Gagosian Quarterly

Spring 2022 Issue

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.

Chris Burden, model for the installation Xanadu as proposed to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008. Photo: Joel Searles

Chris Burden, model for the installation Xanadu as proposed to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008. Photo: Joel Searles

Yayoi Shionoiri

Yayoi Shionoiri is the executive director of the Estate of Chris Burden and the Studio of Nancy Rubins, where she is responsible for stewarding Burden’s art-historical legacy and promoting Rubins’s ongoing art practice. She has degrees from Harvard University, Cornell Law School, and Columbia University. She serves as an advisory panelist to the Serpentine Gallery’s Legal Lab.

Sydney Stutterheim

Sydney Stutterheim, PhD, is an art historian and writer whose research focuses on postwar and contemporary art. She joined Gagosian in 2018. Photo: Graham Tolbert

See all Articles

Andie Trainer

Andie Trainer is an editor and the print production manager in Gagosian’s publications department. She joined the gallery in 2008. Photo: CS Muncy

Andie TrainerThis project was five years in the making and has been such a labor of love. Given that most artists must have ideas that go unexecuted for various reasons, what makes Chris Burden a particularly good subject for a sustained examination of unrealized projects?

Sydney StutterheimBurden’s work was always about testing limits—that’s a through line in his performances, his installations, his sculptures—and there’s a speculative dimension to that. This is very different from someone who makes a sketch, or has early plans for a project and then executes them following an ordered logic of operations. Burden’s working process often started with a problem or a question that he sought to solve. That reflects his rootedness in the scientific method—in developing a hypothesis and then producing a series of tests to see whether or not something could be executed. This conceptual approach made it all the more likely that some projects would never be achieved. The fact that he thought about his work in that way, and set out to make projects that could potentially fail, was incredibly brave, and it also meant that there was the very real possibility of things remaining unrealized from the get-go.

Yayoi ShionoiriThroughout Burden’s practice, he was committed to identifying limits, and then really trying to push those boundaries or somehow overcome them. Limits are multivarious in Burden’s work. Sometimes they’re physical, like testing the limits of his physical body in his performances. Sometimes they’re mechanical or chemical. Then there are some that are invisible, and maybe even more insidious because they’re invisible, and Burden was trying to make them evident: sociopolitical limits or institutional limits.

Often I get asked, What’s most representative of Burden’s work? Was he a performance artist? A sculptor? A site-specific-installation artist? And I answer, He’s all of those things because he’s in pursuit of the idea and the concept.

ATOn a poignant note, in addition to the fact that he was conceiving work that was testing the limits of possibility, there are also projects that Burden didn’t get a chance to realize because his life was cut short. The book presents the most recent evidence of this in the form of his last notebook, where he had pages and pages of ideas that he wrote down and didn’t have a chance to get to. Some are sketches, some are just titles. He was clearly an artist who always had many things he was mulling over and developing in his mind.

SSThe projects in the book really range in terms of their elaboration. Buddy L Helix [2012], for example, exists only as a single-page sketch. On one level you may think that doesn’t give you much information at all, but in fact it’s an incredibly rich document—as we started unpacking it, things came to light. “Buddy L” in the title refers to an American toy brand, therefore connecting to Burden’s extensive work with children’s toys. The spiral design recalls both Burden’s realized Beehive Bunker [2006] and his unrealized kinetic sculpture The Matterhorn [1997], which have very similar structures, and in Medusa’s Head [1990] the trains go about in a spirallike design. Even when we had very little material, we worked synthetically, trying to think through even the simplest sketches.

Other projects were highly developed. Some had models, some had extensive plans. Between the digital archives and the physical project folders at the estate, a fair number of projects had literally hundreds of pages worth of archival materials.

The projects also vary in ambition. Some were intended to be public, like My Dream Show at the MAK [1994], where Burden wanted to make an entirely water-based travel route for his work from his studio in Los Angeles all the way to Vienna. He developed extensive plans for flooding the streets of Vienna, looking at what types of barges he would need and what kind of logistical or institutional support would be necessary to transport his art completely via waterways between these two cities. There are also projects that were much more private and intimate. Something like Bottle Pile, which has been ongoing since the early 1980s and is an accumulation of the glass bottles that have been consumed on Burden’s property over the years, is a very different type of project.

The circumstances also varied: some projects were engineered purely from Burden’s own imagination, while others, like Gold Boat [1999], came about as a result of a commission. There are also project proposals that sort of took on a life of their own.

Chris Burden: Poetic Practical

Chris Burden, drawing for My Dream Show at the MAK, 1994. Photo: © MAK

YSThe sheer volume of material in the archive for some of these projects may be indicative of certain things, like that Burden kept coming back to a particular project. Sometimes there was a lot of correspondence in the back-and-forth between him and the potential organizers; interestingly enough, I’m not sure that necessarily indicates the mind space or the intensity of the thoughts that Burden directed toward it. For me there’s this complexity of acknowledging and honoring the sheer volume of the material that may have existed for a particular project, while also thinking about what isn’t there and why it didn’t make it into the archive. We then used our forensic, historical, critical, and even legal skills to try to fill in those gaps.

ATYes, our job was really to present as comprehensive a picture as possible of each project while also representing the range of materials that were saved for each in the archive. For a project like Sex Tower [1985] there was such a wide range, from formal drawings to loose sketches to technical calculations to periodic tables to site photographs to a sample of gold leaf that he wanted to use at the top of the tower—as well as an eleven-foot-tall sculpture, titled Sex Tower (Architectural Model of 125 Foot High Sex Tower) [1986] and made of wood and gold leaf, as the full-scale version of the work was intended to be. We really wanted to present that range in the book so that readers could see what we saw in the archive, what Burden was mulling over, these certain concepts again and again with varying degrees of formality, so you could really get a sense of the gears turning in his brain.

Yayoi, we’ve touched on a few of the reasons why the projects in this book may have remained unrealized, but there were others as well.

Chris Burden: Poetic Practical

Chris Burden, Sex Tower (Architectural Model of 125 Foot High Sex Tower), 1986. Photo: Douglas Parker

YSFinancial or budgetary restrictions were very real for many of these projects. Although Burden may have been interested in exploring a concept, and there may have been curatorial support or advocacy from some of the institutions with which he was corresponding, for many of the unrealized projects either time or financial resources ran out, unfortunately.

In addition, some of Burden’s ideas were several decades early in terms of technological capabilities. One of those is When Robots Rule: Two Minute Airplane Factory, where Burden attempted to actualize a robot that would create balsa-wood toy airplanes and send them flying every two minutes at the Tate Gallery in London. Burden was trying to achieve this in 1999, and he was way ahead of the times because he didn’t have access to open-source coding, which makes the technological aspects of the projects more viable. We’re excited that the estate is currently working on finishing the object, keeping intact Burden’s artistic and design intent but using updated technology and materials.

No matter how interesting a project is or how established an artist may be, at times there are basic practical limitations to executing art that can’t be overcome when an artist is working in the real world. That doesn’t mean that those projects don’t have value. There’s power within the process, and one of the book’s strengths is making that process evident.

What, for you, were some of the major themes of the unrealized projects that emerged over the course of the book’s development?

Chris Burden: Poetic Practical

Chris Burden, drawing for The Ever Burning American Flag, 2009. Photo: courtesy the Chris Burden Estate

SSWe considered various organizational possibilities for the book, such as arranging the projects chronologically or by geographical location, but ultimately there were certain ideas and topics that kept reappearing across the individual projects. The major themes that ended up structuring the book we actually derived from Burden’s own words. These we found in a letter from 2005 in Burden’s archive in which he talks about his realized works. He comes up with four categories: energy, systems of transportation, architecture, and power. While we ended up broadening “systems of transportation” to “systems,” using this thematic organization that came from Burden’s own analysis of his realized work situates the unrealized projects in a really helpful way and follows a logic that’s already understood within his oeuvre.

YSIt felt like an “aha” moment when we started thinking about the project based on that letter. There were additional “aha” moments in finding so much crossover—there were works that could be considered under multiple themes and subthemes, which I think shows that his oeuvre is very cohesive.

ATThe work can be viewed through many different perspectives. Other themes we thought about that connect a lot of works were water, recycling, accumulations, Americana. . . . We hope people will see themes emerge for themselves, or make connections that we didn’t among the realized and unrealized works—we want this to be a jumping-off point for future scholarship and engagement with Burden’s work.

Yayoi, given the extensive nature of some of the plans Burden provided before his passing, how does the estate handle the possibilities of execution since then?

YSThis can be a complicated question for artists’ estates. From an art-historical as well as a legal perspective, the artist’s intent is most important. How do we identify what that intent is, and how do we acknowledge and honor it? With Burden’s notes and voluminous archive, there’s a lot in those archives giving us instructions as to how to potentially proceed if we wanted to actualize a project.

In terms of practicality, there are a number of vectors of analysis, both about the “what” and the “how.” The first, I think, is viability: do we now have the technology available to us that maybe Burden didn’t have when he first conceptualized the project? Is the work practicable or logical to achieve? Another vector of analysis that we think about is how far along Burden was in both the conceptualization and the actualization of the idea. Are there, for example, models or maquettes? Is the work already partially produced? Then some of the other vectors of analysis include how much information we have that would allow us to piece the puzzle together, and, of course, financial considerations. The final vector of analysis is the significance to his overall body of work, which is highly subjective but is important to think about. And again we’re very lucky that Burden left us this rich archive to help us gain these insights.

Chris Burden: Poetic Practical

Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden (New York: Gagosian, 2022)

ATWhat do you hope readers will take away from the publication?

YSHad Burden still been with us on earth when this book was finished, he would have been seventy-five. It feels particularly momentous that we’re putting this project, five years in the making, out into the world. In the public eye, Burden is often associated with site-specific installations that have become iconic, beloved landmarks of LA, like Urban Light [2008], for example. I consider these gifts that he left to the community to behold, love, and enjoy. But Burden also produced a body of work that was incredibly layered, complicated, political, and message based. He was persistent, and he consistently challenged the status quo, and I think this book reminds us of that innovative spirit. Finally I think the book is a testament to the art-historical stance that an artist’s body of work encompasses both realized and unrealized projects.

SSThat last point is incredibly important, right? For me, as a Burden scholar, I hope this book illuminates the enormity of his aspirations and the scope of his projects beyond what’s materialized as finished work. Going into it, I wasn’t aware of many of these projects, and it ultimately helped me to understand his career and his practice much more comprehensively.

Also, on a more practical level, the book offers an interesting framework for handling unrealized projects by other artists. Analyzing realized and unrealized projects together, synthetically, might present a new way of thinking about artwork more generally.

YSI’m very curious to hear which projects were an epiphany for you both?

Chris Burden: Poetic Practical

Chris Burden, sketch for Swimming Lane, early 1980s. Photo: Brian Forrest

SSThe first project I was shown when I was approached to work on this book was a reproduction of Swimming Lane, which was a plan dating to the early 1980s for a suspended glass swimming pool to be built at a future date on Burden’s and Nancy Rubins’s Topanga property. Despite the conceptual ambition of this work, it only exists as a single sketch on a paper plate and in Rubins’s recollections of it. It was never completed. The concept is so elegant and simple and yet ambitious at the same time; it outlines this sort of aspirational quality. It’s very romantic in how it speaks to the artistic impulse of striving to create something more than or different from what is currently present. That’s a major contributing factor in what drives an artist to create and continue to create, despite the fact that so many works might remain unexecuted for whatever reason.

ATI came to love so many of these projects as we put the book together. But for me it’s really about the more intimate, Topanga-based works. On the property are Beehive Bunkers, train parts, Erector-set skyscrapers, Bottle Pile . . . the communal and temporally open-ended nature of Bottle Pile in particular is very fascinating to me. Burden really surrounded himself with his art and it manifested at every level of his life. There were so many homegrown ideas that no one would otherwise know about. They weren’t pitched to museums, they weren’t pitched for art prizes, but they were so representative of his practice and preoccupations. It’s a special privilege to know about them and a special privilege to present them here.

All artwork © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Image of American Artist, Yayoi Shionoiri, Sydney Stutterheim

In Conversation
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.

Photograph of the installation process of an unrealized performance by Chris Burden at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, California, 1974. Photo: Brian Forrest, courtesy Michael Auping

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.

Takashi Murakami cover and Andreas Gursky cover for Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2022 magazine

Now available
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: Big Wrench

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.

Big Wrench

Big Wrench

Sydney Stutterheim looks at the brief but feverish obsession behind this 1980 video by Chris Burden.

Deluxe Photo Book

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

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

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.

Self portrait of Francesca Woodman, she stands against a wall holding pieces of ripped wallpaper in front of her face and legs

Francesca Woodman

Ahead of the first exhibition of Francesca Woodman’s photographs at Gagosian, director Putri Tan speaks with historian and curator Corey Keller about new insights into the artist’s work. The two unravel themes of the body, space, architecture, and ambiguity.

film still of Harry Smith's "Film No. 16 (Oz: The Tin Woodman’s Dream)"

You Don’t Buy Poetry at the Airport: John Klacsmann and Raymond Foye

Since 2012, John Klacsmann has held the role of archivist at Anthology Film Archives, where he oversees the preservation and restoration of experimental films. Here he speaks with Raymond Foye about the technical necessities, the threats to the craft, and the soul of analogue film.

A person lays in bed, their hand holding their face up as they look at something outside of the frame

Whit Stillman

In celebration of the monograph Whit Stillman: Not So Long Ago (Fireflies Press, 2023), Carlos Valladares chats with the filmmaker about his early life and influences.