Scott Burton

In his sculpture Scott Burton has dwelled on one major preoccupation for the past 12 years. Fortunately, he has had the wisdom to ask a good question, or his work might have dipped into intolerable redundancy long ago. The intensity of his pursuit and the clarity of his focus have generated a body of work that is exceptional for its consistent quality, formal limits, and esthetic precision. He has, in fact, created a typology, which he has developed, refined, and sometimes challenged. Burton is a superb editor, never expecting any one piece to carry more information or ambiguity than he feels it can accommodate. His is an art of absolute purity. It is very clear what he is up to; analysis does not first have to penetrate mystery.

The content and range of issues seem to be a cumulative, serial exercise. In isolation, each piece has modest impact; but the more one sees of Burton’s work, the more compelling it becomes. It is sustained by repetition. The Baltimore Museum of Art provided the first opportunity to see the compleat Burton—to get a sense of the subtle, seamless continuity of his pursuit.

Like many artists who frequently work in public settings, Burton is concerned with site and circumstance, but he is primarily interested in the relationship between functional application and esthetic investigation, and between furniture as sculpture and sculpture as furniture. Burton orbits around this dialectical nucleus, testing the limits of the either and the or, but ultimately always integrating the dynamics of both use and esthetics in each piece. Although one’s first impression is of stillness and monumentality, all of Burton’s work embodies a quality of tension that pushes and pulls the viewer between wanting to sit and wanting to stand and look. If it were not for these internal oppositions, the work would undoubtedly appear too simple, reading as furniture to one segment of the public and as art to another. In Burton’s strongest pieces this opposition produces an intelligent subversiveness that is both positive and animating.

Burton has radically limited the kinds of objects/sculpture that he makes, but there is a wonderful bravado in the application of materials and, if not great formal risk-taking, certainly a generous variety of formal characteristics and paths of inquiry. In the exhibition, this range is suggested by three works made of different materials and created at different times in the artist’s career. Steel Furniture, 1978, here consisted of a table, two chairs, and a long bench, part of the set produced in 1979–80 (there are two other complete sets). Fabricated of hot-rolled steel that was left to rust and then lacquered, these pieces have a geometric conciseness and an elegance of profile—thin lines from the front and back and bold planes from the sides—that contrast with the rough, tactile surface. In 1980 Burton designed Concrete Tables, a fascinating proportional and perceptual exercise. Unlike much of his work, which is complex in elevation and startlingly simple in plan, these eight tablelike concrete forms have identical or similar side elevations but varying plans, either square or round. The three Rock Chairs from 1981, 1981–82, and 1986 that introduced the exhibition demonstrate Burton’s Spartan inclinations in combination with a “found object” sensibility. Here, he has taken big boulders of gneiss, granite, and marble and sliced a wedge out of one side to create a sitting space, otherwise leaving them in their quarried, craggy state. Minimalism is achieved in these works not through heroic manipulation of material into flawless form but through the most restrained intervention.

Although Burton is frequently thought of as a maker of “art furniture,” the classification is imprecise. “Art furniture” is conceived as furniture with aspirations toward art, while Burton’s pieces are conceived as art that becomes furniture. It is a dramatically different sensibility. Burton is concerned with form, function, and composition, but he does not quite fit into the group of public artists who are preoccupied with function. His work evades the possible banal entrapments of functionalism because he treats it as subject rather than as purpose. It is a fine point, but it elevates and enriches Burton’s work beyond the level of being merely satisfying to something much more challenging and intellectually provocative.

Patricia C. Phillips