New York

Scott Burton

Artists Space

When artists employ ordinary pieces of furniture—tables and chairs—they generally employ in addition a formal strategy to lift these objects out of their ordinariness. Lucas Samaras imposes obsessive Transformations on his chairs. George Brecht presents chairs in mysterious conjunction with other common objects. Ree Morton makes her own chairs, giving them a stylistic correspondence to the privatist tableaux where they appear. And so on. The point is that the common sort of intelligibility offered by ordinary furniture is destroyed, to be replaced by intelligibility more acceptable in one or another of the sectors of contemporary art-world sensibility. Scott Burton rejects such strategies. His use of tables and chairs deliberately preserves the intelligibility that comes with them—that is built into them, so to speak.

In the last Whitney Biennial, he showed two tables. They were quite small—night-tables, perhaps. At Artists Space, he recently showed a Pastoral Chair Tableau (1971–74), which consists of five chairs on a strip of bright green paper grass against a sky blue curtain. The style of the tables seen at the Whitney is impersonal, assembly-line Deco, though each is a unique object built to the artist’s specifications. Three of the five chairs in the Tableau are in a generalized utilitarian style (1920–1940?); two have a mass-produced, flared-leg look of the ’50s; and the last is chromed and tubular in the manner of the ’40s. Since Burton’s interest is in the persistent meanings of surviving popular styles, the distinction between found and fabricated objects isn’t particularly important. As it happens, the chairs in the Artists Space are all found, though all are refinished, and the two “’50s” chairs are reupholstered. What counts is that the styles Burton employs are all found styles.

Style dictates the grouping of objects in the Pastoral Chair Tableau. Similars are kept together, with the one chromed chair by itself in the center. The psychological implications of these seating patterns are well enough established to provide a set of conventions roughly analogous to those of furniture styles. The interest in this work lies in the interaction between furniture-style conventions and seating-pattern conventions. Why are there two “’50s”-style chairs, and why do they face one another in the manner indicating intimacy? Why is the chromed chair alone? And why is it at the center of the tableau? I can’t go very far at present toward answering these and similar questions raised by Burton’s work. I can point out that the paper grass and glowing blue sky of the Pastoral Chair Tableau provides a theatrically appropriate atmosphere for the Tableau’s juxtapositions, which, on one hand, injects another set of conventions into the work, and, on the other, makes a connection with the “tableaux” in which Burton employs performers. At this point, it will have to be enough to say that his use of various, highly intelligible, styles have already begun to generate meanings that open beyond the specialized intelligibilities characteristic of so much “art discourse,” both in art and art criticism.

The clash between “high” and “low” visual systems typical of Pop art may seem to give an explanatory precedent here, but it should be remembered that clashes of that kind were always resolved by Pop artists in favor of the specializations of “higher” systems—painting, drawing, sculpture, the full range of “fine art” mediums. Burton allows found styles and conventions to affect the development of his medium—the “tableau”—to a new degree. This means he is working toward the possibility of collapsing hierarchies of style and medium. His commitment to found, popular, “automatically” legible meaning is much stronger than that of the Pop artists. And it is in another, despecializing mode altogether.

––Carter Ratcliff