“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.
Photo: Malerie Marder
Extended through March 12, 2016
January 19–March 12, 2016
980 Madison Avenue, New York
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.
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).
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.
Fairs, Events & Announcements
Thomas Crow, Susan Rosenberg, Yayoi Shionoiri
Monday, March 27, 2023, 6:30pm
Gagosian, Park & 75, New York
Join Gagosian for a conversation inside the exhibition Chris Burden: Cross Communication at Gagosian, Park & 75, New York, between Yayoi Shionoiri, executive director of the Estate of Chris Burden, and art historians and professors Thomas Crow and Susan Rosenberg. The trio will discuss Burden’s performances and audio/video works of the 1970s and ’80s on view in the gallery; the Los Angeles art ecosystem of those years; and the challenges artists face in documenting and archiving their performances and experimental works. Exploring the construction of agency and intent, Burden’s early works confront the dominance of consumer culture and the increasing violence and complexity of American society.
Chris Burden, Velvet Water, 1974 (still) © 2023 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Impossible Architecture: Chris Burden’s Unrealized Projects
Vicky Richardson and Yayoi Shionoiri
Tuesday, April 4, 2023, 7pm
Burlington Arcade, London
Join Gagosian for a conversation between Vicky Richardson, head of architecture and Drue Heinz Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Yayoi Shionoiri, executive director of the Estate of Chris Burden. The pair will discuss the recently published book Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden, which documents sixty-seven projects of varying scope and ambition that Burden was unable to complete during his lifetime. They will consider how the artist challenged not only principles of physics but also the lines between art and architecture, and evaluate Burden’s enduring legacy in his own works and those of others.
Left: Vicky Richardson. Right: Yayoi Shionoiri
Frieze Projects: “Now Playing”
February 17–19, 2023
Santa Monica Airport, California
Chris Burden’s 40 Foot Stepped Skyscraper (2011) will be included in Frieze Projects at Frieze Los Angeles. The sculpture will feature in Now Playing, a selection of performances and outdoor artworks organized by Art Production Fund and installed at Frieze Los Angeles’s new site at Santa Monica Airport. Now Playing brings together artworks that shine a light on the often overlooked elements of everyday life in Los Angeles and forms part of Frieze Projects, a program of site-specific works that is one of the fair’s annual highlights.
Chris Burden, 40 Foot Stepped Skyscraper, 2011, installation view, Frieze Los Angeles 2023, Santa Monica Airport, California © 2023 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Josh White
Chris Burden in
Enter the Mirror
Through July 23, 2023
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Enter the Mirror calls on the viewer to acknowledge truths that are difficult or unpleasant to see. In artworks from the late 1970s to the mid-2010s, twenty artists grapple with violence, trauma, corruption, historical distortion, and the abuse of power to confront facts and complicity that have shaped our world. This exhibition includes photography, painting, sculpture, video, and installations. Work by Chris Burden is included.
Chris Burden, The Other Vietnam Memorial, 1991, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago
Through August 20, 2023
Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa, California
13 Women marks the Orange County Museum of Art’s sixtieth anniversary; by paying homage to the thirteen women who founded the Balboa Pavilion Gallery, the OCMA’s predecessor institution, which was opened in 1962. The exhibition presents work from the 1960s to the present by the artists central to the museum’s collection, including Chris Burden and Ed Ruscha.
Chris Burden, Large Glass Ship, 1983, Orange County Museum, Costa Mesa, California © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Objects of Desire
Photography and the Language of Advertising
September 4–December 18, 2022
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Objects of Desire traces the artistic manipulation of advertising through the works of photo-based artists. Since the 1970s, creative innovations have led to dramatic shifts in the possibilities for photography as artistic expression, and these artists have reworked and exploited the vocabulary and strategies of advertising to challenge the increased commodification of daily life. Through re-photography, appropriation, and simulation, these artists challenge the viewer to determine what exactly these pictures are asking of us. Work by Chris Burden and Roe Ethridge is included.
Chris Burden, The TV Commercials 1973–1977, 1973–77/2000 (still) © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Chris Burden in
The Reason for the Neutron Bomb
June 4–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