Chris Burden, the trailblazing artist who began his career with harrowing performances and ended it with monumental sculptures that obsessively channel childlike enthusiasms, died of melanoma this morning at his home and studio in Topanga Canyon, California. He was 69. His death was confirmed by Gagosian Gallery, where he has long shown, and was first reported in the Los Angeles Times.
Before even turning 30, in the early 1970s, Burden completed a string of performances that defined an enduring thread of that then-nascent genre focused on endurance, pain, and anti-social behavior, and that marked him as one of his generation’s leading artists. For Shoot (1971), a friend shot him with a rifle from about 15 feet away, the bullet grazing his arm. For Through the Night Softly (1973), he crawled through a 50-foot-long pile of broken glass in his underwear, with his hands tied behind his back. For Trans-Fixed (1974), he had his hands nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle. Again and again, he put his body on the line. (He turned down Marina Abramovic’s request to restage Trans-Fixed, terming such reperformance “inane.”)
In total, Burden completed 54 performance works, which survive only as documentation—in photographs, the odd film, and written statements. By the end of the 1970s, though, he abandoned performance for sculpture, producing a varied body of work that ranges from gargantuan model bridges built out of Erector toys to a flywheel that is whipped into motion by a motorcycle wheel to a scale that balances a vintage Porsche and a large meteorite.
“There was some sort of weird relation between the nickel iron in the meteorite and the Porsche,” Burden told me in an interview in 2013, of that last work. “A really good German craftsman, with a good hammer, could make a really great Porsche out of that meteorite.” His work regularly moved fluently along such idiosyncratic lines of thought, using real-world materials toward ends that can seem at once obscure, political, and profound. His All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) is just that—625 of them, in cardboard miniature, hanging from the ceiling. The Other Vietnam Memorial (1991) contains 3 million Vietnamese names, the number killed during American’s military involvement in that country.
Despite widespread critical and curatorial adulation, Burden was far from a household name in the United States—a New Museum show in 2013 was his first major survey in 25 years. However, his installation of 202 vintage streetlights in a plaza at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, titled Urban Light, which was installed in 2008, has become one of those rare public artworks that captures the minds of the wider public, and as critic Christopher Knight writes, came to serve as a symbol of its city, like Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–88) in Minneapolis and the untitled 1967 Picasso that graces Daley Plaza in Chicago. Last year, Burden completed a smaller installation of lampposts for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, called Light of Reason.
He completed a number of public works in his later years. At New York’s Rockefeller Center in 2008 he built a skyscraper out of Erector materials that stood 65 feet tall and weighed 16,000 pounds. Burden thought it could have been taller, but stuck to that height after stress tests began. (When The New York Times asked him if a 100-foot tower would have been safe, he remarked, “I think it would have been. But failure is very interesting, too.”) And two sculptures, including that remote-controlled sailboat—are now on view outside the New Museum.
Though Burden’s sculptures, on the surface, seem to have little to do with his early performance work, they share a similar sense of bravado and suspense, of risks being carefully managed, danger always only a moment away.
LACMA also has one of his most intricate sculptures on long-term view, Metropolis II (2011), a dense model of a city that is filled with winding highways on which electric cars zip at speeds of 240 scale miles per hour. It is thrilling to watch, and also more than a little unnerving.
Chris Burden was born in 1946 in Boston, and grew up in France and Italy. His father was an engineer and his mother had a master’s in biology. He attended high school in Massachusetts, majored in architecture at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and earned his M.F.A. at the University of California, Irvine in 1971, where his thesis involved locking himself in a locker for five days.
At Irvine, the Light and Space artist Robert Irwin was among Burden’s teachers. “My education was right on the cusp of when Minimalism started to be at its zenith, so that’s what I was trained as, and that’s how I got into performance art, really,” Burden told me. “It was a reductive attitude, to get down to the essence, to boil away the excess, the superfluous.”
That intense focus also sometimes took its aim at institutions, testing the limits of what is possible in the field of art, both as a matter of practicality and of ethics. For Doomed (1975), he laid down under a sheet of glass angled against a wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and resolved not to get up until the museum in some way intervened. He remained there for 45 hours, soiling himself. (Roger Ebert wrote about spending an hour watching him, eventually leaving “very quietly, as if from a church.”) Burden stood only after a museum guard named Dennis O’Shea placed a glass of water near him.
“On the first night, when I realized they weren’t going to stop the piece, I was pleased and impressed that they had placed the integrity of the piece ahead of the institutional requirements of the museum,” he told Ebert in 1975. “On the second night, I thought, my God, don’t they care anything at all about me? Are they going to leave me here to die?” (Asked in 2007 by Peter Schjeldahl if he would have stayed there until he died, though, he said “probably not.”)
While Burden’s work was too multifarious (not to mention labor intensive) to catch on widely with an art market that favors quantity and a trademark style, major collectors supported his work, like Bernardo Paz, whose Inhotim outdoor sculpture garden in Brazil includes a massive work that involved dropping steel slabs into concrete from a crane. (A video of its making astounds.) He showed at the Gagosian Gallery. “Chris Burden was the first artist my gallery represented starting in 1978,” Larry Gagosian said in a statement. “I am sure that over time his singular vision will only become more resonant and grow in importance. He was every inch an artist, as tough and uncompromising as any I have ever met.”
He is survived by his second wife, the artist Nancy Rubins.
Burden conceived of the artist as an engineer, a scientist, and an adventurer, using intense research, trial and error, and a fair amount of bravery to make works that spread easily as stories, that are charged with emotional material—traumatic (the crucifixion) and ecstatic (a mind-blowing toy track)—and that endure in the mind.
In B.C. Mexico (1973), Burden paddled a kayak south from Baja California to a beach, where he remained for 11 days, subsisting only on water. “It was really more about isolation than anything else,” he told The New York Times. “It was about being gone.”