The texts I chose are by Daniel Buren and Adrian Piper.
You’re probably already familiar with their work but for the sake of contextualizing the texts I’ll quickly summarize their work and practice.
Both Piper and Buren are first generation Conceptual artists, both coming to prominence in the mid 60s, Piper in New York and Buren in Paris.
Their categorisation under Conceptualism is where the similarities between them end – their work has different aims and takes radically different forms. I’ll deal with the formal aspects first before going into the texts, which deal with their aims.
Buren is generally known for his stripes.
In the mid 60s, he began to use alternating white and coloured stripes in his paintings, using this device to eliminate all illusionistic or expressive reference from his work.
Around 1967 he moved away from painting but stuck with the stripes, using readymade fabrics and other materials to create the. The stripes were by now his signature and he’s gone on using them ever since.
An important factor for Buren is that his pieces still contain a painted stripe, and he insists that these works are still ‘paintings’.
His concern however, is really not with the stripes, but their use within a site.
They’re designed to be neutral surfaces that divert attention away from themselves onto their surroundings, with a view to critiquing their placement and the structures around them.
(I’ll quote from the article ‘The Art of Daniel Buren’ by Anne Rorimer:
„Having dispensed with the canvas as his arena of activity, Buren
always seeks to involve the work‟s total frame of reference,
which necessarily must include the surrounding architecture. As
he himself has stated, “Architecture of any sort is in fact the
inevitable background, support and frame of any work”, having
also noted that “when we say architecture, we include the social,
political and economic context.”‟)
I have some slides to illustrate his works:
1. Peinture Angulaire 1975 (acrylic on canvas)
2. Les Deux Plateaux, Paris 1986 (more commonly known as ‘Colonnes
de Buren’ or ‘Buren’s columns’
3. At the Boundary 1996
He’s also got a very nice show on at the moment at Modern Art Oxford with three new installations.
Adrian Piper is also very much concerned with the spectator’s position and relation to the artwork, but the pieces she produces are addressed directly to the spectator in a much more personal and confrontational manner.
Piper also began as a painter, and by the mid-60s she was one of the main members of the New York Conceptual Art movement, producing self-reflexive works, i.e. works that referred to themselves, including space-time coordinate mappings and photographic documentation of her everyday actions and perceptions.
In the early 70s, spurred by political events, her work turned to look outward and, to quote her CV:
„She introduced issues of race and gender into the vocabulary of
Conceptual art and explicit political content into Minimalism.‟
I have slides of three of her pieces:
1. I Embody 1975
2. Political Self-Portrait 2 (race) 1978 (poster)
3. Cornered 1988, video installation
Here’s a quote from Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity that neatly encapsulates both artists’ concerns in their works:
„Informed by the contextual thinking of minimalism, various forms
of institutional critique and conceptual art developed a
different model of site specificity that implicitly challenged
the „innocence‟ of space and the accompanying presumption of a
universal viewing subject. . . . [the artists involved] have
variously conceived of the site not only in physical and spatial
terms but also as a cultural framework defined by the
institutions of art. If minimalism returned to the viewing
subject a physical corporeal body, institutional critique
insisted on the social matrix of class, race, gender and
sexuality of the viewing subject.‟
OK, so that’s some background to the artists. Let’s get to the texts.
The text by Buren is ‘Function of the Museum’ which was first published in 1971, and Piper’s is ‘Some Thoughts on the Political Character of
This Situation’, first published in 1980 – so almost a decade has
passed between the appearance of these two texts.
The texts make clear that parallel with the artists’ differing formal styles, there is a divergent conceptual understanding of the way their pieces work in the context within which they are placed, and hence how they believe this context should be defined.
Buren speaks about revealing the implicit structures the piece works within:
„. . . any work presented in that framework, if it does not
explicitly examine the influence of the framework upon itself
falls into the illusion of self-sufficiency – or idealism.‟
The framework he’s referring to here, is that which is set up by the Museum or Gallery. For instance, earlier in the piece he talks about the Museum as „the frame and effective support upon which work is inscribed/composed. It is at once the centre in which the action takes place and the single (topographical and cultural) viewpoint for the work.‟
At the end of his text he says:
„The non-visibility or (deliberate) non-indication/revelation of
the various supports of any work (the work‟s stretcher, the
work‟s location, the work‟s frame, the work‟s stand, the work‟s
price, the work‟s verso or back, etc . . .) are therefore neither
fortuitous nor accidental as one would like us to think.‟
Buren is speaking of a milieu—the Museum and Gallery—and the artwork’s
relation to this milieu. He puts the burden of responsibility for revealing the workings of this milieu onto the artwork (and by implication the artist).
In Buren’s text this emphasis on the institutional milieu conspicuously avoids any direct consideration with the audience’s role as a potential framework for the artwork.
Piper’s text, on the other hand, positions itself from the point of
view of the Museum’s social and political relations with its public. Right off she says:
„Galleries and museums are public spaces.
Public spaces are political arenas in which power is gained,
recognised, underwritten, disputed, attacked, lost, and gained.‟
So consequently she states that:
„Galleries and museums are political arenas in which strategies
of confrontation and avoidance are calculated, diplomacy is
practiced, and weaponry tested, all in the service of divergent,
and often conflicting, interests.‟
While these strategies also encompass the architectural and institutional aspects that Buren often deals with, in her works and texts Piper turns the attention directly on the user:
„We who collaborate in perpetrating the existence of galleries
and museums are not spectators but participants, not audiences
but players, planning and executing tactics for our own self-
Indeed a large part of her text is taken up with statements about how the power relationships stabilised by Galleries and Museums are starting to become unstable due to the actions of artists, critics and audiences.
Simply put, in Buren’s text, the Museum and Gallery context is embodied in the architectural and institutional framework that controls and effects our reception of the work of art.
Buren is warning the audience to be beware any work of art that does not reveal this framework. And indeed he has been consistent over the past 30 years in doing this using his stripes.
Piper’s work, on the other hand, has moved on from the artwork’s relation to the institution to address itself directly with its audience and their own social and political framework.
I would suggest this movement of the artwork’s attention reflects the more general changes that have taken place in Conceptual art over the 9 years separating these two texts.
Piper’s text is written with reference to her installation Four
intruders plus alarm systems of 1980, which she mentions toward the end with the following analysis:
‘My interest here is to fully politicize the existing art-world
context, to confront you here with the presence of certain
representative individuals who are alien and unfamiliar to that
context in its current form, and to confront you with your
defense mechanisms against them: mechanisms of fear, hostility,
rationalization, and withdrawal . . .’
In the text to accompany the piece itself, she writes:
‘This was the third installation I did that was concerned with
ideological defenses against the comprehension of political
realities and one’s own involuntary (and sometimes unwilling)
participation in them. Here I was concerned to articulate and
isolate certain racist stereotypes of black men (aggressive,
hostile, malevolent), and also a set of paradigmatic racist
responses to those perceived stereotypes . . .’