“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.
Burden was 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 Summer 2022
The Summer 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, with two different covers—featuring Takashi Murakami’s 108 Bonnō MURAKAMI.FLOWERS (2022) and Andreas Gursky’s V & R II (2022).
American Artist, Yayoi Shionoiri, and Sydney Stutterheim on Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden
Join Gagosian to celebrate the publication of Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden with a conversation between American Artist, Yayoi Shionoiri, and Sydney Stutterheim presented at the Kitchen, New York. Considering the book’s sustained examination of sixty-seven projects that remained incomplete at the time of Burden’s death in 2015, the trio discuss the various ways that an artist’s work and legacy live on beyond their lifetime.
At the Edge
Chris Burden: Prelude to a Lost Performance
Michael Auping tells the Quarterly’s Alison McDonald about the preparations for a performance by Chris Burden at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Southern California in 1974—and the event’s abrupt cancellation—providing a glimpse into the mindset of a young, aggressive, and ambitious artist in the early stages of his career.
Chris Burden: Poetic Practical
A new publication exploring the work that Chris Burden conceived but left unrealized delves into his archive to present sixty-seven visionary projects that reveal the aspirations of this formidable artist. The book’s editors, Sydney Stutterheim and Andie Trainer, discuss its development with Yayoi Shionoiri, executive director of the Chris Burden Estate.
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.
New Social Environment
A Conversation on Chris Burden
Tuesday, August 23, 2022, 1pm EDT
As part of the Brooklyn Rail’s online series New Social Environment, art history professor Alexander Dumbadze joins Yayoi Shionoiri, executive director of the Estate of Chris Burden, and art historian Sydney Stutterheim for a conversation about Chris Burden and the 1970s California Conceptual art scene. The talk will conclude with a poetry reading.
Chris Burden, Solaris, 1980, performance at Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica, California © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
American Artist, Yayoi Shionoiri, and Sydney Stutterheim on “Poetic Practical”
Thursday, April 14, 2022, 6:30pm
The Kitchen, New York
Join Gagosian to celebrate the publication of Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden with a conversation between Sydney Stutterheim, art historian and book coeditor; Yayoi Shionoiri, executive director of the Estate of Chris Burden; and artist American Artist, whose recent metaverse-based work Urban Light (2022) engages with Burden’s public sculpture of the same name at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Considering the book’s sustained examination of sixty-seven projects that remained incomplete at the time of Burden’s death in 2015, the trio will discuss the various ways that an artist’s work and legacy lives on beyond their lifetime. Copies of the publication will be available to purchase. To attend the event, register at eventbrite.com.
Left: American Artist. Photo: Alex Hodor-Lee. Center: Yayoi Shionoiri. Right: Sydney Stutterheim
Frieze Los Angeles 2022
February 18–20, 2022, booth D12
Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills
Gagosian is pleased to announce its participation in Frieze Los Angeles 2022 with a presentation of Chris Burden’s Dreamer’s Folly (2010). This is the first time that the large-format sculpture has been exhibited in the United States.
Chris Burden, Dreamer’s Folly, 2010 (detail) © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Chris Burden in
The Reason for the Neutron Bomb
Through October 23, 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Downtown
Comprised of pieces from the museum’s collection, this exhibition presents the timely and poignant works of Chris Burden and Byron Kim. Burden’s large-scale installation, which gives the exhibition its title, was created in 1979, during the Cold War, and consists of fifty thousand nickels topped with fifty thousand matchsticks to represent the Soviet Union’s military tanks. These outnumbered the tanks in the Western Bloc’s collective armies by more than two to one at the time—a fact the US military used to justify its development of nuclear weapons.
Chris Burden, The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Riyo Studio
Chris Burden in
Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment
January 30–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.