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The Sculptor of Dreams
Chris Burden’s unlikely trek from the frayed edge to the sparkling center of L.A.’s art establishment
Chris Burden, the artist most well known for transforming Los Angeles with LACMA’s “Urban Light” installation, passed away on May 10, 2015. The piece that appears below is a 2012 profile of the prolific sculptor.
Chris Burden has been shot, has stuffed himself into a locker for five days, and has crawled across the Mexican desert. He has slithered over 15 yards of broken glass in downtown Los Angeles wearing nothing but bikini briefs, and lived on a ledge for 21 days, out of view, with only celery juice for nourishment.
In one vintage action Burden hid in a chrysalis sack affixed to the wall of a museum in Salt Lake City, with lit candles on the floor by his head and feet. That piece was called Oh Dracula and was meant to define him: rebel, punk, indestructible, undead.
It was all some time ago. Even the undead can grow old. Burden enters the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on a Wednesday when the place is closed, confidently treading to the cafeteria. There is a fresh scar on his left hand, a hospital identification band wrapping his right wrist. The scar he got when he was bitten by a dog he was baby-sitting. The band is from Cedars-Sinai, where Burden has just had another round of tests following the discovery of a melanoma on his scalp. After a life of dangerous performances that have left his body intact, at 66 Burden finds himself marked by things he can’t control. Things like a neighbor’s dog, and renegade cells.
Chris Burden is alive. In a while he will shake hands with a local TV station crew and do a segment in front of his massive kinetic sculpture Metropolis II. Agile, compact, a little thick in the middle yet taut and wired, he looks ready to give orders. His face is round, his hair clipped close. All he needs is a Bluetooth earpiece and he could be the foreman on a high-end construction job. Instead he is the coolest guy in the room, watching a pair of jumpsuited assistants flip the switch on LACMA’s newest, biggest toy.
Metropolis II embodies Burden’s geek-boy inquisitiveness, not to mention what might happen if you dropped Hot Wheels into a Fast & Furious world. The sculpture, which fills a large gallery and is viewable at eye level as well as from a balcony, imagines a futuristic cityscape made up of an assortment of parts a toy collector could find on eBay. Threading through this child’s dystopia are 1,100 cars, whirring up and down ramps, shooting the canyons between high-rise towers, and weaving through a city that seems as frightening as it does fun. Eight people and more than four years went into building Metropolis II, on long-term loan to the museum since January. Its traffic is powered by gravity and magnets, which keep the cars mostly from jumping the track. They move at a scale speed of 230 miles per hour, endlessly, mindlessly circling the roadway, a parody of progress built on the illusion of infinite resources.
Not far from where he is standing, in a courtyard that gives Wilshire Boulevard a loving caress, another giant Burden sculpture induces grins from passersby. Urban Light is his collection of 202 cast-iron Los Angeles street lamps, arrayed in a grid like candles on an altar. From the moment it was plugged into the Miracle Mile in 2008, the piece has been bathing the boulevard’s nighttime traffic in a warm glow, emerging as a treasured symbol of L.A.
Urban Light gives citygoers the kind of stage set we like to chew. “There’s always people around it—it’s weird,” Burden says with barely suppressed pride. “At one in the morning people are in front of it kissing, hugging, having their pictures snapped. I never thought it would become such an iconic landmark, but it has.” He jokes that he should have given LACMA a reduced price for Urban Light in exchange for a percentage of the gate, an arrangement, he says, that sculptor Ed Kienholz once negotiated. What other local icons are there? he asks. The Hollywood sign, sure; Grauman’s. He offers the Santa Monica Pier, and then takes it back. The Theme Building at LAX? He laughs. “Is that our Statue of Liberty?”
Decades ago Burden said, “I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of the Pacific Coast Highway.” The artist of Metropolis II seems at peace with L.A. traffic and even, perhaps, with embracing the city of wheels. With Metropolis II, he lets the thrill of the ride riffle through his hair. Burden has, of all things, rebranded himself as the sculptor of Southern California dreams.
He began as an artist bent on dividing viewers and confronting them with uncomfortable questions. Now he has them singin’ in the rain. It’s a little like Iggy Pop returning to Detroit to run the tourist bureau. The way Paul Schimmel sees it, the new role came largely by accident. The former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Schimmel first saw Urban Light when it was illuminating the hillside of Burden’s Topanga Canyon home and studio, and then helped bring it to the city. “He has recast himself as somebody who makes public art but the kind that comes from something private and personal, out of a collector/hobbyist/inventor/engineer mentality. It’s a different kind of public art.”
A kind that would never have survived the typical commission process. Public art that is both gregarious and withdrawn, that connects with the public without explaining itself at a glance. “It has become an important representation of a new kind of civic art that’s private. And isn’t that L.A.?” booms Schimmel. “Everyone lives in their homes, in their private realms. So the private becoming public seems perfectly symbolic of this place. And Chris appreciated this from the beginning.”
There aren’t many artists who would be happier to land the cover of Make magazine than of Artforum. Burden reads a lot of magazines, subscribing to 29 at his home, and it’s a list heavy on the subject of building stuff: Aviation Weekly, Science News, numerous model railroad journals. He is the garage tinkerer with means. An avid scavenger on eBay, he recently missed out on the winning bid for a 60-foot Great Lakes ferry built in 1947. It’s the sort of fixer-upper that appeals to him.
On a sunny summer morning his Topanga Canyon compound is hopping. An assistant standing by a boat points uphill to a parking place. “Just watch out for the bulldozer,” he says as it comes barreling down the incline and almost flattens my car. From a distant building waft the sounds of a Dixieland jazz record and electric saws. I am directed to a metal structure, guarded by rows of garden sculpture, the type you might see at a Home Depot: mermaids, bumper car-size turtles, a merry-go-round horse.
Typically Burden wanders from quadrant to quadrant, overseeing the projects that assorted teams are assembling. On call are fabricators and engineers, auto mechanics and artists and former students. Unlike Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, Burden doesn’t hand off a set of instructions and wait for the completed work to come in. He is engaged and vocal, circling the work in his studio, kibitzing with staff as an idea evolves into a physical reality. “ ‘I want to build a crazy cityscape with cars running through it,’ ” is all that Zak Cook, Burden’s chief engineer, recalls being told at first. “What follows are the huge design and engineering problems. That one conversation might lead to three or four months of work.”
Walking me around the hangar, Burden indicates a few of his many projects. There are drawings and models for Ode to Santos-Dumont, inspired by a 19th-century Brazilian airman. The piece incorporates a dirigible and a model of the Eiffel Tower. There are obelisks and a small trolley car. There are studies for a model of an 18th-century mortar from the Tower of London and a mock-up of the building for a Burden museum retrospective that’s being planned.
Burden was bred to build stuff. Only gradually did he become an artist. His father was an engineer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specializing in economic development and water resources for the Rockefeller Foundation. Robert Burden worked in various countries for the foundation and occasionally brought his family along. As an infant Chris lived in China, in a house with two servants. His father had dinner with Mao, who was still leading the revolt from the mountains. When Chris was 12 and living on the Italian island of Elba, he crushed his foot in a car accident and needed an emergency operation; it had to be performed without anesthesia. While Burden regained mobility, he began studying photography, which kindled an interest in art. Soon the family moved back to Cambridge, where Burden’s father became an assistant dean at Harvard and his mother, who had a master’s degree in biology, worked as an art restorer at the Fogg Museum.
The first time Burden saw California was in 1962. A student at a Boston prep school, he had a National Science Foundation grant for the summer and was living with schoolmates in La Jolla, pursuing photography as much as science. He was hanging out with surfers and riding motorcycles up to Mount Baldy. He ate his first takeout tacos. Burden was becoming a Californian.
A new social archetype was emerging. Artists like John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha were cool, denying the primacy of East Coast emotion, all that expressionist sweat. By the early 1970s, Burden had put them in check. In his hands fire and broken glass and gunshots and nudity seemed downright chilly. He wore sunglasses in some of his performances. He produced advertisements for himself that aired on local television. He liked it here.
As it happens, the early ’60s were an excellent time for an artist to be washing down tacos in the Golden State. A posse of young men and women was getting attention with art that harnessed fresh materials and techniques, in a place free from New York orthodoxies. There was a high level of craftsmanship to Kienholz’s dioramas, and Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, and others were applying the advances of surfboard fabricators and automobile customizers to their own twisted ends.
Driving back to Massachusetts in late summer with a friend, Burden stopped at Pomona College and looked around; he liked the campus so much that he returned to pursue an architecture degree. But his interest in the field faded soon after a stint at an architectural firm showed him how long it could take to make a mark. Enrolling in the University of California at Irvine’s M.F.A. program, he studied with Kauffman and another pioneering West Coast modernist, Robert Irwin. Kauffman made a point of telling students they could go down to the beach every day and still get their degree, as far as the department was concerned. The message got through to Burden: It wasn’t the piece of paper that would give you success as an artist; it was making work that mattered.
"I don’t think of myself as a California artist,” Burden once told an interviewer. “But it certainly has influenced me.... I used to hate it. In L.A. the first thing that bugs you is that the horizon is really weird—it’s more spaced out because you’re usually looking at it in your car, traveling at 60, 70 miles an hour....”
He wasn’t about to slow down to grasp the horizon, however: He was picking up speed and making adjustments on the fly. The art Burden created at Irvine involved the body and movement, including performances where people did exercise-like motions with implements he had made. The problem was that viewers kept seeing the apparatus as the artwork rather than the process Burden put it through.
One day, a revelation. Burden wanted to make a box—something so mundane that it wouldn’t be misread as sculpture—and squeeze himself into it. He peered down one of the school hallways at Irvine and saw a row of book lockers that were even less likely to be viewed as art than anything he would build. For five days Burden remained bent into the two-foot-by-three-foot-by-three-foot space. There was a container of water in the locker overhead with a tube he drank from and an empty open container in the space below that he urinated into. After five days, the dean called the police to extract him. Burden named that 1971 performance Five Day Locker Piece. It became a sensation beyond the campus, a fairly early example of performance art, a staple today but a genre outside of theater, sculpture, or art school when Burden crawled from his locker.
It was an era when artists in ever-greater numbers were casting aside objects and notions of permanence to inhabit the moment with their actions. The term “performance art” was still to come, and James Franco and Lady Gaga hadn’t yet put it on their résumés. This work shook people.
What followed was a burst of art making as productive as any in American history. That fall, in a gallery in Santa Ana, Burden engineered Shoot, his most famous piece. The idea, the artist says today, was to have an accomplice fire a Winchester .22 that would graze him. Nicking his torso was out, so he chose an arm. Images from the event carefully document what happened: Burden standing in front of a gallery wall, arms by his side, a bullet penetrating his left biceps. Slowly walking toward the rifleman. Close-up in a white T-shirt, looking like a fallen Dean Stockwell, a trickle of blood running down his arm. “It was a flesh wound, so it was not serious,” he says. “Worse would have been if he missed—do you do it again? Do you pass out rain checks and say, ‘Come back Friday?’ It got complicated.”
Burden took another shot at immortality in 1972, when he lay down on La Cienega Boulevard beside a parked car and covered himself with a tarp. Deadman lasted only minutes, but it was enough to get Burden arrested. “That’s not something I would have predicted,” he’d later say in an interview. “I mean, I was more worried about getting run over.”
Two years after that, Burden presented Trans-Fixed to a group gathered outside a garage in a Venice alley. The assembled could hear a car engine revving from inside, and pounding. When the garage door opened, out came a gray Volkswagen Beetle with the engine roaring. Across the back was Burden, shirtless and arms extended, nails freshly driven through his hands and into the car. (His lawyer did the deed.) The Bug was then pushed into the garage, and the door came down. It was a crucifixion enacted atop a car the Nazis had designed.
“I was always impressed by his risk-taking, which I thought should be something artists should aspire to,” says Baldessari. “But I think he does it in more extreme ways than I would ever tackle.” The intensity of the images from Burden’s performances solidified his nascent standing as a badass. There was little to even compare his work to.
One competitor was a New York poet named Vito Acconci, another cool Jesus who stalked strangers in public, rubbed a cockroach on his belly, and in a memorable bit, lay naked beneath a ramp in a gallery, masturbating and speaking fantasies into a microphone. Game recognizes game. “Each time they had to escalate what they were doing just to remain the same,” recalls Baldessari. “And you could see where that was going—the audience would want them to kill themselves! You thought, ‘Well, let’s see how they get out of this.’ ”
That Burden was in Los Angeles, so far from where the important art supposedly was being created, only made him more puzzling, more outside of any context. He had a reputation that extended beyond the art world and a gift for working the media. Esquire named him one of the most important people of 1973. Norman Mailer disparaged Burden, comparing him to graffiti writers. Punk magazines wanted to interview him. He was “The Honcho” and The Next Duchamp. With a Winchester.
The performances forced viewers to reconsider their relationship to art. They had to decide not to intervene in his work, which in itself was a declaration of involvement. This was never more the case than in a gallery piece in which Burden lay on copper strips while shackled to the floor. Beside him were two buckets of water that also contained an exposed electric line carrying a 110-volt current. His life depended on the viewers not spilling water and electrocuting him.
Such brinkmanship strained his personal relationships. Asked to hammer him for Trans-Fixed, his first wife left a note saying “cannot do nails.” A subsequent woman in his life, artist Alexis Smith, refused to kick him down the stairs for another performance. “We had a heavy-duty romance and stuff, but there were things I saw that I declined to do or thought were scary or alarming. We had one of those relationships where we argued a lot over stuff like that,” says Smith.
Burden today places the works in the context of the Vietnam War—not as a protest exactly but as a way of dealing with pain and passivity while Americans were watching body bags come home on the evening news.
In November 2005, the messianic performance art star Marina Abramovic asked Burden for a favor. She had an idea for a kind of monument. On each of seven successive days Abramovic would reenact a revered piece from the performance art canon, putting herself in the place of the original artist. On the final day she wanted to redo Trans-Fixed.
It was a canny gesture—the global performer stretching her arms around the entire field. It might seem churlish to say no, but when she asked Burden for permission, he said no. “I guess because she asked me, you know? I thought it was a stupid idea, and I just gave her my opinion,” he tells me in his studio. “I said she could do it, but I wouldn’t give her permission. It wasn’t like I was gonna sue her.”
Even in the 1970s, Burden—focused, quiet, private—was no messiah. Over the decades he’s only gotten more that way. He courted the celebrity, and the swagger he adopted from time to time certainly helped establish his reputation. But ultimately it wasn’t who he was, and he ended up walking away from that image, leaving the work to inspire those who find it.
Just as Burden was being typecast as modernism’s Evel Knievel, he had begun to draw on his interest in engineering. By 1975 he had constructed the B-Car, a life-size soapbox derby vehicle that could go 100 miles per hour and travel 100 miles on a single gallon of gas. Projects like this were an important step, looking back to more conventional sculpture and forward to conceptual objects that didn’t seem particularly expressive but rather were ideas built into the world. Burden displayed golden bullets and the nails from Trans-Fixed on red velvet in vitrines, as if they were relics belonging to a saint. He exhibited collages of some of the more outlandish press accounts as well, tabloid headlines that mocked the media. Burden was having his cake and bleeding on it, too.
The machinery that began leaving his studio would establish Burden as a maker of fascinating, loud, kinetic sculptures that neatly embodied intellectual concepts. Seven years after 1979’s Big Wheel—a massive iron wheel powered by a stationary motorcycle—he deployed a 100-ton jack to press against a museum’s weight-bearing walls for Samson. A turnstile installed at the door counted each viewer entering the building, and with each rotation, more pressure was put on the museum’s structure. Theoretically, an influx of patrons could have caused the very demolition of the museum they were attending.
These pieces of hardware unleashed apocalyptic forces in the exhibition hall. They are engines of creation and destruction, and the ideas will outlive the iron. Dawn Kasper is among the young artists who have found new possibilities in Burden’s notions. One of the breakout pieces from this year’s Whitney Biennial was Nomadic Studio Practice, in which Kasper moved the entire contents of her K-town apartment-studio into the Whitney. She worked, read, played her records, all as people shuffled by. The artist talked to viewers, and the piece has a shaggy, David Foster Wallace feel: “Hi, I’m Dawn Kasper. Thank you for coming!”
Kasper studied with Burden when he was on the faculty at UCLA and has worked with him in his studio. She regards his classic ’70s pieces as crucial to what she does. “Chris has been a huge influence and inspiration,” says Kasper. “Without him and his earlier work, I don’t know what I’d be doing—maybe working in a coffee shop.” She talks with the easily distracted intensity of the postironic generation, merging high and low without shame or impediment. Asked why Burden’s art shouldn’t be compared to an episode of Jackass, she says it does share some connotations with Jackass—and what’s wrong with that? “He’s really testing some sort of boundary—in himself first but challenging the audience, too, to take responsibility and feel something for somebody else. He’s very macho, for sure,” she continues. “Not in a misogynist way, but he’s very assured…. I see him as a sculptor, and he was always a sculptor. He just used his body in a sculptural way.”
Burden married the sculptor Nancy Rubins in 1987, and she taught with him at UCLA, part of a famous staff that included Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, and Lari Pittman. In 2005, Burden found himself again a local media obsession when the artist Ron Athey was leading Burden’s class and a student named Joe Deutch came in, announcing a piece that centered on a game of Russian roulette. He pulled out a pistol, seemingly loaded a bullet into the chamber, pointed it at his head, and pulled the trigger. Click. Deutch walked out into the hallway and set off a firecracker, which freaked everybody out. Burden complained to the university when immediate action was not taken against Deutch; though it was reported that the gun wasn’t really loaded, today Deutch admits it was.
The student’s act was called “domestic terrorism” by Burden, and Deutch spent the next two years at UCLA trying to live it down. “Whether I was a typical student from that point on is questionable,” he says.“At the same time I learned an infinite amount from that piece—it was a piece I needed to do, there or somewhere else. As far as informing what I think about art making and what is viable or appropriate even, it had a huge effect on me.”
Almost universally the opinion has been that Burden was a hypocrite—the guy famous for Shoot blanching when someone followed his example. But Burden says he felt responsible for the other students’ safety, noting he wasn’t in a classroom when he did Shoot and that those who attended were more like willing observers than the unsuspecting UCLA students. Another art student did a piece using blood and cream pie, and Burden had to raise the point that in the age of HIV, the artist had better clean the site with bleach. Somebody else wanted to catch a wild boar at San Simeon and live with it at home. Burden said no. “You do give up certain rights when you become a student. If this kid wants to drop out and go downtown and do Russian roulette art, that’s different,” Burden says, a slight smirk on his face. “He’s no longer in Mummy’s bosom. But if you wanna be in Mummy’s bosom in the university, you have to abide by the rules.”
Deutch, who recently had a show at the Marlborough Chelsea Gallery in New York, never spoke with Burden after the incident. But like Kasper, he considers himself in the tradition of Burden, although maybe even Burden would have stopped short of being bitten by a venomous snake, which is what Deutch did in a Culver City gallery.
Ultimately Burden and Rubins resigned over what they saw as UCLA’s not taking a firmer disciplinary stand. “When an institution goes screwy on you, then you have to leave that institution,” says Burden.
The Topanga canyon hilltop enclave where Burden and Rubins live and work is an area with a long history of sheltering social outliers. Back when the region was part of a Spanish land grant, its hillside nooks and crannies were a convenient hiding spot for bandits. Pointing to a ridgeline, Burden shows where FBI agents spied on lefties who lived here in the ’40s and ’50s. Wallace Berman and Woody Guthrie knew the ravines and hillsides. “And of course, there was Manson,” he says.
Yesterday Burden spotted a juvenile condor flying over the compound. He describes the bird’s characteristics, then pulls out a Roger Tory Peterson guidebook and starts reading about condors.
Is he in Topanga Canyon for good? I ask.
“Yeah, I think so,” he says with a laugh. “But never say never. You never know. If dirty nuclear happens, I might have to move.” He’s joking, sort of. But the statement reminds me of a remark one of his former assistants shared, about how after September 11, Burden—who has always had a paranoid streak—had grown more paranoid. I ask Burden whether he thinks that’s true, and he provides a convoluted stream of answers.
Why worry about Afghanistan? he says. “Now if I was in La Jolla, I’d be worried. Yowza! A 15-minute drive to the border. People in La Jolla don’t even lock their doors! It’s gonna spill over. You read all these articles about Nogales and how the cartels want to keep the violence on the Mexican side, but eventually it’s gonna break down, I think.”
There’s a small bridge in his studio—its arches made of tan stone building blocks—and as he talks I lean against it with one hand. Only then, and very laconically, does Burden explain that the work is interesting to him because every one of its concrete cast pieces is fitted together without any mortar. Gravity is holding it all together, and gravity could bring it all down. “It’s a perfect physics lesson. If one of these breaks...,” he says, pointing at a spot where the pressure comes to bear on the tightly fitted pieces. Carefully I straighten up and pull my hand from the bridge.
Yowza. Chris Burden today is full of himself, and utterly improbable. Arguably the guy should not be standing, yet here he is, rooted to the ground and orbited by waves of assistants. A moment later and he’s talking about the hypocrisy of U.S. drug policy and how if drugs were sold and taxed, their glamour would disappear. Which reminds me of one more thing the assistant recalled: coming up to the house and finding Burden on the floor, smoking pot and playing with his trains.
Give or take the prep work for dirty nuclear, it seems like a pretty good life in Topanga. “Will people who see the lamps say, ‘Hey, isn’t that the guy who shot himself in 1971?’ I don’t think their sense of history is that thorough,” he says. “Shoot was a long time ago, you know. It’s been a long time. I’ve been up here since I started camping in ’83, when nobody was up here.”
He still has a lot of acres more or less to himself, his team, Rubins, the bobcats, scorpions, and a juvenile condor. He briskly pads back into the hangar as drills whistle in the distance.
RJ Smith, author of The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, wrote about the band the Negro Problem in March.
See video of Chris Burden's early works.
This feature was originally published in the November 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine