Sunday, November 3, 2013

Chris Burden at the New Museum: A Major Artist Comes of Age

Finally, the New Museum has mounted a show truly compatible with its high-ceilinged, concrete-floored, industrial-like spaces. This show, Chris Burden: Extreme Measures, views through January 12, 2014. The Museum is located at 235 Bowery (at Prince Street).

Before I introduce this particular exhibition, allow me to say a few words about the museum building itself. The New Museum was completed in late 2007.  Its architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, call their Tokyo-based firm SANAA and in 2010 they won the highly-coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize, which many consider the architectural equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

The New Museum, New York City, 235 Bowery, 2007, SANAA architects

As we can see from this exterior shot of the New Museum’s Bowery façade, it is an irregular stacking of box-like spaces covered by an ornamental, grey aluminum screen.  Its slight set-backs, cantilevered stacking, and irregular floor heights represent SANAA’s acknowledgement of the irregularity of the Bowery buildings surrounding it.  So too, its gritty, quasi-industrial rawness speaks to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 

And so, it is fitting that Chris Burden, one of our most gritty artists, and an artist whose early work could be raw beyond believing, has earned a retrospective exhibition here, some forty-two years after he first scandalized the art world with several one-off, masochistic, performance pieces.

Don’t worry, dear reader, Burden’s art has evolved far from these early pieces.   Just look more closely at this photograph of the museum’s façade.  Those twin towers on the roof are Burden’s, not part of SANAA’s design.   So, too, is that masted boat floating above the ledge of the first floor, another Burden piece.   The Metropolitan Museum may offer its well-concealed roof garden to a sculptural installation, but Chris Burden: Extreme Measures may be the only instance of one artist filling an entire museum with his work and then placing the “overflow” on its roof and an exterior ledge. In this manner, Burden turns the New Museum into his personal mantlepiece!

Burden’s earliest work is performance art, and it is presented on the museum’s fifth floor in the form of tape recordings, videos and other documents. The first of these took place in 1971 in California, where he had written his master’s thesis at U. C. Irvine. Two performances from that year that I recall best--as news of them spread quickly across the entire world of art--were Shoot and Prelude to 220 or 110.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971 (November 19), Santa Ana, CA

In Shoot, which Burden “performed” on November 19, 1971 in Santa Ana, he had a friend stand about fifteen feet away from him and shoot him in the left arm with a .22 cal. rifle. In Prelude to 220 or 110, Burden lay supine, his spread arms and legs bolted to the concrete floor by copper bands; flanking him on the floor nearby stood two buckets of water in which live 110-volt electrical lines were submerged. Had someone kicked over the buckets, the artist would have been electrocuted. In the Museum’s fifth floor gallery, you should listen to a (much later) interview in which Burden talks about Shoot.

Chris Burden, Prelude to 220 or 110, 1971, F-Space, Irvine, CA

One other early work that the Museum documents with a video is Burden’s Beam Drop, first executed in 1984 in the Art Park, Lewiston, New York. He re-created Beam Drop at Inhotim, an art center and botanical gardens in Brazil in 2008 and in Antwerp, Holland in 2009. A video of this event is also on display in the New Museum’s fifth floor galleries.

Chris Burden, Beam Drop, 2008 (orig. 1984), Centro Inhotim, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Click here for one of several available videos of this fascinating process, in which a crane drops a variety of large, structural I-beams from a height of 45 meters into a deep pit filled with fresh concrete.  The beams fall, sink and tilt in random ways, becoming a work of abstract, outdoor sculpture once the concrete has set. With the crane positioned over the pit, the artist pulls a trigger cable, thus releasing the beam--but he can hardly know exactly where the beam will land, nor how it will settle.  In other words, this is an artwork in which chance plays a major role.

On its four lower floors, the New Museum presents us with actual, tangible, three-dimensional sculptural works by Burden. Here are photographs of several of these installations.

Chris Burden, Big Wheel, 1979, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

Two of his fourth floor installations make industrial products into art by altering their context.

In Big Wheel, which Burden assembled in 1979, he combined a nineteenth century factory flywheel weighing three tons and measuring eight feet in diameter with a 1968 Benelli 250 cc motorcycle.  They share a heavy, wooden support which raises the motorcycle’s rear wheel off the ground.   Start up the motorcycle, slide it back so the rear wheel contacts the large flywheel, run it up through its gears until the flywheel is spinning at ca. 200 rpm, then disengage and shut off the Benelli.   The flywheel will continue to spin (and generate wind) for several hours.   Although one may consider the two objects beautiful in themselves, when combined as Big Wheel, they become a powerful piece of kinetic art.

Chris Burden, Porsche with Meteorite, 2013, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]
In Porsche with Meteorite of 2013, Burden combined one of his cars, a yellow 1974 Porsche 914 sports car, with a meteorite. Both objects are suspended by cables from a single steel beam so that they are perfectly balanced.  The meteor, weighing a good bit less than the approximately 2,100 lb Porsche, hangs farther away from center point. 

Placed in a different, outdoor, setting, Porsche with Meteorite might well become a piece of kinetic art, something akin to an Alexander Calder mobile, gently turning with the breezes. Naturally, this would not be allowed inside the museum. 

In discussing the conception of this piece, Burden claims to have been browsing eBay when he came across this unusually large meteorite for sale. Once he bought it, he “started thinking,” and soon his Porsche found a new life as a piece of sculpture.   In Burden’s words, “There’s just something—you know that Germans have been known for metallurgy since the Huns....[and] there was some sort of weird relation between the nickel iron in the meteorite and the Porsche. You know what I mean?...A really good German craftsman, with a good hammer, could make a really great Porsche out of that meteorite. Clink, clink, clink, clink, clink.

On the Museum’s third floor are several, elegant constructions which reveal Burden's interest in engineering and bridge design. Among the objects on display are three model bridges that take up most of the gallery space and an elegant wooden cabinet, made-to-order for Burden, containing Erector-Set-like parts for another bridge.  That cabinet, containing material for making art, reminds me of Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-1914), for which the French artist had an elegant box made, also to contain certain patterns for making art.

Chris Burden, Tyne Bridge Kit, 2004, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

Marcel Duchamp, 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913-1914, Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Chris Burden, Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge, 2013, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

Burden’s Triple Truss Bridge (2013) spans almost the entire depth of the gallery, and this picture shows its scale fairly clearly. Burden had its component parts made for him, but they closely resemble the basic parts of those old Erector Sets that were possibly among the most desired of presents for young boys, ever since the first ones were marketed in 1913.

A.C. Gilbert Company, Erector Set, No. 7 1/2 Engineer's Set, 1950, New Haven, CT

Nearby is a similarly-scaled Dry Stack Bridge, also three arches in span, in which all components are specially-made cement blocks held up solely by gravity and the countering of diagonal thrusts by dint of the design.  No mortar has been used in its assembly.   I particularly like the cylindrical elements on the extrados of the arch voussoirs; these may enable the bridge to stay in equilibrium, even with minor movements due to settling.  There is an elegance to this, as well as the other bridges, that reveal the artistic aspect of what may otherwise be termed pure engineering and strict functionality. 

Chris Burden, Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1/4 scale, detail, 2013, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

Chris Burden, Mexican Bridge, 1998, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]
The third, Mexican Bridge (1998), which is really a tall viaduct, combines metal arches and truss elements with tall, wooden end buttresses, to form a particularly beautiful and artistic design.

Chris Burden, Pair of Namur Mortars, 2013, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]
Also on this third floor are two exact replicas of a 17th-century mortar, cast in bronze, each accompanied by a stack of four, round stone projectiles, eighteen inches in diameter.  The original mortar from which these were reproduced to Burden’s specifications can be seen in the Tower of London.  It was used against the French by the Grand Alliance in the Nine Years’ War in the second siege of the city of Namur in 1695.  Burden’s Namur Mortars, in full scale as opposed to the scaled-down bridges, are accurate reproductions of the original, down to their last details.  I would argue that they represent the purest examples of the art of appropriation.

The second floor contains installations consisting of multiple elements, each quite different in concept, yet connected by themes of war and power: A Tale of Two Cities (1981), All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987), and L.A.P.D. Uniforms (1993).

Chris Burden, L.A.P.D. Uniforms, 1993, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

Chris Burden, L.A.P.D. Uniforms, detail, 1993, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

L.A.P.D. Uniforms (1993) displays precise copies of the Los Angeles police uniform, only they are made to fit a 7’ 4” tall officer, so they loom over the viewer.   Everything about them is regulation: belt, holster, badge, handcuffs, baton, and Beretta 92F pistol.  Burden had thirty of these made (by the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia) the year after the Los Angeles riots of 1992.   The display of them, close-ranked and in large numbers, enhances their threatening presence and makes them Burden's most overt piece of socio-political, artistic commentary.

Chris Burden, All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

Similar in concept, All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) display 625 handmade, painted cardboard models to represent every submarine in America’s arsenal from the first dating from the late 1890s to the late 1980s, when Burden made this piece.  A log on the wall also lists and names each submarine. Hung from the ceiling, the submarines float through the gallery to form a transparent scrim. Thus, even as the museum visitor senses their presence, they remain intangible objects, not unlike the relationship between surface ships and the submarines below.

Chris Burden, A Tale of Two Cities, 1981, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]

Chris Burden, A Tale of Two Cities, 1981, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]
Also about war and the exercise of power is the installation, A Tale of Two Cities (1981). On a base of sand that covers, maybe, a third of the floor, Burden has arranged house plants to simulate a jungle, and stones, coral and over 5,000 toys to form a landscape containing two cities separated by a battlefield of warring forces. Two stands containing binoculars are located at the edge of this tableau so that viewers can examine more closely its most distant and smallest objects.

Chris Burden, A Tale of Two Cities, 1981, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]
Burden has collected these toys over many decades, so there is no controlling scale, nor are the toy figures from one race or time period.  Monsters and superheroes fight side-by-side with 20th-century soldiers and medieval warriors. In the mountain separating the two city-states can be found a Romanesque parish church and a toy model of Ludwig of Bavaria’s castle, Neuschwanstein [upper left in photo above]. It’s like a child’s sandbox game on steroids.

And, not unlike what so many children do after building their sandbox tableaus, Burden recently proposed to blow it up--it needed so much restoration before it could be shipped from the Orange County Museum of Art, which owns it, to the New Museum for this show.  Conservators, fortunately, won the day and proved their ability to restore it.  New York viewers are the immediate beneficiaries and and are able to examine this tableau depicting a future 25th-century in which, it has been written, the artist imagines “a time when...the world will have returned to a system of feudal states.

Chris Burden, A Tale of Two Cities, 1981, The New Museum, NYC [Chris Burden: Extreme Measures]
Some may think a return to feudalism in four centuries a terribly pessimistic thought on Burden’s part. However, I would consider it quite optimistic, given the way we are treating our world today. For those pessimistic about humankind lasting into the 25th-century, watch the science documentary, Earth 2100: The Final Century of Civilization?   It paints a devastating picture of our future and it opens with the admonishment that “to save the future, first you have to imagine it.”  Then it proceeds to do just this, in frightening, yet convincing, detail. 

For those more optimistic, among which I will include Burden, of still being around in the 25th-century, we can cite such literary stalwarts as Buck Rogers,  Star Trek’s Kathryn Janeway in Endgame,  Herman Hesse’s Knecht in Magister Ludi, and--let’s not forget--Ulysse Merou, who begins his trip through space at the very end of the 25th-century in Planet of the Apes.
Thus, this installation, made up entirely of children’s toys, has prompted us to ontological and eschatological thoughts about the end of time.  Chris Burden would hardly be surprised.  As he told Valentina Sansone in a recent interview, “Toys are a reflection of society. They are the tools that society uses to teach and enculturate children into the adult world.  Toys are not innocent.

Toys are not innocent, indeed! I could end on this note, but that would be a real downer. So, in conclusion, I want to suggest how this body of art by Chris Burden fits into the history of art.  What are its precursors?  How does it build on earlier examples and movements?  What is the constant among such wide-ranging artistic examples?

Shoot and Prelude to 220 or 110 are certainly part of that larger movement of Performance Art that gained hold in the western world in the decades of the 1960-70s.  Behind this art was the desire to create art that, as an event, could not be repeated or purchased.  The artist brought the art directly to the (viewing) public, with no middlemen and none of the usual capitalist infrastructure.  But was it “art?”

This question has been asked ever since the mid-19th century when French artists began to paint in ways antithetical to their training in the Academies.  For example, when Edouard Manet had several of his now most-famous paintings rejected by academic jurors, he displayed them in a pavilion he built himself at the Paris World’s Fair of 1867 on the Place de l’Alma.  In his preface for the catalogue of this show, Manet invited the public to “come and see sincere works,” not “faultless works.”

It is this idea of the sincerity of the artist, of the artist committed to his/her work and style, even as it challenges tradition and public expectations, that provided the undercurrent for most of the art made from the later 19th century right up to today. 

There is little doubt that the young Chris Burden, in seemingly putting his life on the line with his early performance pieces, was emulating that century-old plea of Manet: “come and see (or read about, contemplate) sincere art.”

With Big Wheel (1979) and Beam Drop (1984), Burden offers his interpretation of and response to the art of Dada, in particular Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. Burden merely found or appropriated the flywheel and the motorcycle in Big Wheel.   He made neither.   His artistic role was simply intellectual; he transformed them into something new; with his help, practical products of industry became artworks.  Burden was creating an art out of “found objects.”

This is what Marcel Duchamp did, starting in 1913 with his Bicycle Wheel.  By 1915, Duchamp coined the term readymade for such objects, which 
became art, simply because he--the artist--had selected them and signed them.  So, beginning with Duchamp, the artist--in the manner of royalty--could alter status by re-naming (dubbing) a common, manufactured object.  What originated, what was (al)ready-made, as a bicycle wheel or a urinal became an art object at the artist’s say-so.  Thus, Big Wheel is a readymade by Burden.  Of course, to use a slightly different term of Duchamp’s, Porsche with Meteorite (2013) could be called a “readymade-altered.” 

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913, Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Beam Drop also finds its source in Dada, in this case, the Dada artists’ embrace of chance in the artistic process.    Marcel Duchamp’s famous 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-1914), consists of three meter-long threads that, when dropped from a height of one meter, formed irregular sinusoidal-like curves. Each curvature was different and each was formed by chance rather than by the trained hand of the artist.  Duchamp then used these curves as stencils which he incorporated in later works of art.   Another Dada artist, Hans Arp, made artistic collages in a similar manner, by dropping torn pieces of paper onto a backing and gluing them in place, as they had fallen.

The general term for this art of chance is aleatoric art, the word coming from the Latin word alea, or dice. For the Dada artists, the art of chance--aleatoric art--was a way to challenge tradition, authority, the expectation of technical excellence.  It freed the artist and encouraged all manner of experimentation and personal expression.   However, it's one thing to make a small collage by dropping torn sheets of paper and quite another to drop 10-40 foot long steel I-beams into a pit of concrete. Burden’s Beam Drop may well be the most daring and monumental example ever of aleatoric art.

Finally, what is the thread that connects the 40+ years of Chris Burden's art? How can we understand Shoot (performance art; 1971), Big Wheel (kinetic art; 1979), A Tale of Two Cities (installation art; 1981),  Beam Drop (aleatoric art; 1984), L.A.P.D. Uniforms (socio-political art; 1993), Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge (art of assemblage, 2013), Pair of Namur Mortars (art of appropriation, 1913) as the product of a single artistic personality? 

The answer is that his aesthetic transcends any particular form or genre of art. That aesthetic is one of simplicity, economy, and precision. Whatever he does is elegant in concept and beautifully crafted in execution. The aesthetic that governs everything Burden does is one of precision, clarity and lucidity.


  1. Thanks for taking me to the New Museum with you (virtually), Tyko! Very enjoyable.

  2. Thanks Tyko, great tour of the show and Burden's ideas.

  3. Tyko - likewise. You're still a teacher at heart! I left this to read until just before seeing the show - which Ginny and I plan to do on Friday 12/20.