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Jack Burnham.

Jack Burnham (1931–2019)

Jack Burnham, the American art critic and theorist who established the parameters of “systems” art—his term for work, emerging in the 1960s and ’70s, that was rooted in digital networks and natural structures—has died at age eighty-seven. An early proponent of Conceptual and ecological art, Burnham is perhaps best known for “Systems Esthetics,” a landmark text published in the September 1968 issue of Artforum. The essay is considered the first fully fledged analysis of what he dubbed “post-formalist” art and, by placing art in conversation with cybernetics, argued that art and culture were transitioning from being object-based to systems-based.

Born in 1931 in New York City, Burnham studied engineering at the Boston Museum School and the Wentworth Institute before earning degrees from the Yale School of Art in 1959 and 1961. As an inaugural fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies from 1968 to 1969, Burnham acquired an interest in artificial intelligence and computers. A practicing sculptor dismayed by outmoded art scholarship, Burnham turned to cybernetics, systems theory, Marxism, science, philosophy, and even Kabbalistic mysticism to inform his criticism. For Artforum, where he also served as a contributing editor from 1971 to 1972, Burnham wrote about artists such as Les Levine, Hans Haacke, and Dan Flavin to advance his theories about systems and structures in art. He also authored two monographs: The first, Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968), posited technology as contemporary sculpture’s “controlling force” and predicted that sculpture would “eventually simulate living systems.” The second, The Structure of Art (1973), was framed as a corrective to the earlier treatise. Both were received lukewarmly upon publication.

In 1970, Burnham organized “Software” at the Jewish Museum in New York. Subtitled “Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art,” the watershed exhibition—the only major show he curated—juxtaposed computers with Conceptual works by artists including Nam June Paik, John Baldessari, David Antin, and Agnes Denes (who will have her first retrospective this fall at the Shed in New York). Burnham’s “Systems Esthetics” essay was included in the catalogue for Tate Modern’s 2005 exhibition “Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970.” 

Burnham also served as a professor and eventually chaired the art history departments of Northwestern University and the University of Maryland (he began teaching at the former institution in the late ’60s and moved to the latter in the ’80s). He retired from teaching and publishing in the 1990s. Dissolve into Comprehension, a book of collected criticism and interviews edited by Melissa Ragain, was published by MIT Press in 2015. 

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