Beware – Daniel Buren

II  What is this work?

Vertically striped sheets of paper, the bands of which are 8.7 cms wide, alternate white and colored, are stuck over internal and external surfaces: walls, fences, display windows, etc.; and/or cloth/canvas support, vertical stripes, white and colored bands each 8.7 cms, the two ends covered with dull white paint.

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 ten or fifteen years or that it will change tomorrow. [. . .]

[. . .] The points to be examined are described below and each will require to be examined separately and more thoroughly later. . . .

a) The Object, the Real, Illusion. Any art tends to decipher the world, to visualize an emotion, nature, the subconscious, etc. . . . Can we pose a question rather than replying always in terms of hallucinations? This question would be: can one create something that is real, nonillusionistic, and therefore not an art-object? One might reply – and this is a real temptation for an artist – in a direct and basic fashion to this question and . . . believe the problem solved, because it was raised, and [for example] present no object but a concept. This is responding too directly to need, it is mistaking a desire for reality, it is making like an artist. In fact, instead of questioning or acquainting oneself with the problem raised, one provides a solution, and what a solution! One avoids the issue and passes on to something else. Thus does art progress from form to form, from problems raised to problems salved, accruing successive layers of concealment. To do away with the object as an illusion – the real problem -through its replacement by a concept [or an idea] – Utopian or ideal(istic) or imaginary solution – is to believe in a moon made of green cheese, to achieve one of those conjuring tricks so beloved of twentieth-century art. Moreover it can be affirmed, with reasonable confidence, that as soon as a concept is announced, and especially when it is “exhibited as art,” under the desire to do away with the object, one merely replaces it in fact. The exhibited concept becomes ideal-object, which brings us once again to art as it is, i.e., the illusion of something and not the thing itself. In the same way that writing is less and less a matter of verbal transcription, painting should no longer be the vague vision/illusion, even mental, of a phenomenon (nature, subconsciousness, geometry . . . ) but VISUALITY of the painting itself In this way we arrive at a notion that is thus allied more to a method and not to any particular inspiration; a method which requires – in order to make a direct attack on the problems of the object properly so-called – that painting itself should create a mode, a specific system, that would no longer direct attention, but that is ‘produced to be looked at.’

b) The Form. As to the internal structure of the proposition, the contradictions are removed from it; no ‘tragedy’ occurs on the reading surface, no horizontal line, for example, chances to cut through a vertical line. Only the imaginary horizontal line of delimitation of the work at the top and at the bottom ‘exists,’ but in the same way that it ‘exists’ only by mental reconstruction, it is mentally demolished simultaneously, as it is evident that the external size is arbitrary (a point that we shall explain later on).

The succession of vertical bands is also arranged methodically, always the same [xj/,x,j/,jf,y,x,j/,x,j/, l r, etc. . . . ], thus creating no composition on the inside of the surface or area to be looked at, or, if you like, a minimum or zero or neutral composition. These notions are understood in relation to art in general and not through internal considerations. This neutral painting however is not freed from obligations. On the contrary, thanks to its neutrality or absence of style, it is extremely rich in information about itself (its exact position as regards other work) and especially information about other work; thanks to the absence of any formal problem its potency is all expended upon the realms of thought. One may also say that this painting no longer has any plastic character, but that it is indicative or critical Among other things, indicative/critical of its own process. This zero/neutral degree of form is ‘binding’ in the sense that the total absence of conflict eliminates all concealment (all mythification or secrecy) and consequently brings silence. One should not take neutral painting for uncommitted painting.

Lastly, this formal neutrality would not be formal at all if the internal structure of which we have just spoken (vertical white and colored bands) was linked to the external form (size of the surface presented to view). The internal structure being immutable, if the exterior form were equally so, one would soon arrive at the creation of a quasi-religious archetype which, instead of being neutral, would become burdened with a whole weight of meanings, one of which – and not the least – would be as the idealized image of neutrality. On the other hand, the continual variation of the external form implies that it has no influence on the internal structure, which remains the same in every case. The internal structure remains uncomposed and without conflict. If, however, the external form or shape did not vary, a conflict would immediately be established between the combination or fixed relationship of the bandwidths, their spacing (internal structure), and the general size of the work. This type of relationship would be inconsistent with an ambition to avoid the creation of an illusion. We would be presented with a problem all too clearly defined – here that of neutrality to zero degree – and no longer with the thing itself posing a question, in its own terms.

Finally, we believe confidently in the validity of a work or framework questioning its own existence, presented to the eye. The framework, which we have just analyzed clinically, has in fact no importance whatsoever in terms of form or shape; it is at zero level, a minimum but essential level. We shall see later how we shall work to cancel out the form itself so far as possible. In other words, it is time to assert that formal problems have ceased to interest us, j n i s assertion is the logical consequence of actual work produced over four years where the formal problem was forced out and disqualified as a pole of interest. Art is the form that it takes. The form must unceasingly renew itself to insure the development of what we call new art. A change of form has so often led us to speak of a new art that one might think that inner meaning and form were/are linked together in the mind of the majority – artists and critics. \ 0 w, if we start from the assumption that new, i.e., ‘other,’ art is in fact never more than the same thing in a new guise, the heart of the problem is exposed. To abandon the search for a new form at any price means trying to abandon the history of art as we know it: it means passing from the Mythical to the Historical, from the Illusion to the Real.

c) Color. In the same way that the work which we propose could not possibly be the image of some thing (except itself, of course), and for the reasons defined above could not possibly have a finalized external form, there cannot be one single and definitive color. The color, if it was fixed, would mythify the proposition and would become the zero degree of color X, just as there is navy blue, emerald green or canary yellow.

One color and one color only, repeated indefinitely or at least a great number of times, would then take on multiple and incongruous meanings. All the colors are therefore used simultaneously, without any order of preference, but systematically.

That said, we note that if the problem of form (as pole of interest) is dissolved by itself, the problem of color, considered as subordinate or as self-generating at the outset of the work and by the way it is used, is seen to be of great importance. The problem is to divest it of all emotional or anecdotal import. [. . .]

d) Repetition. The consistency – i.e., the exposure to view in different places and at different times, as well as the personal work, for four years – obliges us to recognize manifest visual repetition at first glance. We say at ‘first glance,’ as we have already learned from sections (a) and (b) that there are divergences between one work and another; however, the essential, that is to say the internal, structure remains immutable. One may therefore, with certain reservations, speak of repetition. This repetition provokes two apparently contradictory considerations: on the one hand, the reality of a certain form (described above), and on the other hand, its cancelling-out by successive and identical confrontations, which themselves negate any originality that might be found in this form, despite the systematization of the work. We know that a single and unique ‘picture’ as described above, although neutral, would be charged by its very uniqueness with a symbolic force that would destroy its vocation of neutrality. Likewise by repeating an identical form, or identical color, we would fall into the pitfalls mentioned in sections (b) and (c). Moreover we would be burdened with every unwanted religious tension if we undertook to idealize such a proposition or allowed the work to take on the ancedotal interest of a test of strength in response to a stupid bet.

There remains only one possibility; the repetition of this neutral form, with the divergences we have already mentioned. This repetition, thus conceived, has the effect of reducing to a minimum the potency, however slight, of the proposed form such as it is, of revealing that the external form (shifting) has no effect on the internal structure (alternate repetition of the bands) and of highlighting the problem raised by the color in itself. This repetition also reveals in point of fact that visually there is no formal evolution – even though there is a change – and that, in the same way that no ‘tragedy’ or composition or tension is to be seen in the clearly defined scope of the work exposed to view (or presented to the eye), no tragedy or tension is perceptible in relation to the creation itself. The tensions abolished in the very surface of the ‘picture’ have also been abolished – up to now – in the time category of this production. The repetition is the ineluctable means of legibility of the proposition itself

This is why, if certain isolated artistic forms have raised the problem of neutrality, they have never been pursued in depth to the full extent of their proper meaning. By remaining ‘unique’ they have lost the neutrality we believe we can discern in them. (Among others, we are thinking of certain canvases by Cezanne, Mondrian, Pollock, Newman, Stella.)

Repetition also teaches us that there is no perfectibility. A work is at zero level or it is not at zero level. To approximate means nothing. In these terms, the few canvases of the artists mentioned can be considered only as empirical approaches to the problem. Because of their empiricism they have been unable to divert the course of the ‘history’ of art, but have rather strengthened the idealistic nature of art history as a whole.

e) Differences. With reference to the preceding section, we may consider that repetition would be the right way (or one of the right ways) to put forward our work in the internal logic of its own endeavor. Repetition, apart from what its use revealed to us, should, in fact, be envisaged as a ‘method’ and not as an end. v A method that definitively rejects, as we have seen, any repetition of the mechanical type, i.e., the geometric repetition (superimposable in every way, including color) of a like thing (color + form/shape). To repeat in this sense would be to prove that a single example already has an energy that denies all neutrality, and that repetition could change nothing.

One rabbit repeated 10,000 times would give no notion whatever of neutrality or zero degree, but eventually the identical image, 10,000 times, of the same rabbit. The repetition that concerns us is therefore fundamentally the presentation of the same thing, but under an objectively different aspect. To sum up, manifestly it appears to us of no interest always to show precisely the same thing and from that to deduce that there is repetition. The repetition that interests us is that of a method and not a mannerism (or trick): it is a repetition with differences. One could even say that it is these differences that make the repetition, and that it is not a question of doing the same in order to say that it is identical to the previous – which is a tautology (redundancy) – but rather a repetition of differences with a view to a same (thing).

f) Anonymity. From the . . . preceding sections there emerges a relationship which itself leads to certain considerations; this is the relationship that may exist between the ‘creator’ and the proposition we are attempting to define.

First fact to be established: he is no longer the owner of his work. Furthermore it is not his work, but a work. The neutrality of the purpose – ‘painting as the subject of painting’ – and the absence from it of considerations of style forces us to acknowledge a certain anonymity. This is obviously not anonymity in the person who proposes this work, which once again would be to solve a problem by presenting it in a false light – why should we be concerned to know the name of the painter of the Avignon Pietd ~ but of the anonymity of the work itself as presented. This work being considered as common property, there can be no question of claiming the authorship thereof, possessively, in the sense that there are authentic paintings by Courbet and valueless forgeries. As we have remarked, the projection of the individual is nil; we cannot see how he could claim his work as belonging to him. In the same way we suggest that the same proposition made by X or Y would be identical to that made by the author of this text. If you like, the study of past work forces us to admit that there is no longer, as regards the form defined above – when it is presented – any truth or falsity in terms of conventional meaning that can be applied to both these terms relating to a work of art. [. . .] It may also be said that the work of which we speak, because neutral/anonymous, is indeed the work of someone, but that this someone has no importance whatsoever [since he never reveals himself], or, if you like, the importance he may have is totally archaic. Whether he signs ‘his’ work or not, it nevertheless remains anonymous.

g) The Viewpoint ~ the Location. Lastly, one of the external consequences of our proposition is the problem raised by the location where the work is shown. In fact the work, as it is seen to be without composition and as it presents no accident to divert the eye, becomes itself the accident in relation to the place where it is presented. The indictment of any form considered as such, and the judgment against such forms on the facts established in the preceding paragraphs, leads us to question the finite space in which this form is seen. It is established that the proposition, in whatever location it be presented, does not ‘disturb’ that location. The place in question appears as it is. It is seen in its actuality. This is partly due to the fact that the proposition is not distracting. Furthermore, being only its own subject matter, its own location is the proposition itself, which makes it possible to say, paradoxically: the proposition in question ‘has no real location.’

In a certain sense, one of the characteristics of the proposition is to reveal the ‘container’ in which it is sheltered. One also realizes that the influence of the location upon the significance of the work is as slight as that of the work upon the location.

This consideration, in course of work, has led us to present the proposition in a number of very varied places. If it is possible to imagine a constant relationship between the container (location) and the contents (the total proposition), this relationship is always annulled or reinvoked by the next presentation. This relationship then leads to two inextricably linked although apparently contradictory problems:

i) revelation of the location itself as a new space to be deciphered; sections [d] and [e]) in different ‘contexts/ visible from different viewpoints, leads us back to the central issue: What is exposed to view? What is the nature of it? The multifariousness of the locations where the proposition is visible permits us to assert the unassailable persistence that it displays in the very moment when its nonstyle appearance merges it with its support.

It is important to demonstrate that while remaining in a very well-defined cultural field – as if one could do otherwise – it is possible to go outside the cultural location in the primary sense (gallery, museum, catalogue . . . ) without the proposition, considered as such, immediately giving way. This strengthens our conviction that the work proposed, insofar as it raises the question of viewpoint, is posing what is in effect a new question, since it has been commonly assumed that the answer follows as a matter of course.

We cannot get bogged down here in the implications of this idea: we will merely observe for the record that all the works that claim to do away with the object (Conceptual or otherwise) are essentially dependent upon the single viewpoint from which they are ‘visible,’ a priori considered (or even not considered at all) as ineluctable. A considerable number of works of art (the most exclusively idealist, e.g., Ready-mades of all kinds) ‘exist’ only because the location in which they are seen is taken for granted as a matter of course.

In this way, the location assumes considerable importance by its fixity and its inevitability; becomes the ‘frame’ (and the security that presupposes) at the very moment when they would have us believe that what takes place inside shatters all the existing frames (manacles) in the attaining of pure ‘freedom. 1 A clear eye will recognize what is meant by freedom in art, but an eye that is a little less educated will see better what it is all about when it has adopted the following idea: that the location (outside or inside) where a work is seen is its frame (its boundary).

III Preamble

One might ask why so many precautions must be taken instead of merely putting one’s work out in the normal fashion, leaving comment to the critics and other professional gossip columnists. The answer is very simple: complete rupture with art – such as it is envisaged, such as it is known, such as it is practised – has become the only possible means of proceeding along the path of no return upon which thought must embark; and this requires a few explanations. This rupture requires as a first priority the revision of the history of art as we know it, or, if you like, its radical dissolution. Then if one rediscovers any durable and indispensable criteria they must be used not as a release from the need to imitate or to sublimate, but as a [reality] that should be restated. A [reality] in fact which, although already ‘discovered’ would have to be challenged, therefore to be created. For it may be suggested that, at the present time [all the realities] that it has been possible to point out to us or that have been recognized, are not known. To recognize the existence of a problem certainly does not mean the same as to know it. Indeed, if some problems have been solved empirically (or by rule of thumb), we cannot then say that we know them, because the very empiricism that presides over this kind of discovery obscures the solution in a maze of carefully maintained enigmas.

But artworks and the practice of art have served throughout, in a parallel direction, to signal the existence of certain problems. This recognition of their existence can be called practice. The exact knowledge of these problems will be called theory (not to be confused with all the aesthetic ‘theories’ that have been bequeathed to us by the history of art).

It is this knowledge or theory that is now indispensable for a perspective upon the rupture – a rupture that can then pass into the realm of fact. The mere recognition of the existence of pertinent problems will not suffice for us. It may be affirmed that all art up to the present day has been created on the one hand only empirically and on the other out of idealistic thinking. If it is possible to think again or to think and create theoretically/scientifically, the rupture will be achieved and thus the word ‘art’ will have lost the meanings – numerous and divergent – which at present encumber it. We can say, on the basis of the foregoing, that the rupture, if any, can be (can only be) epistemological. This rupture is/will be the resulting logic of a theoretical work at the moment when the history of art (which is still to be made) and its application are/will be envisaged theoretically: theory and theory alone, as we well know, can make possible a revolutionary practice. Furthermore, not only is/will theory be indissociable from its own practice, but again it may/will be able to give rise to other original kinds of practice.

Finally, as far as we are concerned, it must be clearly understood that when theory is considered as producer/creator, the only theory or theoretic practice is the result presented/the painting or, according to Althusser’s definition: ‘Theory: a specific form of practice.’

We are aware that this exposition of facts may be somewhat didactic; nevertheless we consider it indispensable to proceed in this way at this time.


First published as ‘Mise en garde’ in Konzeption/Conception, Stadtisches Museum, Leverkusen, July-August 1969.

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