For nearly five decades, Daniel Buren has used 8.7-centimeter stripes to highlight the lack of phenomenological neutrality of the exhibition space, his ubiquitous colored bands appearing everywhere from institutions such as Paris’s Grand Palais and the Centre Georges Pompidou to the hallowed escalators of Art Basel. 11
Not soon forgotten is his participation and removal from the “Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition” (1971) at the behest of fellow artists Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Joseph Kosuth, and Richard Long, who felt their respective installations were aesthetically interrupted by Buren’s striped banner suspended from the institution’s famed rotunda. Buren’s “in situ” work, as well as the Guggenheim incident (which now occupies a chapter in many an art history textbook), taught us that viewing art in an institution is always negotiated by economic and ideological factors, and that aesthetic autonomy is merely a delusion. In an early example of institutional critique, Buren’s stripes point outward toward the institution, prompting us to reflect upon both the architecture and function of the museum itself.

But what happens when institutional critique is taken out of the institution and located in a commercial gallery? Does it become an empty, decorative gesture? Buren’s first solo exhibition in New York since 2009 spans both the Petzel and Bortolami galleries in Chelsea, and presents historical “in situ” wallpaper-based works at the former, with newer, “situated” works at the latter. In Buren’s vocabulary, “in situ” works are made for a specific time and place, thus, not transportable to another site. The inherent contradiction of producing a historical exhibition of works unable to be shown again by merit of their own conceptual conceit is never resolved in the context of this show. I’ll choose to appreciate the ability to see these historical wallpaper-based works as a rare opportunity, as Buren had moved past producing them many decades prior. Helpful in grasping the work’s original site-specificity is Buren’s titling system, which describes the work visually, then parenthetically references the site, month, and year of the original work. A series of short black stripes zigzagging around the bottom of Petzel’s walls, to include part of the gallery’s garage door façade, is titled Skirt, Work in Situ 2013 (Ref. Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerpen January 1969) and dated 1969/2013. Subsequent showings of this specific work would be dated 1969/2015, and so on.

To date, most of these works hadn’t been shown—and were certainly never sold—since their original inceptions, the artist having usually received a small honorarium for each installation. The Petzel exhibition, being the first commercial gallery retrospective of these “in situ” works, prices each at a cool 125,000 euro. When sold, boxes of wallpaper and glue are shipped to the collector, to be installed given Buren-determined parameters (though it remains to be seen what exactly they are) that pale in specificity compared to works such as Sol Lewitt’s intensely formulaic wall drawings.

Comprising “situated” work, the artist’s presentation at Bortolami, his New York representative, is decidedly more salable in nature, though this doesn’t seem to be an overt concern of the artist. (In an interview with The Observer, the artist states, “You can give me your house, and I will do that in your house, and I will be very happy. You will pay me for the cost of the thing, and it will be difficult to resell. That is the only problem. That is a good problem.”) Buren says these works are inspired by a specific location, but are “made with the intention that the very same elements of the original work can be reinstalled in different sites following a series of rules, changing each time in response to the given place.” Swaths of striped fabric are held under Plexiglas, which is bolted to the wall. The Plexiglas is painted so as to mostly obscure the striped, colored fabric, spare a geometric shape—a rectangle in the center of the composition, a triangle in a corner. Bortolami’s back room features Buren’s decidedly different fiberoptic textiles. A collaboration with the French company Brochier Soieries initiated in 2006, the textiles appear as plain white plastic banners until they’re lit. Electricity makes them glow with a luminescence so aesthetically distinctive I’m left wanting for comparison, though it lands somewhere between a prison suit and deep sea angler fish. The fiberoptic fabric glows brightest at its edges, splashing a cold, brilliant blue onto the gallery wall. While these fiberoptic works are dazzling in effect, their borderline-kitsch quality may make them read as a futuristic update of an old trick.

Perhaps Buren’s fiberoptic light works refer most strongly to, funnily enough, his old pal Dan Flavin. Though the comparison between two artists using industrially fabricated lighting structures is an easy one, critical here is the dematerialization and bleeding of the art object into its surroundings by way of the vehicle of light. Buren’s “in situ” works at Petzel further evince their relation to the Op art generation, whose heyday was the mid-1960s, the germinal stages of Buren’s development as an artist. Another light-based work at Petzel places acrylic sheets over the gallery’s skylight, bathing adjacent walls, left “empty” for this purpose, with patches of deeply colored light creeping across them throughout the day.

Most rewarding in these two expansive surveys is witnessing Buren’s subtle, deeply associative relationship to light, architecture, shape, and site-specificity, the formal richness of which do well to substantiate his greatly respected position as a preeminent figure of conceptual art and institutional critique. The artist’s striped posters—affichages sauvages (savage postings)—are pasted around the streets of Chelsea, highlighting sites such as Printed Matter, which was recently devastated by Hurricane Sandy, as well as the Comme des Garçons store on 22nd Street. Yet, in equal turn, if Buren’s historical “in situ” works are made to problematize the context they exist in, they falter by not considering the economic and ideological factors at play in the commercial gallery space. Chelsea is also something to be considered and critiqued, and, unfortunately, it so very rarely is. If the concept of a commercially born retrospective of institutional critique works isn’t a complete paradox, it requires further contemplation than was awarded at Petzel or Bortolami.