through the sphere of artistic networks and institutions. In the eighties, the sociologization of art and art discourse was mirrored by sociology’s turn towards art; a tendency that culminated, in the nineties, with works such as Pierre Bourdieu’s Les Règles de l’art (1992), Niklas Luhmann’s Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (1995) and Nathalie Heinich’s Le triple jeu de l’art contemporain: sociologie des arts plastiques (1999)—not to mention scores of lesser contributions. In 1994 Bourdieu also published a series of dialogues with Haacke entitled Libre-échange (published in English as Free Exchange a year later), in which he displays an affinity with the artist’s critical sociological practice.