“Limits” is a relative term. Like beauty, it is often in the eye of the beholder.
From his action-based works of the 1970s to the jaw-dropping technical feats of his later sculptures, Chris Burden (1946–2015) consistently challenged his mental and physical limitations, reflecting on the surreal and precarious realities of contemporary life. Burden was a radical and uncompromising figure with a fierce political consciousness.
Burden earned his MFA in 1971 from the University of California, Irvine, where he studied under the conceptual artist Robert Irwin. Like Irwin—whose site-specific architectural interventions consider the effects of space and light on the viewer—Burden was interested in the staging of spectacle and the ways in which art could complicate one’s understanding of the material world. In his early performances Burden responded to the violent realities of the Vietnam War by putting his body at risk. For Five Day Locker Piece (1971), he locked himself into a school locker, drinking water from a five-gallon bottle stored in the locker above and urinating into a five-gallon bottle in the locker below. That same year, for Shoot, Burden’s friend shot him in the left arm from a distance of fifteen feet. The piece, which lasted only about eight seconds, was recorded on Super-8 film.
In the late 1970s Burden turned to monumental sculpture, considering how the scale and placement of public infrastructure could be manipulated in order to explore the implications of power, speed, and balance. In 1979 he created The Big Wheel, a kinetic work composed of a 1968 Benelli motorcycle placed on a wooden frame and attached to a nineteenth-century metal flywheel. When the bike is mounted and revved, the flywheel is set into motion.
This industrial thrill continued in the 1980s and 1990s with Beam Drop (1984/2008)—a work that involved dropping I beams from a crane into a large pit of wet concrete—and Medusa’s Head (1990), an amorphous mass of wood, steel, cement, rock, and model railroad trains and tracks, evocative of a country-sized chunk of earth that has been extracted and squished into a ball. Beam Drop was re-created in 2008 at the Inhotim Institute in Brazil, where its final, sculptural product is now permanently installed, while Medusa’s Head is held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In 2000 Burden began collecting street lamps from the 1920s and 1930s, once used in residential neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and repurposing them as sculptural installations. This led to his celebrated permanent installation Urban Light (2008), comprising 202 lampposts, at the entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Starting in 2003, Burden also constructed large-scale models of bridges—both real and imagined—with thousands of toy construction parts. Tower of London Bridge (2003) mimics every aspect of the famous bridge’s suspension design, including the functional drawbridge, and Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1/4 Scale (2013)—first exhibited in Extreme Measures (2013–14), a major survey of Burden’s work at the New Museum in New York—comprises three elegant arches made of hand-cast concrete blocks held together by gravity.
Burden’s last completed work, Ode to Santos Dumont (2015), is a kinetic airship modeled after Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 1901 dirigible that flew around the Eiffel Tower. Built over a ten-year period, it achieves indoor flight in fifteen-minute intervals and simultaneously embodies both ambitions of industrial invention and reveries of childhood marvels. The first artist to be represented by Larry Gagosian, beginning in 1978.
Extended through March 12, 2016
January 19–March 12, 2016
980 Madison Avenue, New York
Gagosian Quarterly Films
Chris Burden: Big Wrench
From January 23 to February 21, 2019, Gagosian Quarterly presented a special online screening of Chris Burden’s 1980 video Big Wrench.
Sydney Stutterheim looks at the brief but feverish obsession behind this 1980 video by Chris Burden.
Deluxe Photo Book
Sydney Stutterheim discusses Chris Burden’s Deluxe Photo Book 1971–73 on the occasion of its inclusion in About Photography at Gagosian San Francisco.
Urban Light: A Ten Year Anniversary
Ten years ago LACMA premiered Chris Burden’s Urban Light, which has since become an iconic landmark for the city of Los Angeles. To celebrate the anniversary, we look back to 2008 with a conversation between Chris Burden and Michael Govan, director of LACMA.
The story behind Chris Burden’s Buddha’s Fingers (2014–15) and its connection to all of his streetlamp installations. Text by Sydney Stutterheim.
Burden’s Airship Takes Flight
Sydney Stutterheim investigates Chris Burden’s Ode to Santos-Dumont (2015) as the work takes flight during Art Basel Unlimited 2017.
75th Birthday Poster
To celebrate what would have been the artist’s seventy-fifth birthday this year, the Chris Burden Estate is sharing a free poster that can be downloaded and printed at home. Designed by Estate director Erica Mercado, the poster features an archival drawing by Burden of his plans for Wexner Castle (1990), currently on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the exhibition Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment. The Estate will continue to commemorate this important moment throughout the year, sharing updates about the artist through their newsletter.
Poster to commemorate Chris Burden’s seventy-fifth birthday
Chris Burden: Streetlamps is available for online reading from August 9 through September 7 as part of the From the Library series. The comprehensive book explores Chris Burden’s iconic work with antique streetlamps. Five major streetlamp sculptures are highlighted, all of which are lavishly documented from conception through installation. The works are further illuminated with texts by Russell Ferguson, Christopher Bedford, and George Roberts; a conversation between Michael Govan and Chris Burden; and a photo essay by Ari Marcopoulos. This was the 500th book the gallery published, which was an exciting and fitting publication to mark the achievement as Burden was among the first artists to work with Larry Gagosian, starting in 1976.
Chris Burden: Streetlamps (New York: Gagosian, 2017)
Alternate Meanings in Film and Video
You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.
Gagosian is pleased to present Broadcast: Alternate Meanings in Film and Video, an online exhibition of artists’ films and videos viewable exclusively on gagosian.com. The exhibition will be organized into a series of “chapters,” each lasting two weeks. The first chapter begins on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.
Broadcast: Alternate Meanings in Film and Video employs the innate immediacy of time-based art to spark reflection on the here and now, taking the words of famed psychologist and countercultural icon Timothy Leary as its starting point.
Adam McEwen, Escape from New York, 2014 (still from “Battery Tunnel”) © Adam McEwen
Chris Burden in
Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment
Through May 9, 2021
Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus
Climate Changing foregrounds contemporary artists’ engagement with social issues and shaping institutions—an engagement that has become all the more critical during the entwined crises of systemic racism and COVID-19. Together the works in the exhibition encourage a collective reimagining of our social environment. In addition to presenting nine commissioned works, the exhibition restages a work commissioned for the Center’s inaugural year: Chris Burden’s Wexner Castle (1990). By adding battlements to the brick sections of the building’s deconstructivist design (a reference to the Armory that once stood on its site), the late artist’s work encourages visitors to reflect on the role museums play in today’s society.
Chris Burden, Wexner Castle, 1990/2020 © Chris Burden/Licensed by The Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Arte en sonido hasta 1980
September 23, 2020–March 1, 2021
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid
This exhibition, whose English title is Disonata: Art in Sound up to 1980, analyzes the development of sound as a creative field of visual arts differentiated from music across the first eighty years of the twentieth century. The show reflects the efforts of artists who resorted to sound beyond its traditional use in such manifestations as mixed-media work, poetry, and theater. Work by Chris Burden and Nam June Paik is included.
Chris Burden, The Atomic Alphabet, 1980 © Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
All of the Above
September 24–December 27, 2020
Kanal–Centre Pompidou, Brussels
Curated by artist John Armleder, All of the Above was inspired by his memories of feeling that he was being observed in return by the cultural artifacts he saw when he visited museums and temples as a child. This exhibition seeks to reproduce that experience by presenting a constellation of works by more than forty artists on a large multilevel platform to form a landscape that visitors can explore from a distance. Work by Chris Burden, Olivier Mosset, and Blair Thurman is included.
Chris Burden in
States of Mind: Art and American Democracy
September 18–December 19, 2020
Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University, Houston
Reflecting on some of the most pressing topics facing American democracy, States of Mind is timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential election in order to encourage dialogue around current social and political issues. Many of the works on view examine the status of our country’s founding principles of freedom and equality, while others engage with questions of voting access, gun control, and immigration policies—three issues that are common throughout the United States and that are of particular concern to Texas. The exhibition does not attempt to cover the myriad complexities of a democratic government but rather invites viewers to consider timely yet recurrent questions around these themes. Work by Chris Burden is included.
Chris Burden, L.A.P.D. Uniforms, 1993, installation view, Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900–2000, Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Museum Associates/LACMA