Daniel Buren's stripes are legendary. Measuring 8.7 cm wide they run vertically over canvases, windows, walls, pennants and billboards, delineating and covering up surfaces. Stripes have become his trademark - and repetition his method.
In order to understand why Buren's work is more than simply a mannerism that has got out of hand, you have to go back to the origins of this method. It is not just an idiosyncrasy or artistic tic. As the artist has observed, it is more 'a repetition of differences with a view to the same thing'. In his text 'Beware!' (1969/70) he notes: 'I record that this is my work for the last four years, without any evolution or way out. This is the past: it does not imply either that it will be the same for another 10 or 15 years, or that it will change tomorrow.'
Thirty-five years later Buren has still not changed the basic premise of his work. However, what has, until now, remained unexplored is how he achieved this extreme reduction of Conceptual painting, how he stumbled across his method, which seems to have arrived out of the blue rather than being the result of a long process of gradual development. It is easy to fix a date for this dramatic event: starting in November 1965, Buren's radical new approach was perfected within a year. One way of looking at how his work developed over this period is as a transition from the image to the illusionless surface, from the measurements of geometric abstraction to the parameters of Minimalism, from the colour field to the structure occupying space.
Seldom does the opportunity to study this artistic development present itself in so concentrated and condensed a form as at Buren's exhibition at Buchmann Galerie in Cologne. All of the works on show came directly from the artist's studio or archives, and all date from the 1965/6 period. Surprisingly, they weren't exhibited for 20 years, and thereafter only very rarely, some never. The show opens with large-format pictures contructed from industrially manufactured fabric - the kind normally used for awnings, covered with vertical black or red stripes that lend the surface structure and rhythm. These works are the starting-point for what remains a painterly exploration of amorphous shapes - or, to be more precise, for the origination of these shapes. Buren then applied white acrylic stripes that are sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque, and which run parallel to or across the vertical stripes of the fabric, forming geometrical outlines and gaps. This was the technique behind both his 'Paintings with Variable Forms' series and, around the same time, the 'Paintings with Indefinite Forms' (1965-6).
The result was the creation of shapes that opened up a new level of semantic freedom. Only gradually does Buren retreat from these painted shapes, moving the outlines and gaps to the edges of his large-format works. Increasingly, the visible withdraws from the imaginary, becoming a syntactic structure that extends far beyond the surface. Painting is no longer devoted to the delineation of colour and shape in the strict sense; it is nothing more, and nothing less, than what the title of the series suggests: 'White Acrylic Paint on Striped Anthracite-grey and White Canvas'. Three of these works, executed in September and October 1966, frame the lower level of the gallery. With a last, barely noticeable painterly gesture, the artist obscures the borders of the picture to the point where it dissolves into the room, nothing but a surface with amorphous edges leaning at a slant against the wall.
Although Buren still refers to these works as paintings, the transition to an illusionless object has already taken place; he has reached the parameters of Minimalism, and the works have become structures that occupy space. In this sense the show is a belated celebration of the moment before Buren abandoned painting itself.
First published in Issue 74