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Reflections on Mies


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at the Arts Club of Chicago, through December 10

For the past three decades, French artist Daniel Buren has been putting stripes on things--subway posters, entrance arches, the exteriors and interiors of buildings, specially constructed sails, stairways, and handrails. He's even put them around paintings in museums. Always 8.7 centimeters wide, his stripes are made of colored paper, cloth, paint--in a piece called 11,000 Tulips stripes of flowers ran parallel to each other on the ground.

Thus it's no surprise that he uses stripes in his latest installation, at the Arts Club of Chicago, where a second-floor window that's visible from the street is painted with a checkerboard combination of striped and solid squares.

In 1965 Buren was leaving blank stripes on his canvases by applying masking tape before painting; then he came across a piece of fabric striped like an awning. The stripes on it were 8.7 centimeters wide, and he has stuck with this width ever since, later finding that it is "used in materials all over the world." "I don't know why," he commented in 1989, "but it never creates an optical illusion and 8.7 centimeters is said to be the approximate distance between the center of the eyes of an average human being. I like it, regardless of any scientific explanation, and I continue to use that measurement because it makes it possible for me to measure any space or surface I mark with it without using any tool other than my own eyes."

Does Buren adhere to some form of physiological essentialism? Is he a little bit lazy? Or does he just have a weird fixation on stripes? His works often create misleading first impressions. In fact, his current installation is so repetitive and unobtrusive that someone just passing through might not notice it's there. Brightly colored squares are painted directly on the walls, almost as if they're part of the decor; the room's five square pillars are covered entirely with mirrors.

The exhibit is in Mies van der Rohe's magnificent Arts Club, tragically slated for destruction next March, a result of the city's ignorant--no, moronic--failure to award the interior landmark status. In the elegantly designed small catalog for this installation, Kathryn Hixson points out that it's "the architect's only example of an interior of an institutional space executed in a building not of his own creation."

The exhibit space itself is mostly square, with a small square chunk taken out of one corner. At its north end, in a position Buren describes as "precisely central to the exhibition space," there's a large window and an opening in the floor to which Mies's elegant stairway ascends. The walls are covered with panels, broken by a small dividing line two-thirds of the way up.

Despite Mies's reputation as a hard-edge geometric purist, the feeling in the room is almost lyrical; the floor, ceiling, and walls seem to flow continuously from the window to the south wall. Straight edges and right angles echo each other; the way the window stands almost flush with the wall seems mirrored in the flat, relatively low ceiling. But the room's precision and perfection--one's sense that the square and the rectangle are ensconced in it as ultimate ideals--make it less than perfect for exhibiting the work of other artists. As Frank Lloyd Wright did in the Guggenheim Museum, Mies created a space filled with a vision so specific that if you let it, it can interfere with other artists' work. Yet the rectilinearity of Mies's room is far less intrusive, far easier to forget, than the Guggenheim's spiral; in my memory of the great exhibits I've seen at the Arts Club, only a tiny fragment of Mies survives.

Like virtually all his work, Buren's installation was designed specifically for this room and will be destroyed after the show closes. If it seems unobtrusive at first, it's because he's melded it so perfectly to Mies's room that it seems almost like a deeper and clearer articulation of what the room actually was all along: a loving tracing-paper copy of its design. Only on further examination do tiny disparities become not so tiny.

One of the first things that impressed me was the mirrored pillars. Usually the pillars divide the space, but covered in smooth Plexiglas mirrors, they virtually disappear. By reflecting other parts of the room, they greatly add to one's sense of the room as an unfolding of continuous space. The walls are painted with large checkerboard patterns of white and one solid color--turquoise, pale green, or yellow, depending on the wall. The top row of squares has Mies's own dividing line as its lower border. Since Buren adds a second line between his bottom two rows of squares, the wall shapes change from rectangles into near squares. (Not all of Buren's "squares" are exactly square, but all are close enough to fool the eye.) This geometry, even more symmetrical than Mies's own, reflects perhaps the "ideal" square of the room itself, which due to practical constraints Mies couldn't have completely achieved even if he'd wanted to. But then incongruities, almost little jokes, become apparent. Buren reintroduces Mies's wall division in the mirrored pillars, which have a tiny dividing line two-thirds of the way up that is only barely visible compared to the break on the walls. I can both obliterate and mimic Mies, Buren seems to be saying, with equal ease.

While most walls have only one color of square, the south wall has two; the turquoise on the left becomes the pale green at right, almost as if they were different shades of the same tone, certainly as if there isn't much of an important difference between them. Here Buren gently mocks the formalist absolutism of so many other 20th-century artists, in whose work specific forms and colors are said to have unique qualities and meanings that make them utterly noninterchangeable.

Soft without being transcendental, the colors themselves have neither the ethereality of Vermeer nor the sensual but sterile flatness of advertising colors. If not circus-tent goofy, then a little bit this side of fun--they both increase one's feeling of the room as a continuous unit and contrast the austere steel-and-glass formalism of Mies's most famous designs. The mirrored pillars recall the famous glass "curtain walls" of his skyscrapers. Because Mies's buildings can be misunderstood as aspiring to the unreachable limit of pure glass, Buren gives us sheer mirrored surfaces--but with an unsettling tendency to reflect one's own highly impure image.

But the element in this work most disturbing to Miesian purity is the 20 clear Plexiglas squares, the same size as the painted squares, that have Buren's 8.7-centimeter stripes painted on them in white acrylic. In some the stripes are parallel to the edges; in others they're painted at oblique angles. Each Plexiglas square is placed over one of the colored squares in the center row, but with two exceptions they don't cover the squares precisely. The ones with parallel stripes are displaced by a few inches horizontally, vertically, or both; the ones with angled stripes are both displaced a bit and placed at an angle, so that the stripes are always vertical.

These panels, which disrupt Buren's own grid, have the quality of a commentary, even an intervention. To keep the stripes vertical, some panels have to be tilted, suggesting that the kind of geometrical perfection Mies so often achieved is gained only at the expense of distortions elsewhere. The panels are placed so that the painted side is flush with the wall, making the intrusions of the white stripes into the colored squares seem integral to the wall itself. The slight diagonals of the tilted panels, so utterly destructive of the grid's--and the room's--rectilinear perfection, reveal the tenuousness of the idea of the right angle, the thread by which Mies's whole architectural edifice hangs.

In Buren's early essays, circa 1970, doubtless influenced by the revolutionary politics of the time, he called for an utterly new conception of art. Decrying collectors, curators, and critics, he expressed hatred for bourgeois ideas of ownership. With his stripes he tried to make works that could not be bought or sold, that were not in themselves things, that took the location where they were installed as their "frames." He hated the idea of art being owned by a collector, who could remove it from view, but also of an artist "owning" his own work: "It is not his work, but a work." He made stripes in part because they showed no signs of his hand: "The repetition of a neutral form . . . does not lay an emphasis upon the work, but rather tends to efface it," he wrote. This effacement would, he hoped, bring about "the disappearance of form" and lead to "our questioning of the concept of painting in particular and the concept of art in general."

By making Mies's architectural principles manifest in the present installation, Buren leads the viewer to question the concept of architecture in general. He makes Mies's rectilinearity seem as arbitrary as his stripes, a choice among many possible other choices. The architect is seen not as a god, or (in the word of Mies's disciple the architect Philip Johnson) a "formgiver," but as a human building a house of toy blocks.

On the other hand, many aspects of the installation show a deep fascination, perhaps even love, for Mies's room. The glass pillars allow ever-shifting multiple views of the room and of Buren's checkerboard grids. One can view them from a corner, seeing two parts of the room reflected at once--two Buren grids of different sizes, for instance; or one grid and one other part of the room.

Finally the effect of Buren's work is neither to condemn Mies nor praise him, but to try to reveal his room in all its possibilities. His goal is not to judge, but to open up eyesight and thinking, to make the viewer an equal participant in the process of apprehending his art, and Mies's. Because he chose a great work of architecture as its site, Buren's installation generates these complex revelations. (I wonder if he could have the same success with the escalators at Water Tower Place.)

The destruction of the Arts Club that will come--barring some extraordinary mix of public protest and city or legal action--on March 20 will produce a "disappearance of form" quite different from what Buren once hoped for. His installation may critique, even demystify Mies, but it also returns the viewer to his architecture, now able to see it more freely, to understand it as an expression of a particular mind. While collectors may hide works of art from public view, most masterworks wind up eventually in museums; the only result of applying a wrecker's ball to a work of art is the reduction of mind to mindless chaos.

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