Glimpsed from the street on a dark December afternoon, Scott Burton’s furniture sculpture, not seen in depth in New York since 2000, beckoned enticingly. Two identical steel chairs, each titled Two Curve Chair (1989), faced one another close to the window, symmetrically framing at the far end of the space a five-unit storage cabinet composed of different sized cubes, each lacquered in a different high-keyed spectrum color (minus purple).
The cabinet (Five-Part Storage Cubes, 1982), nearly 5 feet tall, demands ample room around it. The cubes face different directions, and are not self-explanatory as to purpose or access: doors are not identifiable, nor are hinges or handles visible. The strict rectilinearity of the piece and the bright monochromes of its units suggest de Stijl design—specifically, that of Dutch architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld (about whom Burton—long active as a critic—wrote perceptively in these pages [November 1980]).
More frequently in Burton’s work, color is not applied, but comes with the materials chosen. In a small table composed of an inverted pyramid, its apex impaled in a thick rectangular base, the grainy, highly polished red granite resembles steak tartare. Only slightly less ruddy is a massive four-part piece, also in granite, each component titled Three-Quarter Cube Bench (1985–89). Marble Armchair (1987–88) is ghostly white.
Burton returned to the chair repeatedly, in his public sculpture (examples can be seen around Manhattan and elsewhere by those who know where to look) and in permutations intended for private use. It’s clear that he considered the chair a surrogate for human presence. Ordinary chairs functioned as quasi- protagonists in his early performances, cohabiting with stilled performers in charged, otherwise vacant spaces.
This show was organized by independent curator Nina Felshin, Burton’s archivist in the ’80s. She included three austere wood pieces that have seldom been shown. Table I (1973, dark stained oak, found object altered by the artist) and Table II (1973-86, pale, textured pine with white paint) were among his earliest furniture sculptures. The slatted, straight-backed Oak Chair (Prototype) was the last work he approved before his death from AIDS in 1989. In contrast to the opulence of the marble works, the grouping had a monastic air. In that light, Lawn Chair (Adirondack Chair), 1976–77, a work initially remarkable for its exaggerated proportions, took on a reference beyond its connotation of outdoor summer leisure. Three flat boards form the back of the chair, a pair of tall arched verticals flanking a larger rectangle. These elements suggest an altarpiece in triptych form.
It’s interesting to compare Burton’s and Judd’s furniture. For both artists, form trumps physical comfort. Judd’s typological range is broader-not only chairs and tables, but beds, desks, bookcases. These are utilitarian and exist apart from his sculpture (despite the similarities). Burton keeps to chair, table, stool, bench—and these pieces are his sculpture, complex in their formal and expressive variety and density of reference. They also convey a healthy dose of artistic aggression—even coercion (most of Burton’s “domestic” pieces in granite or marble can only be moved by a crew of burly professionals). Burton was sincere in his passionate insistence that his art serve a practical function and enhance public and private experience. The tension between his populist fervor, his love of conceptual contradiction and his joyously fierce imposition of esthetic decisions enlivens everything he produced.
Photo: View of Scott Burton’s exhibition, showing Five-Part Storage Cubes, 1982 (left), and Three-Quarter Cube Bench, 1985-89 (right); at Meulensteen.