The Power of the Institution
At documenta 5, which ran from 30 June to 8 October 1972 in Kassel, Daniel Buren was represented by a multipart work. Under the title “Exposition d’une exposition, une pièce en 7 tableaux” (Exhibiting an Exhibition: A Work in 7 Pieces) he staged an installation based on the alternating white and coloured stripes, always 8.7-cm wide, which he had been using since 1965. To seven walls in six of this documenta’s sections, he stuck white paper printed with vertical white stripes. One was at Museum Fridericianum in the “Idea and Idea/Light” section organized by Konrad Fischer und Klaus Honnef. Framed by doors to the left and right, to the side of which hung pictures by Brice Marden, the wall was also surrounded in the space by works by Sol LeWitt, Hanne Darboven, Robert Ryman and Richard Long. The other locations were all at the Neue Galerie, where works by other artists were hung on the striped surfaces: anti-communist posters in the “Political Propaganda” section, for example, or Jasper Johns’ Flag (1958) and Robert Bechtle’s ‘61 Pontiac (1968-1969) in the two rooms of the “Realism” section put together by Jean-Christophe Ammann.[i] (fig. 1) Together with two photographs of the 1970 spring festival in Kyoto, Buren also published an essay in the ring-bound documenta 5 catalogue. Its title, “Exposition d’une exposition”,[ii] linked it to the installation in the museum spaces. The catalogue also contained a list compiled by the artist detailing all of his solo and group shows, texts written and interviews given. This biblio-biography, the final part of his contribution, was given its own title, “Exposition – Position – Proposition (a)”, marking it out as a further text-based work by Buren.[iii]
With this contribution, Buren pursued the critical engagement with art institutions that had characterized his practice since 1967, an approach focussing on the functions performed by studio, gallery and museum in the production, presentation and distribution of art. He spoke out vehemently against the notion of the autonomous work of art and the associated assumption of a neutral setting: be it the stretcher, the venue, or the social context—the frame in which an artwork is presented is always involved in the production of meaning and itself undergoes changes in function depending on the definition of art brought to bear in any given case.[iv]
One important quality of the art institution addressed by Buren with his applications of striped material is its consecrating function. Every form of art, he stresses in his texts, only becomes manifest via the museum. Everything, even if it possesses no aesthetic value in its own right, can be declared as art by the museum, thus also lending it an economic value.[v] In Kassel, in the staged surroundings of the tonally subdued and gesturally reduced works of Darboven, LeWitt, Marden and Ryman, he performed this power of the institution insofar as the white-on-white printed stripes here took on the status of a painterly position. The coordinated aesthetic ensemble anointed the serially produced sheets of paper as art, at the same time as focussing attention in a more fundamental sense on the requirements for something to be categorized as “painting”.[vi] In the other sections, however, the striped panels assumed functions of the wall. As a background for the works hung on them, they drew attention to the modes of presentation of art, labelling the hanging surface not as neutral but as always already designed. Taken together, these two different ways of applying the stripes raised questions about their role as picture support, wall decoration, or poster.[vii]
Whereas in previous works, Buren had opened the exhibition space up to the street and created connections between situations inside and outside, in Kassel he decided from the outset against an intervention in the city. Looking back, he explained this decision by saying that the whole of Kassel becomes an exhibition for the duration of documenta.[viii] He disputed the urban space’s potential to liberate art from conditions prevailing in the museum. Even the positions of Conceptual and Land Art, he argued, ultimately remained tied to the museum as “the common revelator for all forms of art”.[ix] In Kassel, as in a series of subsequent works made in the first half of the 1970s, Buren concentrated on conditions within institutions and the links established between artworks and their location. By marking parts of the architecture or space behind and around the artworks on display, he rendered various museum practices visible: the fixing of exhibition duration, serialization and rhythmization, historical and semantic references, and the use of existing architectural features.[x] He was interested, as he said himself, not in abolishing art institutions but primarily in altering specific codes in the field of art.[xi]
The Curator Becomes an Artist
As Buren’s contribution to documenta 5 makes abundantly clear, this interest in change was not supposed to exhaust itself in a gesture of surrender to the valorising power of the museum.[xii] Concentrating on one specific aspect of institutional conditions—the exhibition—he was above all positioning himself as an artist in a way that is relevant not only to understanding his practice as a whole, but also to the changes within the field of art around 1970 and to the social and political significance of documenta.
“More and more,” Buren remarked in the d5 catalogue, “exhibitions tend no longer to be exhibitions of works of art, but rather to exhibit the exhibition as a work of art”.[xiii] This referred to a new phenomenon in the art world of the late 1960s and early 1970s—that of the thematic exhibition. Harald Szeemann, director of documenta 5, owed his reputation largely to such thematically framed shows, most importantly When Attitudes become Form in 1969, when he was still director of the Kunsthalle in Bern, and Happening/Fluxus a year later at Kölnischer Kunstverein. Both events fitted him for his appointment as director of d5.[xiv] It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that this documenta was the first to be given a theme: “Questioning Reality—Pictorial Worlds Today”.
Buren, too, had already shown his work in group shows like Information at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970 and Konzept-Kunst at Basel’s Kunstmuseum in 1972. Characteristic of Szeemann’s exhibitions, however, was the way their concept predefined a hypothesis. In 1971, in the initial exposé for documenta 5 co-written with Jean-Christophe Ammann and Bazon Brock, Szeemann explicitly distanced it from other exhibition types (solo shows, group shows, retrospectives, collection shows, etc.), stating that principles of form would be replaced by principles of content. “The entirety of the exhibition material”, they wrote, “will be determined by a thematic context, which is either a) derived from existing artistic productions or b) formulated independently of the pre-existing material.”[xv] Instead of adopting a reactive position that sought to follow contemporary artistic production, the organizers based their approach on the assumption that they would be involved in the production of meaning.
In Szeemann’s previous shows, this approach did not represent an obstacle to the participating artists. On the contrary, Szeemann’s approach to When Attitudes Become Form was characterized by refraining from categorizing, arranging or clarifying. Without curatorial interventions, the artistic actions were meant to enter into a relationship with each other, with the location and with the audience. The resulting event character of the show was further heightened in Happening/Fluxus.[xvi] For both exhibitions, the emphasis was on the social dimension of art, an approach that also shaped the initial concept for documenta 5: “d5 will have to shed light on the role of art in the problem-solving endeavours of society.”[xvii]
The d5 programme as it was finally realized, however, confronted the artists with a different situation. Although documenta had increasingly taken on the symbolic function of a guarantor of freedom, and not just artistic freedom, the 1972 exhibition saw a twofold dissolution of this guiding principle committed to democracy. Firstly, in the eighteen months following publication of the original concept, which stressed the participation of art in social change, the organizers had made significant alterations. Criticism both from galleries (who saw their opportunity for additional sales on the back of documenta 5 dwindling) and from artists (who saw the predefined concept as a curtailment of their freedom), resulted in a de-politicization of the original ambitions. As confirmed by Szeemann’s foreword to the catalogue, the autonomy of the artwork returned to a more central position.[xviii] And secondly, Szeemann was increasingly becoming a “first among equals”. The non-intervening curator of the Attitudes show had turned into the sole director of a large-scale exhibition who gathered staff around him in hierarchic circles. The committee initially consisting of as many as people, which until documenta 4 had selected artists via a protracted democratic process, was now replaced by a single, sometimes autocratic-seeming individual whose subjective conviction was the key shaping influence on the vision of contemporary art advocated in the exhibition.[xix]
Both of these changes in the run-up to documenta 5 focussed attention on the emergence of a new profession in the field of art – the exhibition maker. In connection with sharp increases in arts funding since the 1960s, the field of art also saw an increased professionalization and a clearer differentiation of tasks. More academics than ever before were employed by museums; reform initiatives brought new jobs in art education to orient activities more strongly towards the audience; exhibition budgets were raised as a means of securing greater public interest in art institutions.[xx] Szeemann’s career documents this development in exemplary form: in 1969, after eight years as director of Kunsthalle Bern, he set up his “Agency for Intellectual Guest Labour” and from then on worked as a freelance curator.
This development created a new position of authority comparable to that occupied by artists, as demonstrated not least by Szeemann’s own self-staging in his 1981 book Museum of Obsessions. It opens with a series of photographs showing Szeemann, naked from the waist up, in Mephistophelian poses. In the middle of the book, this is followed by a sequence of photographs from his life. For the period covering documenta 5, they show not individual artworks but only him—setting up the exhibition, with his partner Ingeborg Lüscher, talking to colleagues and artists, and finally, on the last day of the show, enthroned and relaxed amid a crowd of people. (fig. 2) The extensive descriptions of his own working processes—travel, meetings, trains of thought—additionally lent his exhibitions an artwork-like status.[xxi] As if to underline this view, one of his articles stated: “From the organizer’s point of view, documenta 5 was a step towards self-fulfilment via the medium of the exhibition.”[xxii] The artist stars, who were celebrated at the first documenta and documenta II in series of photographs, found themselves replaced by the “curator heroes”.[xxiii]
The manifesto signed by ten American artists that appeared in Artforum at the time, commenting on recent exhibition practice and specifically that of documenta 5, reacted against this shift in roles. The artists claimed their right to decide for themselves whether, what and where they would exhibit, how their work would be classified, and how their pages in the catalogue would look.[xxiv] What they were fighting over was the power to define the public appearance of art. While five of the signatories (Hans Haacke, Sol LeWitt, Barry Le Va, Dorothea Rockburne and Richard Serra) did show work at documenta 5 in spite of their protest, the others (Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Fred Sandback and Robert Smithson) withdrew their participation. Two of them found other ways of remaining associated with the context of documenta 5 while retaining control of their public profile. In the issue of Flash Art published to coincide with the event, Morris published an open letter explaining his withdrawal. He had not been prepared, he wrote, to make his work available for the illustration of sociological principles or outdated art-historical categories, especially having not been consulted on the selection of his own works.[xxv] And Smithson had a text published in the exhibition catalogue that he used to attack the function of the museum and the art-confining power of museum directors.[xxvi]
The Artist Becomes Curator
The means deployed by Buren in his contribution “Exposition d’une exposition, une pièce en 7 tableaux” resemble such strategies. He, too, not only placed his text within the more specific discursive field of documenta 5, but, like Smithson, used the organizer’s invitation for an attack on him. It was his – Szeemann’s – role that his criticism focussed on above all. The works selected for d5, he argued, performed the function of strokes of colour in a carefully composed ensemble which, as a section of the exhibition, followed a specific ordering principle or concept defined by the organizer. In his view, the organizer alone both took responsibility for and covered over all contradictions.[xxvii] If the exhibition in general was becoming an artwork, then in the case of d5 it was a team led by Harald Szeemann “that exhibits (the works) and exhibits itself (to the critics).”[xxviii]
Buren went further than Morris and Smithson, however, insofar as he did not merely remark on shortcomings but actually entered into open rivalry with the curator, putting himself on the same level in several ways: like Szeemann, he elevated himself above the artists on show alongside him at documenta 5. In the catalogue he generalized, stating that today’s artists are “rendered impotent by artistic routine” and “have no choice but to let someone else, the organizer, do the exhibiting”.[xxix] Szeemann assumed a similar impotence when, during the preparatory phase of documenta 5, he considered artists and audience as not yet capable of participatory action, thus justifying his role as mediator. This role, he claimed, consisted in making it easier for artists to express themselves.[xxx]
For documenta 5, Szeemann assured Buren of his support in realizing the installation at Neue Galerie should this be necessary, thus siding with Buren against fellow artists with whom he could, at least potentially, be in conflict.[xxxi] With his contribution, Buren himself wanted to enter into dialogue both with the works on display and the event’s organizer. Because the pictures that were hung on his striped walls were not works made specifically for d5, the desired dialogue with them necessarily remained one-sided. Ultimately, the offer of a dialogue was extended only to the curator, whose manipulative treatment of the exhibits Buren imitated. Like the organizer, he made his mark not on individual canvases but on the exhibition itself.[xxxii] He was prepared to accept the fact that he was doing violence to work by other artists, justifying this behaviour with his claim that he was merely mimicking the similarly violent interventions of the supposedly “neutral” white walls.[xxxiii]As well as positioning himself with regard to his fellow artists, Buren’s contribution also challenged the curator concerning all of the roles and powers denounced in his catalogue text: by showing work in several sections at the same time, he rejected the ordering principle to which art at documenta 5 was subjected; by listing his exhibitions, writings and interviews, he performed an organizational task usually reserved for the curator; and by strictly limiting the bibliography to texts he himself had written or co-written, he emphatically ruled out any external comment or judgement.[xxxiv] In different ways, all three strategies sought to deprive the mediator Szeemann of any way to participate in the production of meaning by Buren’s work. Like the artists’ museums created at around the same time, Buren reserved the right (via the interplay of the parts of his contribution, and by taking over the administrative, organizational and representational tasks usually assigned to the curator) to retain the defining power over his own work after it had been produced.[xxxv]
Buren shifted the focus of his critical approach from the institutions to those operating within them, and his approach led to the demonstration of an artistic self-image that could afford to forego any signature, usually the key pointer to the identity of an author and the condition for his/her authority. The anonymity of his stripes was meant to point out that the artist was no longer the owner of his/her own product, meaning the end of the cult of personality surrounding the artist.[xxxvi] But the strategies he used, with which he secured his own participation in the exploitation and interpretation of his work, pushed him back into the spotlight as an author, now equipped with expanded scope for action and an elevated position in comparison with the other actors in the field of art. The interplay of his individual works for d5 epitomizes this practice.
At the same time, Buren’s contribution succeeded in expanding the functional definition of exhibitions, thus adding a new perspective to documenta’s socio-political significance. From the outset, the documenta events were harnessed as part of the conflict between the two halves of the divided Germany. The juxtaposition of Socialist Realism on the one hand and a pluralistic vision of art on the other was extended to the forms of society on either side of the border. In connection with the event’s location near the border with East Germany, a lasting linking of the terms “Kassel”, “art” and “freedom” established itself. The precondition for the equation of “freedom” with art was art’s autonomy.[xxxvii]
With the changes to its concept, originally geared towards the social relevance of art, the fifth documenta reconnected with this tradition of political functionalization. At the same time, however, its newly autocratic organizational structure moved away from notions of political democracy. Buren’s contribution not only exposed these structural changes, but also turned the exhibition into a space of contestation. At around the same time, a heated debate about updating the museum’s function focussed on breaking down the clear assignment of the tasks of producing, mediating and perceiving art to artists, curators and audience respectively, and on making work processes happen within the art institutions.[xxxviii] In Buren’s case, it was not the public that was involved in such processes of exchange with the curator. Instead, he staged a direct contest between curator and artist over the power to define what art is, representing this dispute in the various parts of his contribution, in each arguing from a different angle. In this way, the fight over hierarchic positions that enable those occupying them to uphold or replace certain rules and codes was revealed and documented—but it was also perpetuated. Buren showed the conflictual character that, according to Bourdieu, is an integral part of social life, regardless of whether it is taking place in the field of culture or that of the social classes.[xxxix] The highlighting of such structures could have led to a political reading of the exhibition very different to that established in the tradition of documenta reception—a reading that would have identified anti-democratic developments not only in East Germany but also in West Germany and that would have understood the exhibition as a contrasting instrument of protest.
In the summer of 1971, in response to the first published concept for documenta 5, Georg Jappe asked whether the artists, who were pushing for equality with experts and the public and calling for the abolition of pedestals, would themselves be prepared, in the interest of the social effectiveness of art, to step down from their pedestals.[xl] Buren’s answer to this question—while maintaining the socio-political orientation of his practice—was to keep only the pedestals for himself and for the curator.
This text was originally published in German as: “Der Meister der Werke. Daniel Burens Beitrag zur documenta 5 in Kassel 1972,” in Uwe Fleckner, Martin Schieder, Michael Zimmermann, eds., Jenseits der Grenzen. Französische und deutsche Kunst vom Ancien Régime bis zur Gegenwart. Thomas W. Gaehtgens zum 60. Geburtstag, Dumont, Cologne 2000, pp. 215-229.
Translation from German: Nicholas Grindell
Beatrice von Bismarck (Leipzig, Berlin) is a professor at the Academy of Arts Leipzig, teaching art history, visual culture and cultures of the curatorial. She worked as a curator of the department of 20th-century art at Städel Museum, Frankfurt, taught at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg, and was co-founder and co-director of the “Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg”. In Leipzig, she was co-founder of the project-space “/D/O/C/K” and initiator of the M.A. Program “Cultures of the Curatorial” which started in autumn 2009. She has been responsible for numerous conferences, most recently together with Rike Frank for Of(f) Our Times—The Aftermath of the Ephemeral and Other Curatorial Anachronics in Oslo 2016-2017. For the next two years, she will co-direct the TRANScuratorial Academy, which she co-conceived, starting in Berlin then touring to Mumbai and Phnom Penh (2017-2018). She co-edited the special issue of Texte zur Kunst on the topic of curators (June 2012, 22/86), to which she contributed the essay “Curating Curators”. Recent publications in which she has been involved as co-editor include Cultures of the Curatorial (with Jörn Schafaff and Thomas Weski), 2012; Timing - On the Temporal Dimension of Exhibiting (with Rike Frank, Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, Jörn Schafaff, and Thomas Weski), 2014; Hospitality - Hosting Relations in Exhibitions, (ed. with Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer), 2016 (all Sternberg Press, Berlin), and Now–Tomorrow–Flux: An Anthology on the Museum of Contemporary Art (with Heike Munder and Peter J. Schneemann), JRP|Ringier, Zurich, 2017. Her essays have been published in numerous catalogues and critical readers. For her research project on the "Curatorial", she was awarded the "Opus Magnum" fellowship of the VolkswagenStiftung, Hannover (2015-2017).
[iv] See Daniel Buren: “Critical Limits” (1970) in 5 Texts, Academic Press, London/New York, 1973, pp. 43-57. Buren also dealt with various art world institutions in separate texts: Is Teaching Art Necessary? (1968, in Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1973, p. 51-53), “Function of the Museum” (1970/1973, in Five Texts, pp. 58-62), Function of the Studio (1971/1979, in October No. 10,1979, pp. 51-58).
[vi] For Douglas Crimp, the strength of Buren’s work lies in its inquiry into the conditions that make painting appear as painting, thus anticipating an end of the painterly code. See Douglas Crimp: “The End of Painting,” in On the Museum’s Ruins, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA/London, 1993, pp. 84-107, especially pp. 87-88, 103-105. For a written interpretation of his work in this sense, see also Buren, Nachspiele, p. 259.
[x] Works by Buren that refer to and develop aspects of his approach in Kassel include installations for exhibitions at Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Joseph-Haubich-Kunsthalle, Cologne (both 1974), Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach (1975) and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1976).
[xiii] Buren, “Exposition d’une exposition”. In French: “De plus en plus le sujet d’une exposition tend à ne plus être l’exposition d’œuvres d’art, mais l’exposition de l’exposition comme œuvre d’art.”
[xvi] On Szeemann’s organizational style for the exhibitions in Bern and Cologne, see Jean-Marc Poinsot, Large Exhibitions: A Sketch of a Typology, in Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, Sandy Nairne, eds.: Thinking About Exhibitions, Routledge, London/New York 1996, pp. 48-50.
[xviii] See Harald Szeemann: ( - ), in d5 exhibition catalogue, pp. 10-11. On contemporary responses to changes to the original concept, see Bruce Kurtz, “Documenta 5: A Critical Preview,” in Arts Magazine No. 46, Summer 1972, pp. 31-33; Peter Sager, “Zur documenta 5,” in Das Kunstwerk No. 25, July 1972, p. 4.
[xix] On the organizational structure of the previous documenta exhibitions, presenting the democratic procedure itself as a subject of the exhibition, see Kimpel, documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, pp. 191-194. See also Ibid., pp 203- 206, on the “reautocraticization” of the organizational structure and the subjectivization of decision-making processes for d5.
[xx] On the changes within the art field from the 1950s to the 1970s in different geographical contexts, see, for example, Jürgen Weber, Entmündigung der Künstler. Geschichte und Funktionsweise der bürgerlichen Kunsteinrichtungen, Damnitz, Munich, 1979, pp. 101-115; Diana Crane, The Transformation of the Avant-Garde. The New York Art World, 1940-1985, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1987, pp. 2-11, 119-130; Raymonde Moulin, L´Artiste, l´institution et le marché, Flammarion, Paris, 1992, pp. 167-245.
[xxi] See Harald Szeemann, Museum der Obsessionen, Merve Verlag, Berlin, 1981, in particular the illustrations on pp. 10-19, 171-174, and the articles “Wenn Attitüden Form warden” (1969) and “Die Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit im Dienste der Vision eines Museums der Obsessionen” (1979), pp. 48-72 and pp. 107-124.
[xxiii] On the curator as “hero”, see Walter Grasskamp, “Modell documenta oder wie wird Kunstgeschichte gemacht?,” in Kunstforum international No. 49, April/ May 1982, pp. 21-22. On this shift in self-image, see also Oskar Bätschmann, Ausstellungskünstler. Kult und Karriere im modernen Kunstsystem, DuMont, Cologne 1997, pp. 222-223.
[xxiv] This declaration added to and refined some of the points of the “Artists Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement” drawn up by the lawyer Bob Projansky for the New York gallerist Seth Siegelaub in March 1971 that was included in the d5 catalogue in German, English and French. See d5 catalogue, Section 18.
[xxxiii] See Ibid., p. 282. By elevating himself above the other artists in the show, Buren referred back to the claim he formulated with his work for the “VI Guggenheim International” show in 1971 at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, a length of striped material 20 metres long and 10 metres wide hung in the museum’s open central space, thus declaring himself the actual centre of the exhibition. In this way, his aim of redefining the function of the architecture with its given sightlines was prioritized over the partial loss of visibility suffered by all the other works. Anyone resisting this was accused of siding with the power of the institution. For Buren’s own description of the work, see “Round and About a Detour,” in Studio International, No. 181: 934, June 1971, pp. 246-247. The museum had Buren’s work removed before the show opened. For a description of these events, see various accounts in “The Guggenheim Affair,” in Studio International No. 182, July/August 1971, pp. 5-6 and Thomas M. Messer, “‘Which is in fact what happened’. Thomas M. Messer in an interview with Barbara Reise, 25 April, 1971,” in Studio International No. 182, July/August 1971, pp. 34-37.
[xxxiv] Buren pursued this strategy. The bibliography originally produced for the d5 catalogue has become the basis for all bibliographies appearing in publications about Buren, still appearing with no mention of texts by critics or art historians. In 1974, he stated that his own writings served to protect him from being misinterpreted by critics. See Daniel Buren: “Why write texts, or the place from where I act”, in Five Texts, pp. 6-8.
[xxxviii] On the museum debate around 1970, see the essays in Gerhard Bott, ed., Das Museum der Zukunft. 43 Beiträge zur Diskussion über die Zukunft des Museums, DuMont, Cologne 1970. For a definition of the museum as a site of engagement, see above all Bazon Brock, “Das Museums als Arbeitsplatz,” pp. 26-34, and Kurt Hackenberg, “Verdachtsmomente für das Museum der Zukunft,” pp. 100-106.
[xxxix] On Bourdieu’s concept of the “field”, see Pierre Bourdieu, Loïc J. D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992, pp. 94-114; David Swartz, Culture & Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997, pp. 117-136.