In the fall of 1968, after Daniel Buren’s reputation had become well established in the art world, receiving regular coverage in the journals both in the US and in Europe, and immediately after his “installation” of The Sandwich Men (See photo gallery below) in Paris, the artist disappeared for a period of approximately three months. The exact dates are not clear. It was first noticed that he was gone in mid September when various galleries in Germany attempted to contact Buren to arrange for a number of coordinated installations and they were unable to locate him. Close friends and associates, including his girl friend at the time, could not recall when they had last spoken to him. Based on interviews, it is believed that he left between August 27 and September 15, 1968. He is known to have returned to his loft in NY on December 12, 1968. Buren has never provided an explanation of his disappearance and has steadfastly refused to answer questions about this time period. Over the years rumors have abounded, ranging from a belief that he was resident in a spa in Baden Baden to a suggestion that he was in a California rehabilitation center for a drug problem. There has never been any evidence to support any of the rumors and no serious art historical research has been published or even undertaken on the subject.
In the spring of 2011, Dr. Napoleon Bismarck (no relation), Professor Emeritus of History at West Virginia University, was conducting some research for a planned volume on the influence of the arts and crafts movement on craft production in 20th century West Virginia. Dr. Bismarck was searching through the guest register at the historic Hotel Morgan in Morgantown, West Virginia, looking for the registration of Rennie MacIntosh who is known to have visited the state in the 1960’s, when he was surprised to see the registration information for Daniel Buren who had checked into the hotel on September 21, 1968. Dr. Bismarck is also an enthusiast of the early development of conceptual art and therefore quite familiar with Buren’s work. There was no evidence of how long Mr. Buren was in residence as he did not check out with the front desk. This evidence seems to have solved, in part, the mystery of Mr. Buren’s location during this time period.
Dr. Bismarck made several attempts to contact Daniel Buren to discuss the findings with him but was politely refused. Several of Dr. Bismarck’s colleagues, Dr. Milton Cho and Dr. Mary Allsop, were, however, able to contact several of Mr. Buren’s friends and family and to interview them about his state of mind prior to his disappearance.
Francoise Gillot, Buren’s assistant at the time, stated, “We were all growing very concerned about Daniel during the summer of 1968. He was unusually distracted and seemed agitated much of the time.” This was a sentiment expressed by nearly all of those interviewed.
Buren’s NY gallery dealer, Martin Cartouche, said that he overheard Buren apparently talking to himself on many occasions during the summer. The content consisted primarily of dimensions: 9 centimeters, 11 centimeters, 25 centimeters and so on. These were interspersed with ejaculations, most commonly, “Merde!” “Imbecile!” “Cochon!” “What the fuck?” and “You have got to be kidding!” Mr. Cartouche expressed his belief that after he had established his signature stripes of exactly 8.7 centimeters based on detailed and exhaustive analysis of the quality of “stripeness”, Buren began to have doubts about his calculations and was becoming more and more distressed over the possibility that he had made a mistake.
Marina Abramatova, Buren’s girlfriend at the time, did not recall any instances of Buren talking to himself but she did remember seeing large numbers of drawings in his home office which she thought might have been preparatory drawings for stripes of various sizes.
The evidence seemed to point to an artistic crisis leading up to Buren’s disappearance. Another further discovery lends support to this hypothesis and suggests that Buren was in Morgantown for the bulk of the time he was missing. In August, 2011, Dr. Bismarck, while driving to a plumbing supply store located in Morgantown’s historic waterfront district, happened to notice an abandoned building which had at one time been a furniture warehouse outlet. Dr. Bismarck had seen this building many times before but in light of the knowledge that Daniel Buren had been in Morgantown, the building took on new significance: the windows, which had been partially boarded up, were painted with Green and white stripes. The building’s current owners were contacted and Dr. Bismarck was able to examine the window stripes and was unable to find anything verifying that they had been painted by Buren but the evidence was suggestive. The stripes are a uniform 20.1 centimeters wide, which, if these are indeed the work of Buren, would lend support to the idea that he was experiencing a crisis regarding the width of the stripes and that perhaps he had retreated to an isolated location in order to be able to experiment more freely. (See photo gallery below)
Dr. Cho states, “We are really at the very beginning of the investigation but we are cautiously optimistic about the ultimate outcome. In the meantime, Dr. Bismarck, Dr. Allsop, and I have applied for a grant with the Guggenheim foundation and we hope to further this exciting avenue of research.”
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