Peinture aux Formes Variables from May 1966 is one of Daniel Buren’s earliest and most significant paintings, made when the artist first began experimenting with the stripes that would establish him as one the most important artists of the postwar period. Here, the red-and-white striped fabric functions as a canvas for Buren to paint on.
In this painting, Buren applied white paint to the red and white striped fabric in curved lines—the “variable forms” of the works title—that interfere with the straightness of printed pattern. White paint frames areas of print, but unlike a traditional painting where a frame would lead to a scene, the striped fabric interrupts any illusion. As art historian Anne Rorimer has noted, “Buren’s work is rooted in the artist’s initial search for ways to strip painting of illusionistic and expressive reference as per his decision in 1965 to reduce the pictorial content of his canvases to the repetition of mechanically printed, alternating white and colored vertical bands 8.7 cm in width painted white on its outer stripes” (A. Rorimer, “Daniel Buren: From Painting to Architecture,” Parkett 66, 2003, n.p.). By using commercial fabric, Buren was able to distance himself from the idea of artistic authorship, an idea fraught with notions of individual expression that artists of the 1960s rallied against after decades of expressionist painting before them.
For Buren, the stripes are “visual tools.” Buren considers the striped fabric he uses to be equivalent to the support—be it canvas, wood, glass or a wall upon which a fresco or mural would be painted—any painting would be painted on. However, unlike a white canvas or primed surface, the stripes he uses as his support remain visible to the viewer, calling attention to the fact that the support is not a blank or neutral surface.
By bringing the viewer’s attention to the canvas, in addition to that which is painted on it and the paint used to do so, Buren was able to reveal not only the support a painting was painted on, but also the space in which it hung, ultimately referencing the space of the gallery, museum or institution. More so, as art critic Austin Considine has pointed out, “The stripes also tend to transform whatever space they inhabit, rendering familiar public spaces unfamiliar, calling into question the values we attach to these spaces and their role as a forum for competing—and often contentious—artistic, public and state interests” (A. Considine, “Between the Lines,” Art in America, Jan. 24, 2013, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/daniel-buren-petzel-bortolami-1/ [accessed March 2016]).
Buren first thought to use striped fabric as the support for his paintings in September of 1965. He recalls, “I was working with painting, but I was never satisfied and then one day I found in the marché Saint-Pierre a material, a striped linen, which was in a way much closer to what I wanted to do than what I was able to do with painting. I started using the material with very little paint and little by little the painting reduced to the point I realized I was very close to what I wanted, and that opened the door to something else I hadn’t thought about which was to work with the space and work outside of the art system, galleries and museums” (D. Buren quoted in S. Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Daniel Buren on His Career, Luxury Collaborations, And Why He ‘Hated’ the Venice Biennale,” Blouin ArtInfo, Sept. 3, 2015, via http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1229428 [accessed March 2016]). In other words, the striped fabric helped Buren strip painting down to its core, what the artist called “degree zero” (D. Buren, quoted by G. Lelong, Daniel Buren, Paris, 2002, p. 37). What was left of painting in this reduced state was an awareness of the context it was placed in.
By 1967, only months after painting Peinture aux Formes Variables, Buren would stop painting on fabric and instead use the landscape of Paris’s streets as his canvas, creating site-specific installations with the stripe motif that directly engaged space and architecture. Peinture aux Formes Variables, May 1966, then is formative in establishing Buren’s trajectory towards institutional critique. For his first solo exhibition at the Apollinaire Gallery in 1968, Buren hung a large swath of striped fabric at the entry way, using the door’s frame to frame the fabric like a painting and simultaneously blocking entrance to the gallery. In 1975, at one of the artist’s first museum exhibitions, at the Municipal Museum of Mönchengladbach in Germany, Buren wallpapered the walls with striped fabric, leaving blank spaces where the museum’s collections of paintings had once hung. Interchanging the canvas that paint is applied to with the wall unto which a painting is hung, Buren asked, “Is the wall a background for the picture or is the picture a decoration for the wall? In any case, the one does not exist without the other” (D. Buren, “On Saturday,” Daniel Buren: Around “Ponctuations,” Lyon, 1980, n.p.). Though his projects would increasingly call attention to the space in which art is presented, his critique of the institution is founded in questions of painting developed in Peinture aux Formes Variables, May 1966.