Scott Burton

THE FOUR SECTIONS OF THE SPRAWLING multimedia exhibition “Suite Fantastique”—labeled “overture,” “variations and scherzo,” “intermezzo and trio,” and “rave”—included large-screen projections of opening film credits by the Hollywood-based design team Imaginary Forces; two galleries of early drawings by architects Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Thom Mayne, and Bernard Tschumi (''Perfect Acts of Architecture“): and a hulking walk-in hybrid of painting and architecture by Fabian Marcaccio and Greg Lynn (The Predator, 2000–01). What tied these disparate exhibitions together was less the conceit of the musical suite than the presence of twenty-one pieces of Scott Burton's furniture spread throughout the galleries (”intermezzo and trio"). These pockets of steel and granite chairs and tables linked and illuminated the often bizarre, ominous, fantastic, and dissimilar phenomena encountered here, functioning also as the reassuringly rational spine of the presentation.

Burton, who died in 1989, called his works “furniture sculptures.” They spring from a search for essential form in conjunction and dialogue with social function: As the artist wrote in these pages, the structures “are not to be experienced for their own sake. Instead, they shape or enhance. . . the user's experience.” The public's use of these objects provides their meaning, situating them between art and utility. Above all Burton emphasized, even exaggerated, the definition of parts and the articulation of their relationships. The painted legs of Blue Granite Table, 1975–78, for instance, are deeply and awkwardly inset, their conjunction with the tabletop forced rather than organic. Steel Furniture (Table for Two), 1978, consists of rolled metal sheets whose linear grace is countered by the sheer weight of the material. The formica Lawn Chairs, 1977, were inspired by the vernacular Adirondack chair, while other pieces reflect the intensely analytical intelligence of the Constructivists and De Stijl artists. The Acrylic Chair, 1982, for instance, is a brilliant exercise in conceptual reductivism. Its arms, seat back, and base appear complex because of their overlapping transparencies, yet its form is thriftily derived from a basic rectangle, cut and folded.

Encountering the successive islands of Burton's furniture sculpture in the context of the overall multimedia exhibition prompted one to respond physically as well as visually. Visitors could be observed touching chairs and benches, opting to use them but hesitating, then circumnavigating them. (Only three of the chairs were designated for use: Two were for viewers of Imaginary Forces's film credits; the third, Rock Chair, 1981–82. its seat and back formed of sleek slices into a rough-hewn lava mass, faced the open mouth of Marcaccio and Lynn's Predator.) Burton's furniture sculptures aren't really at home in applied-art exhibitions, since they're made of the least forgiving materials—marble, granite, steel, formica, aluminum—placing viewers uncomfortably on the cusp of real cutting edges. In this context they become sculptures, on the cutting edge of post-Minimalism itself.

During the period of time covered in this exhibition, 1977–89, the dynamics of modernism and the vocabulary of Minimalism underwent violent theoretical and stylistic disruption. In the “Perfect Acts of Architecture” galleries, Burton's work, so inflexible and dismissive of ergonomics, rankled with the same provocative interrogations as the architectural revisionists' dramatic scenarios. Even surrounded by such radical projects as Koolhaas's “Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture” (collages and storyboards exploring social and political change in London as a new “city within a city”) and Tschumi's “The Park” from the “Manhattan Transcripts” series, 1976–81, in which a murder takes place in Central Park (architecture, as Tschumi wrote, being about love and death), Burton's work was unsettling and revisionary. Challenging the Minimalist sculptors who preceded him, Burton argued, “No mere maker of visual signs can be exemplary. . . in a time like ours, a time convinced that it is proceeding toward apocalypse. . . . I want to get some social meaning back into art.”

Joan Seeman Robinson