If you live in L.A. and like art, you’ve seen Chris Burden‘s work, even if you aren’t aware. Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s entry plaza features “Urban Light,” a sculpture in the form of a Greek temple composed of 202 antique cast-iron street lamps. Installed in 2008, in addition to the Hollywood sign, it’s become new new symbol for L.A. LACMA director Michael Govan says
“Chris’ work combines the raw truth of our reality and an optimism of what humans can make and do… he wanted to put the miracle back in the Miracle Mile.”
But by this piece you’d never guess that the same guy had himself shot in the arm for a performance piece at a Santa Ana gallery over 40 years ago. It made him semi-famous in the much smaller art world of the 70s. Burden, was a pioneer in the newly forming category of “Conceptual Art”, the art of the idea, not the “object.” And he eventually became one of the most compelling and widely admired sculptors of his generation. He died yesterday in L.A. of a malignant melanoma. He was 69.
Burden gained notoriety in 1971 as a 25-year-old grad student at UC Irvine and for his master’s thesis, he created “Five Day Locker Piece,” where he closed himself inside an ordinary school locker just two by two by three. The locker above had a five gallon bottle of water, and the locker below, an empty five-gallon bottle.
Now, suddenly part of the emerging Post-Minimal artists, young Burden got his degree and quickly connected with a group of Northern California artists. What cemented Burden’s rep was having himself shot in the arm by a friend from about 15 feet away, in “Shoot“. He would forever be known as “the artist who had himself shot” — lampooned by critics and closely monitored in the L.A. art community.
Power was always a motif in Burden’s work. “The Big Wheel” was a turning point. A performance sculpture —activated by the artist– where a three-ton, cast-iron wheel eight feet in diameter is powered by a motorcycle. When the engine revs and the motorcycle’s tire is engaged, the flywheel begins to spin eventually, very fast. When the engine shuts down, the big wheel spins for several hours on its own. It is in MOCA’s permanent collection. He also was known for “L.A.P.D. Uniforms,” a row of oversize, navy-blue garments, big enough for a giant, made after the Rodney King beating at the hands of local police– it's particularly relevant today. “What My Dad Gave Me,” is a 65-foot skyscraper made entirely of Erector set parts installed briefly in Rockefeller Center in 2008.
Burden was the first artist to join Gagosian Gallery when it opened in L.A. in 1978. His first major solo show in a New York museum didn’t come until 2013, when “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” opened at the New Museum. His work is better known in California and in Europe. He became a tenured professor in 1986 at UCLA, and no doubt has influence several generations of artists. He was instrumental in developing its rep as one of the nation’s leading art schools.
Burden’s final sculpture, an homage to Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator who flew a dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in 1901, will be shown at LACMA in a special exhibition opening May 18.