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Chris Burden: Remembering the LA artist who made those street lamps outside LACMA and much more

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Chris Burden's iconic sculpture, "Urban Light," located in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Amaury Laporte/Flickr Creative Commons
Chris Burden's iconic sculpture, "Urban Light," located in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Christopher Knight, art critic for the L.A. Times, guides us from Burden's confrontational early work to his crowd-pleasing "Urban Light" at LACMA.

If you’ve visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art anytime in the past seven years, you’ve surely noticed “Urban Light," the installation of 202 street lamps along Wilshire Boulevard that now marks the museum’s entry plaza.

That work was created by L.A. artist Chris Burden. He started his career in the early 1970s making edgy, controversial performance art, but he gradually transitioned to sculptural works that took conceptual ideas and turned them into popular public art attractions.

Burden died this weekend at the age of 69 from complications of melanoma. His career was followed closely by L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight, who joined us on the Frame to talk about Burden's roots in dangerous body work, his controversial "Other Vietnam Memorial" and the reasons why Burden's work never resonated on the East Coast like it did out west.

Interview Highlights:

Let's talk about Chris Burden's place in both the national, international and local arts scene. Where would you put him?

Paul Schimmel, who was the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art for a long time and knew the artist well, said something I thought was really apt: "Chris may well have been the last authentic, avant-garde artist." The whole idea of an avant-garde has pretty much disappeared since it's been completely absorbed into mainstream culture, and in some respects that's the case with Burden's work.

"Urban Light" has become a sort of icon of the city, but even those people who adore that public sculpture have a great deal of difficulty wrapping their heads around Burden's performance work from the '70s, which remains outside the realm of "acceptability" given the kinds of often-dangerous performances he executed. People scratch their heads and wonder, Why on earth would someone do that?

Let's talk a little bit about his body works, many of which had a kind of sadomasochistic bent. Chris Burden had himself shot, he nailed himself to a Volkswagen, he set himself on fire and he was nearly electrocuted. What was the importance of those kinds of works, using his body as part of the canvas on which he was constructing his art?

For "Shoot," which was the first notorious body performance that he did in 1971, he had a friend of his with a rifle stand about 15 feet away from him and shoot him in the arm. Obviously people asked why he was doing such a crazy thing, and Chris said he did it because he wanted to know what it was like.

Shoot video

If you think about that for a minute, he did it in the context of a society that was being ripped apart by its participation in Vietnam, but the experience of carnage and death and destruction was something that we watched on television — it was divorced from us. And Chris wanted to move it out of the realm of mediated experience back into the body. Oddly enough, a lot of Chris's performance work has as its subject the mediation of experience in the modern world.

Was there a point where his body work or performance work became more conceptual? Or was that kind of a natural evolution to go from something like "Shoot" to something like "Urban Light"?

I think there's a conceptual component from the start of Chris's work, and it's one reason that he's such a significant figure: he was able to take it from performance work and infuse it into objects. He went from doing performances to making what's commonly called "performance sculpture," and the objects that he made are things to be manipulated, used or operated by the artist, his surrogates or the audience.

One reason "Urban Light" is so popular is that you can go there any time of day and kids are climbing on it, having their pictures taken, wedding photographs are shot there — it becomes embedded in the viewers' body and the viewers' experience.

Were you able to spend any time with Chris Burden in his studio or when he was working?

I first met him in the late 1980s, oddly enough not in Los Angeles but in Vienna, Austria, where he was participating in an exhibition. I was asked if I would film an interview with him, which I was happy to do, but I was also slightly terrified because of the reputation from all of those early performances.

Including one in which he holds a knife to somebody interviewing him for TV.

[laughs] Exactly. "TV Hijack," that piece is called. And when I sat down with him, I found a man who was — I mean he's a relatively short, stocky, compact, almost like a bulldog. But he was focused, he was thoughtful, and he was smart as a whip. I was a bit hungover from having been at a party the night before, and he kept me on track in the interview. I thought, This is a guy who knows exactly what he's doing and what he's about.

Chris Burden TV commercials

Did the rest of the nation understand his work? His first major show in New York didn't happen until 2013 at the New Museum, and MoMA and the Guggenheim never featured him prominently. Was there an East Coast bias against his work?

I don't know whether "bias" is the word, but there was certainly an East Coast misunderstanding of Chris's work, and I think there are pretty much two reasons for that. The bulk of his performances were done in Southern California and a few other places around the country, but the kind of sculptures that he subsequently made were cumbersome, expensive to move, and difficult, and New York's museums couldn't deal with them, so he was pretty much a cipher in New York.

I first recognized that in 1991, when he was commissioned to do a piece for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, a piece called "The Other Vietnam Memorial." It was an absolutely brilliant and terrifying sculpture that commemorates not the American war dead, but the Vietnamese war dead.

And critics in New York eviscerated it — they absolutely hated it, they completely misunderstood it, they had no idea what it was about, they didn't understand Chris's history, the reviews were withering, and I was stunned, because the piece is absolutely brilliant.

This is a counterpoint to Maya Lin's "Vietnam Veterans Memorial," where Chris Burden created these plates which had 3 million names that he had representing the Vietnamese dead from the war.

Exactly. It's a giant machine — it's this huge copper-plated rolodex of names, many of them computer generated because we don't know the actual names of all the people who died in Southeast Asia during the war. In some respects it's the opposite of Maya Lin's great Vietnam Memorial, which is all about providing a catharsis, as Chris's work did anything but create a catharsis. It was received with a good deal of hostility.

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