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Chris Burden, Pioneering Performance Artist and Large-Scale Sculptor, Dead at 69

Chris Burden, "Urban Light" (2008) (photo by Kent Wang, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chris Burden, “Urban Light” (2008) (photo by Kent Wang, via Wikimedia Commons)

Chris Burden, the artist famous both for his pioneering performance work in the 1970s and the intricate large-scale sculptures he made in the ensuing decades, died early Sunday morning at his home in Topanga Canyon, California. According to the Los Angeles Times, the cause of death was malignant melanoma, with which he’d been diagnosed 18 months ago. Burden was 69 years old.

Burden is best known today for his very large and elaborate sculptures and installations. The most iconic is his piece “Urban Light” (2008), a temple-shaped arrangement of 202 antique street lamps on permanent view outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In New York, his works “Ghost Ship” (2005) — a 30-foot-long boat with two bows and no stern — and “Quasi-Legal Skyscrapers” (2013) both still adorn the façade of the New Museum, which organized his 2013 retrospective Extreme Measures. Other large and complex works include “Porsche with Meteorite” (2013), a scale-like contraption that balances a 1974 Porsche on one end of a steel beam and a small meteorite on the other, and “Metropolis II” (2011), a vast and kinetic miniature cityscape cobbled together from various hobbyists’ modeling kits and children’s play sets, which is on long-term view at LACMA.

However, Burden made his name with a very different and often difficult-to-watch style of art. In 1971, for his master’s thesis at the University of California, Irvine, he performed “Five Day Locker Piece,” which, as its title matter-of-factly states, involved him spending five days inside a standard school locker. In subsequent performances he was shot (“Shoot,” 1971), had a metal stud hammered into his sternum (“I Became a Secret Hippy,” 1971), had nails driven through his hands and into the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle (“Trans-Fixed,” 1973), and crawled across broken glass with his hands tied behind his back (“Through the Night Softly,” 1973). A clip of the latter was one of the commercials that Burden paid to have air on late-night television in the 1970s.

“When I use pain or fear in a work. It seems to energize the situation,” Burden told film critic Roger Ebert in 1975. “In works with violent or unpredictable elements, the fear is really the worst part, worse than the pain. Getting nailed to the Volkswagen, for example. I had no idea what to expect. But the nails didn’t hurt much at all. It was the effect that was fulfilling.”

Burden was born in Boston on April 11, 1946, and earned his BA from Pomona College before going on to UC Irvine for his MFA. He taught for many years at UCLA, until 2005, when he and his wife, sculptor Nancy Rubins, quit in protest because the school had refused to suspend a graduate student who had used a gun as part of a Russian Roulette–style performance piece in a classroom. He spent the last decade of his life creating increasingly big and elaborate sculptures and installations, many of them also feats of engineering, including the aforementioned “Porsche with Meteorite” and “1 Ton Crane Truck” (2009), a restored 1964 Ford Truck holding a cast-iron 1-ton weight from its crane. Though they contrast sharply with his early work, Burden’s best sculptures and installations have a visceral effect similar to that of his performances from the 1970s.

“I was trained as a minimalist artist,” Burden told the Brooklyn Rail in 2013. “To see sculpture you have to move around it, and I was trying to boil it down to the core. I thought, ‘If the core is forcing people to move, then maybe that is where the art is.’ That is how I arrived at doing performances.”

Chris Burden, "All the Submarines of the United States of America" (1987) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Chris Burden, “All the Submarines of the United States of America” (1987) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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