PRINT October 2011


Chris Burden, 747, 1973. Performance view, Los Angeles, January 5, 1973. Photo: Terry McDonnel.

FROM THE BEGINNING—which is to say from the early 1970s onward—Chris Burden’s performance works have provoked questions about their “manipulative, autocratic” character.¹ Such worries were never a simple function of the artist’s aggressively risky and sometimes downright masochistic behavior. On the contrary, they stemmed from the ethical quandaries his work presented for any reasonably thoughtful viewer. For if Burden’s performances required his submission to bodily and mental stresses, the viewer, too, had tests to undergo. Ought one simply to accept an artist’s decision to be shot, and then watch quietly while the gun is loaded and fired? Or if one’s fellow student folds himself into a tiny locker and stays there for days on end, what then? Or when an artist makes it his business to declare his place in the capitalist order of things, doesn’t one’s own uncomfortable embeddedness in that order promptly come to mind? Burden’s self-presentation as a denizen of late modernity, navigating the hazards of embodiment and disembodiment, domestic claustrophobia and the seductive “expansions” of televisual and automotive experience: Isn’t all this part of your identity, too?

Like theater, performance art presupposes a social relationship, and in Burden’s case, his actions and his observers’ reactions (or, on some occasions, his inaction and their actions) were written into the contract implicit in the work—a contract still legible today. Rereading its terms has fueled much recent writing on Burden’s practice. The most extensive volume yet devoted to it, a monograph published by Thames & Hudson in 2007, attends carefully to what art historian Kristine Stiles terms the “ethical conditions” under which the artist “responsibly performed” his early pieces, particularly the just-mentioned Shoot, 1971. Robert Storr, for his part, points to Burden’s incorrigibly laddish persona as a means of “retrieving [boyhood’s] behaviors for coping with a world too big to be at home in.” Behind such retrievals lies a distinctly new understanding of the artist’s efforts to, as Storr puts it, “articulate an entirely adult skepticism about power and its follies”—an understanding capable of addressing the full measure of philosophical doubt that permeates Burden’s work.²

These new accounts of Burden’s pervasive skepticism raise a necessary question: What else might be left to say about the work of a guy who began life in 1946 as an apparently ordinary middle-class representative of the Boomer generation? Boston-born, West Coast–bred, Burden earned a BFA at Pomona College and an MFA at the University of California, Irvine, and then, in 1972, settled down in Venice to live the life of an artist. The setup was perfect, with the door of the studio opening out onto the boardwalk, and beyond it, palm trees and sand stretching down to the sea. The space itself was pretty basic; the location was anything but.

In retrospect, the story would seem as hackneyed as it does idyllic—California dreamin’ meets performance art—if Burden had turned out to be the laid-back type. He was not. Although TV and cars and marijuana were inevitably part of the picture, they were not there simply to serve as props, the inevitable attributes of the archetypal easygoing LA dude. On the contrary, as Burden deployed them, the cars and drugs and so forth were his materials, his media, and they had as much to do with Reyner Banham’s concepts of “surfurbia” and “autopia” as with the SoCal variant of the countercultural dream.

As famously envisioned by Banham, contemporary Los Angeles is both artificial and natural, somewhere and nowhere, empty and full. It has no edge and no center; its life force courses through the endless stream of traffic; it is that stream, uniting democratic flux with totalitarian flow. And its self-image feeds on the idea of the autonomy offered by the freeway, which speeds each private car, itself a model of mobile domesticity, to the egalitarian utopia symbolized by miles and miles of public beach.³

These notions are, I think, part of Burden’s own view of Los Angeles, though there they take on a decidedly dystopian cast. Still, like Banham’s, his focus on the city communicates a recognition of Los Angeles as, to use legendary Beatnik barfly poet Stuart Z. Perkoff’s brilliant formulation, “a dream, a container of dreams, a structure . . . a limit & a tool.”⁴ The power of the phrase lies in its transformative energy, which reshapes the dream city as a set of materials open to use.

I will not argue that Burden’s work literally enacts Perkoff’s vision of the city. But for me, the poet’s phrases have helped to prompt the realization that Burden took hold of Los Angeles not just as his own personal habitat but also as a vehicle to figure what might be termed a social geography—a spatial and topographic representation of the character of contemporary social life. This geography took shape both in the physical spaces his performances made use of and as the conceptual terrain they thus described. When Robert Horvitz declared in these pages in 1976 that the performance work for which Burden is now best known “derives genetically” from environmental sculpture, the critic underscored the ongoing relationship between the artist’s physical activity in performance and larger conceptions of place and space.⁵ It is not that the concept spawns the performance, but rather the other way around. Such causal reversals mean that the considerable conceptual implications of Burden’s practice emerge episodically, as the cumulative effect of works that often seem at least as mundane as they are violent. To say this is to suggest that something other than the standard critical or art-historical methodology is required to bring those implications fully into view. The task cannot be accomplished simply by a set of discrete analyses or a connect-the-dots narrative building toward a larger theme. Instead what is needed is a hybrid schema: part network, part map, part grid.

Chris Burden, TV Hijack, 1972. Performance view of an interview with Phyllis Lutjeans of Channel 3 Cablevision, Irvine, CA, February 9, 1972. Photo: Gary Beydler.

On this imaginary surface, we start to draw. First trace a few local arteries: Main Street, which runs north-south from Santa Monica through Venice; and then Speedway Avenue, which despite its racy name is merely a narrow alleyway that bumps along behind Ocean Front Walk; and lastly Market, a short east-west street that doesn’t go anywhere much. Farther afield, there is Main Street in downtown LA, and La Cienega, which travels south from West Hollywood all the way to LAX. What emerges from this exercise is one man’s city: if not a psychogeography then at least an incomplete tracing of his comings and goings within the fabric of the urban grid.

But these general markers alone are insufficient. Start picking out a series of otherwise nondescript sites: On La Cienega, for example, close to number 669, is the unmarked spot where, for a 1972 show at Riko Mizuno Gallery, the artist lit two flares in the street alongside an automobile parked at the curb and then lay down under a tarp, the ersatz victim of a hit-and-run.⁶ Or the workaday garage on Speedway whose doors stood open just long enough for a pale blue Volkswagen Beetle, engine cranking for two minutes (“screaming for me,” the artist said), to back out with Burden standing on the bumper, hands nailed fast to the roof. Or, moving south, there is the untraceable spot on a dull stretch of beach where the artist raised his arm (the gesture is full of bravado) to fire a pistol at a Boeing 747 taking off from LAX.

We might say that the work Burden made in Los Angeles took the form of such moments of visibility and absence within the urban fabric. His is a career of occasions and appearances, often in apparently arbitrary contexts; of doors opening and closing; of weapons being loaded and fired, roads being blocked, cars and trucks being driven, borders being crossed. His accounts of these actions are so spare, so laconic, that it is tempting to hear in them the voice of that classically American character the LA private eye. If Lew Archer had been an artist in the 1970s, he would have sounded exactly like this: “At 6 p.m. I stood in the doorway of my studio facing the Venice boardwalk. A few spectators watched as I pushed two live electric wires into my chest.” “At 6 p.m. three invited spectators came to my studio. The room was fifteen feet by twenty-five feet and well lit by natural light. Wearing no clothes, I entered the space from a small room at the back.” “On the evening of October 16, I placed two Xs constructed of sixteen foot beams in an upright position blocking both lanes of Laguna Canyon Road.” “Holding my hands behind my back, I crawled through fifty feet of broken glass. There were very few spectators, most of them passersby.” “On the morning of December 17, standing on the American side of the border, I flew a small rubber-band powered model airplane over the fence into Mexicali, Mexico.”⁷

These terse narratives are reflected in the equally sparse dossier of photographs that Burden has deployed to document his 1970s work. Among them are only a few action shots, split-second exposures that show his body in movement, tumbling down a flight of steps or collapsing onto the gallery floor: Lew Archer himself, as he takes it on the chin. Pictures like these are outnumbered by images that replace theatrics with forensics; dramatic action cedes to postmortem sifting of the evidence gathered at the scene. Yet in the images that are invested with such evidentiary character, it is sometimes difficult to be sure what event or action is being confirmed.⁸ Doors are as often shown shut as open, and from their silent surfaces there is no way of telling what, if anything, might have happened behind them, or on what occasion, with what relation to a real-time performance, the photographic record was actually made.

Needless to say, this sense of bodily absence and temporal distance comes with the territory, but if it clings to photographs in general, and to performance photographs as a special subset of them, it is rendered all the more salient by the curious muteness Burden’s works lay claim to through their tight-lipped forms. It is as if they knew they were headed for the archive all along, an effect that fuels the certainty that making sense of Burden’s work is less about reading and looking than it is about plotting and parsing. To take its measure is to locate the pattern that gave shape to (and took shape from) a city understood as limit, container, and tool.

Burden’s Los Angeles lacks significant landmarks. Its edges sometimes seem to lie no farther away than the side of the road. Its interiors are off-limits—except those of studio or gallery. By definition, the latter exists as an empty volume to be regularly filled and as regularly drained. For the most part, F Space in Santa Ana played this role for the artist in the ’70s; if the gallery’s name bespeaks its volumetric identity, the documentary photos taken of the artist’s work there do not fail to include the requisite door shots—in this case of viewers stepping into the eponymous space. On other occasions what really seems to define the structure of the city is its physical boundaries, whether drawn by the Pacific Ocean or a chain-link fence. Both barriers delineate an elsewhere—an imaginary Mexico that, as Burden’s work presents it, is literally and figuratively out of sight. Whether he was sending a model airplane freighted with two joints of “the finest seedless marijuana” across the California-Mexico border, as he did for Coals to Newcastle, 1978, or paddling a kayak off into Mexican waters, leaving those on shore in the dark about where he had gone (this was the format of B.C. Mexico, 1973), Burden could see no farther than the ground he occupied at the moment the picture was made. The same is true for us today. To consider the spare tableau presented by the artist standing by his kayak, or holding a plane from whose wings hang joints like “miniature bomb[s],” is to be struck by how much these photographs leave out of frame. There is only the space of the photograph and its blinkered point of view. Everything else has fallen away.

Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, 1974. Performance view, Speedway Avenue, Venice, CA, April 23, 1974. Photo: Charles Hill.

This is not to say that the photographic placelessness of Burden’s Los Angeles is not occasionally interrupted, as if by accident, by some momentary detail that works to pin it down. For me, the signal example is the blue-gray cloud of exhaust that pours from the tailpipes of the VW Beetle as it pokes its bumper out of the Speedway garage. Invisible in the black-and-white photo viewers relied on for decades, it registers in the color version made available (along with color images of other pieces) in the Thames & Hudson monograph. How fitting that it shows up there so subtly, in a softly toxic harmony with the baby-blue Bug: LA car culture in an era before effective emission control, though not before freeways, of course.⁹ (By 1970, smog alerts were distinctly old hat.) Burden’s performances do not address these phenomena directly—he never sited a performance on the freeway—yet even so, they are far from giving an account of LA as Edenic paradise. The landscape he described looks pitted and pocked by acts of seemingly random violence, just as the persona he sometimes occupied was that of an asocial exhibitionist, withdrawn and aggressively violent by turns.

Sometimes is the operative word. Mapping Burden’s practice means plotting a mutable subjectivity capable of changing tactics as new circumstances and social ecologies demand. Different occasions required different shticks: For Garçon!, a 1976 work exhibited at the Hansen Fuller Gallery, he donned a gray cotton jacket and offered visitors their choice of cappuccino or espresso. The gesture not only deftly inserted Burden and his art within the service industry but also made his viewers the literal consumers of an artwork that, thanks to social expectation and convention, they promptly failed to see. But this is not all. A few months later, when an art tour was scheduled to visit his studio, the same gray jacket plus a roll of tickets turned him into a tour guide ready to squeeze an extra dollar from each would-be visitor—never mind the fact that the visit had already been paid for up front. Artist as small-time shyster, then, as well as server, quasi messiah, and anonymous victim at the side of the road.

When you consider the range and number of these social transformations, it seems only natural that yet another persona would take its place on Burden’s list of selves—that of a plutocrat spreading the wealth. This is the form taken by Merry Christmas from Chris Burden, 1976, which traded anonymity for an assertive personhood and made an erstwhile misanthrope into a budding Maecenas. The transformation happened when the artist simply tucked a bank-crisp ten-dollar bill into each of one hundred envelopes printed specially for the occasion, complete with his return address. A separate insert offered Christmas greetings to the hundred artist-recipients of Burden’s largesse. Thirty-five years ago, was this a big gesture or a small one? The answer, like so much in economic relations, depends on where you stand, your place in the economic landscape and how it shapes your point of view. And it also depends on the perceptions of those around you. Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, money talks only when someone hears what it says. It is easy to imagine Burden’s offering being quite carefully parsed by its beneficiaries, though whether gratefully or skeptically is harder to decide.

Burden’s Los Angeles performances have a great deal to say about money. Full Financial Disclosure, 1977, for example, purports to tell the whole story of his fiscal transactions over a twelve-month period, withholding nothing that pertains to the economics of profit and loss, and backing up this public accounting with an orderly display of canceled checks. But this is not all. Full Financial Disclosure took the promise of its title as shaping not only what it would show but also to whom. Although the work was presented as an installation at the Baum-Silverman Gallery, an art public alone was not enough: Burden reused the material as a paid TV ad, a thirty-second spot shown on three LA stations thirty times in the space of two weeks.¹⁰ And in that new context, the dollars and cents were pointedly reframed by yet another of the artist’s masquerades. Appearing with the American flag behind him, he adopted the guise of a post-Watergate politician who, like Caesar’s wife, aims to be above suspicion at all costs—this was his bottom line. And what is more, the costs thus incurred were factored into the disclosure, along with the price of the artist’s most recent haircut, the cost of a visit to his dentist, and what he spent on studio rent.

It would be natural to assume that the work’s two versions were more or less identical—one viewed firsthand, the other through a TV screen, but each telling the same story to the same ends. I know I first thought so, and it’s true that both include more or less the same documentary materials. Yet even so, the two works are different. Why? The answer lies in the fact that, like the canceled checks the performance made use of, television, too, collapses the distance between the image of an object and its physical presence. The inescapable clarity that long ago governed age-old categories of material being—our understanding of objects as near or far, here or there—is eroded by TV’s telescoping illusions, effects that raise the abstraction inherent in the check as a bill of exchange to a new power, the nth degree. We might even say that television and money go together, in that both operate as guarantees of the truthful relationship between some object or event somewhere else, at a distance, and the stand-in or sign we are offered in its stead.

Chris Burden, Full Financial Disclosure (detail), 1977, still from a thirty-second TV commercial aired on Channels 2, 4, and 7, Los Angeles, September 1977.

Between 1972 and 1977, Burden produced five television pieces in all; Full Financial Disclosure was to be the last. The year before, in 1976, Chris Burden Promo aired in May and September, first on two New York stations and then in Los Angeles on three more. And promo it was: It cycled through of a list of names, the first five (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso) chosen from “a nationwide survey which showed them to be the most well-known artists to the general public,” and the last a more personal selection: the artist himself. Finally came a closing disclaimer, which revealed, unsurprisingly, that it was Burden who had footed the bill.

It is easy to see the telescoping effects of Chris Burden Promo. The world it evokes is to be found somewhere between the artist’s Valhalla and the starlet’s Hollywood, and the cultural attitude of which it partakes crossbreeds timeless fame and the DJ’s top ten. And though Burden’s other television pieces are quite different in tone from the works that were to follow, they, too, engage the mechanisms of notoriety, celebrity, and fame. TV Hijack, 1972, chose the radical path, with Burden posing as a terrorist, while as the author of Poem for L.A., 1975, he cast himself as the city’s bard. The contrast between the two roles is striking. In TV Hijack, all the artist needed to turn a relaxed taping at a cable station—Phyllis Lutjeans, as host, wore granny boots, while Burden was in jeans and sunglasses—into a live demonstration of terrorist behavior was the knife the artist abruptly produced and pressed to the unsuspecting Lutjeans’s throat. Poetry, however, asks for more: Poem for L.A. consisted of three phrases spoken to the camera, each followed by a silent insert spelling it out: SCIENCE HAS FAILED, HEAT IS LIFE, and TIME KILLS. And then of course the final credit: CHRIS BURDEN IS SPONSORED BY CARP (Carp was an art organization Burden invoked to meet the FCC rule that unaffiliated individuals cannot advertise on air.)

I do not know whether Burden intended these apocalyptic dicta as warnings or reminders for the city he addressed. In any event, the answer may be moot. What matters more is the contrast constructed between all the TV pieces, on the one hand, and, on the other, the ordinary anonymity and grungy abjection of his performances within the urban terrain. In trading street and studio for the station, Burden dislocated his art—dislocated it, but also repositioned it within a different set of social relations, where both bodies and messages become unfixed. The here/there placelessness of television was as crucial to the social geography posited by Burden’s work as were the back alleys and curbsides so symptomatic of his performance art. The same is true of the ways in which he made anonymity, fame, and money the matter of his art. If social geographies are rooted in real spaces and topographies, they are also built on less visible if equally structuring terrain.

In the more overtly physical, even sculptural pieces undertaken since the 1980s—works like Medusa’s Head, 1990, Pizza City, 1996, and Metropolis, 2004—Burden has revised the terms in which he engages the urban infrastructure. The real and the symbolic are still intermingled, but the formula has changed. Now Burden builds make-believe cities out of the urban-coded playthings of the modern child, the Legos, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets with Meccano supplements, miniature railways with every conceivable add-on—all this seething with motion, real and implied. And he understands these homemade dystopias as standing for their real-world templates. Medusa’s Head, an enormous plywood and concrete orb sprouting railroad-track tentacles, “is a metaphor for a world engulfed in its own technology,” he writes, while the tabletop conurbation Pizza City captures “the rich and textured quality of Los Angeles,” and Metropolis, with its tangle of streets alive with tiny Hot Wheels cars, “is modeled after a fast-paced, frenetic modern city.”¹¹

Model railroad, model buildings, model city—here is a connection no one could miss. Yet if even now Los Angeles continues to be Burden’s great subject—his answer to Rembrandt’s self-portraits and Picasso’s nudes—this new set of mediations on the urban experience seems to function as the manic flip side to the more somber 1970s works. And if at first, with their play-school antics, they seem less dystopian than the early pieces, the opposite may well be closer to the mark. To present the city as a dizzying miniaturization—a 3-D cartoon come to life in the gallery—is to seal it off from the often overwhelming sense of reality provided by Burden’s 1970s works, even if that realism came at a cost no balance sheet reveals. These later works, by contrast, are less sited than assembled: Like the images that compose a TV drama (two parts Vancouver for every stock shot of the LA fabric), they come together to map a generic geography of the globalized metropolis. Inside that nowhere, the preternatural playfulness of Burden’s Peter Pan avatar summons an ersatz virtual Neverland. If the reality effect of Burden’s 1970s performances looks stunningly authentic in retrospect, this is because the Borgesian map they offer—a plotting in which the artist’s photographs and performances claimed a one-to-one correspondence between image and experience—speaks to a social geography buried beneath the ruins we inhabit today.

Anne M. Wagner lives in London. Her new book, A House Divided: American Art Since 1955, will be published in December by the University of California Press.

Chris Burden, Garçon!, 1976. Performance views, Hansen Fuller Gallery, San Francisco, August 3–7, 1976.


1. Robert Horvitz, “Chris Burden,” Artforum, May 1976, 24–31.

2. Kristine Stiles, “Burden of Light,” in Chris Burden, ed. Fred Hoffmann (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 30; Robert Storr, “Immanent Domain,” in Chris Burden, 39.

3. For another account of Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Penguin, 1971), see Nigel Whiteley, Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 225–43.

4. Stuart Z. Perkoff, “The Venice Poems” (1957–58), as cited by Cécile Whiting in the epigraph to Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

5. Horvitz, “Chris Burden.”

6. The gallery, which was at 669 La Cienega, was one of the most interesting at the time, according to Patricia Faure, another dealer active during these years. See oral-history interview with Faure, November 17–24, 2004, Archives of American Art, Washington, DC.

7. This collection of citations is taken from the artist’s descriptions of his works published in Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey, exh. cat (Newport Beach, CA: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1988), as are the other descriptions offered here. The pieces in question are (in order of mention): Doorway to Heaven, Icarus, Dos Equis, Through the Night Softly, and Coals to Newcastle. See also Hoffman, ed., Chris Burden, for a considerably expanded record and more documentation of the artist’s work.

8. For a point of comparison, one might turn to Evidence, a book of photographs published in 1977 by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel (New York: D.A.P., 2003). The work collects fifty-nine prints found in government and corporate archives by its two authors; all are left uncaptioned. The result is uncanny; the viewer seems to have entered a parallel universe where everything is familiar but nothing makes sense.

9. Though regulation of tailpipe emissions began in California in the late 1960s, catalytic converters were not required until 1975. See the South Coast Air Quality Management District, “The Southland’s War on Smog: Fifty Years of Progress Toward Clean Air,”

10. Baum-Silverman opened on La Brea in March 1977, a few months before Burden’s September show, and closed on December 31, 2007. See Suzanne Muchnic, “It Was Art That Stole Her Heart,” Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007.

11. Chris Burden, 132, 340, 350.