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PRINT September 2015

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Chris Burden

Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975. Performance view, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, April 11, 1975.

THROUGHOUT his long and varied career, Chris Burden strove to understand the principles behind how things work. Born the son of an engineer and a biologist in Boston, he used diagrams, models, and engineering to explore the limits of physical, psychological, and social space. Burden spent formative years as a teenager in Europe, where he began to appreciate an art that slipped seamlessly between ideas, science, and theology. Leonardo da Vinci became then—and remained—an influential model. Like Leonardo, Burden will be remembered as a visionary artist to the core.

Fortuitous in his move to Los Angeles, with its burgeoning art scene, Burden began in the early 1970s a series of mature performances realized while still a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. He understood from the beginning that his access to institutions of higher learning, museums, and galleries offered him the opportunity to reveal power structures and hierarchies. In some way, all art is political, and Burden believed that in every possibility art, like science and engineering, could change the world for the better.

From Five Day Locker Piece, 1971, his graduate-thesis work in which he locked himself in a locker for five days, to Shoot, 1971, the work for which he became internationally regarded (seemingly overnight), Burden recognized that through simplification, reduction, and clarity he could create an image that was specific, unforgettable, and ultimately iconic. He created performances that tested endurance and physical boundaries, including White Light/White Heat, 1975, and Doomed, 1975, one of his last, in which he lay on the floor under a sheet of glass leaning against the wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, for nearly two days until someone intervened. After Doomed, he realized that while he could calculate physics and control certain experiments, human psychology was something he could not bet his own life on. Burden was the opposite of a showman. Never a daredevil or someone who took any pleasure in pain, he was reticent and shy, far more comfortable talking about something in a thoughtful and systematic way than as the center of public attention. As an artist, he wanted to understand the extremes of giving himself over to sculptural activity.

The second half of the ’70s saw Burden incorporate some of the time-based and kinetic elements of his performance work into sculptures and installations. In The Big Wheel, 1979, a motorcycle powered the large iron wheel to which it was connected; in Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986, the artist dug through the floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and in Samson, 1985, each visitor to the exhibition space had to enter through a turnstile connected to a hundred-ton jack that pressed two beams against the gallery’s walls. Glacier-like in its actions, this created a metaphor that had the potential to be actualized, where the public enabled Burden, like Samson, to slowly push down the walls of institutions.

Burden was fascinated by models, as evidenced by B-Car, 1975, a vehicle built in reaction to the energy crisis of the ’70s; C.B.T.V., 1977; C.B. Air Force, 1980; Scale Model of the Solar System, 1983; and The Speed of Light Machine, 1983. He was also deeply concerned with the moral bearing of his country, as seen in The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979; All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987, featuring 625 miniature submarines representing each sub launched by the US Navy since 1897; and The Other Vietnam Memorial, 1991, an installation commemorating three million Vietnamese who died during the Vietnam War. In this vein, he also produced A Tale of Two Cities, 1981, an installation of two fictionalized, simultaneously futuristic and backward-looking states, and Medusa’s Head, 1990, with its postindustrial environmental implications.

Burden was always a visionary artist: He wanted to construct a pneumatic subway under Gagosian Gallery in New York, and he created, in Pizza City, 1996, an idealized place with the charm of a small European town and the benefits of an industrialized city. Metropolis II, 2010, on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, began, as he described it, with a drawing showing how to shrink LA and create a freeway system four to six times faster, using digital slots for high-speed cars, so that one could travel from Santa Monica to Pomona in twenty-eight minutes, a trip that in reality would take at least one hour.

During his last decade, Burden became increasingly known by a wider public for his large-scale installations, most significantly Urban Light, 2008. He initially became interested in old streetlamps when, one day, my son Maxwell dragged him to see some. Immediately sensing the community symbolized by these discarded objects, he began collecting hundreds from all over LA. For no exhibition or public-commission purposes, he arranged these lamps around his studio, illuminating that private space. LACMA eventually acquired Urban Light, and in a city without landmarks or a center, this work was welcomed with the broadest public appreciation. Burden made the paths inside the grid of street-lamps wide enough to allow two people to pass hand in hand. Through this installation, he was no longer alone. He was with a community he loved and with his wife, the artist Nancy Rubins, for whom he made the paths.

At the time of his passing, Burden had just completed Ode to Santos Dumont, an homage to Alberto Santos-Dumont in the form of a model of the Brazilian aviator’s 1901 dirigible. While he took a special interest in solving the riddle of the work’s physics, much had to be done at the crossing of science and intuition. Thus it represents that very human place where art, poetry, and instinct intersect with hard fact, science, and engineering. That Ode floats and moves so elegantly is a reflection of the man who made it.

Burden’s final, unrealized work is Xanadu, a park-like setting populated with several of his major late models, sculptures, and installations. The most monumental work the artist ever conceptualized, it includes What My Dad Gave Me, 2008, a ziggurat-like sculpture originally installed at Rockefeller Center in New York; his response to the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in London; full-scale models for an illegal five-story apartment building in Los Angeles County; a series of lamps; and Beehive Bunker, 2006, an igloo-shaped concrete sculpture, among other works. At the time of his death, he had completed a dramatically detailed three-dimensional topographic map of this imaginative city.

Although Burden is often recognized for the more spectacular aspects of his work, I will always remember him for the equilibrium and even stasis of his experiments: the center of The Big Wheel, the invisible cables that hold Ode to Santos Dumont in a circle. In one of the few commissions never fully realized, The Hidden Force, 1995, he positioned three large pools of water in front of the cellblocks at a penitentiary on McNeil Island in Washington State and created a body-size compass within each pool. For Burden the artist, the scientist, and the deeply moral man, this work was meant to suggest unity among all, who, together, could find their way. For those whom Burden came to touch as a teacher, for those who knew him through his work and what he represented as an artist, and for me as a close friend and brother, he showed the right direction and set us on the right way.

Paul Schimmel is Partner and Vice President at Hauser & Wirth and was previously Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.