Chris Burden’s distinctive contribution to the art of our time was that he brought politically informed performance art and idea-based sculpture into the mainstream.
By Tim Barry
I have to thank Chris Burden for several things. The main one is for fomenting my interest in contemporary art. When I caught his 1989 retrospective at the Carnegie-Mellon Museum in Pittsburgh, I was immediately charmed by the playful and curious yet rigorous and thoughtful nature of his installations. One such exhibit was thousands of nickel coins arrayed in a long snaking line around the gallery, each with a matchhead glued to it. Meaning? Who knew? Impact? Resounding.
I was introduced to Burden last fall at the Rose Art Museum’s opening of his “Light Of Reason” installation, which is permanently on view outside the building on the campus of Brandeis University. I was struck by his kindness and warmth. Meeting famous artists is somewhat predictable: they wanly shake your hand while glancing over your shoulder in case someone more deserving of their notice may hove into view. Not Burden. Though others were vying for their own moment with the art star, he graciously spent about 15 minutes chatting with me.
We smiled at each other upon learning we were both Boston boys, and he recounted a bit about his early days in the West End, what hospital he was born at, which schools he attended. When I confessed to him that I had pocketed one of his nickels from the Pittsburgh installation, he was mildly taken aback, but then relented that “a lot of them went missing, we had to keep replacing them.”
In any case, it was a certifiable thrill meeting Chris Burden, and I was glad I got a chance to tell him how much his work has meant to me. His recent survey, at the New Museum on New York’s Lower East Side, brought to light for me aspects of his career which I’d somehow missed.
There were several of his Erector Set pieces, testaments to his fascination with boys’ toys. Also on view were a few of his cantilever pieces, wherein he balances something large and heavy, like an automobile, on one end of a beam, then has something small, and lighter, on the other end–thus denying a simple law of physics. It is this playfulness, rooted in Dada and Duchamp, that has made Burden a slightly rare bird of contemporary art. Like, for instance, Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley, there was never an aura of high seriousness surrounding his work. No Christo-precious pronouncements offered.
But serious the work is. The famous wall of police suits, on display at the New Museum show, resonates profoundly in light of recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore. Guns and shooting have been at the center of his artistic practice since the beginning. Burden’s most notorious performances: one (“Trans-Fixed”) in which he had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen and another (“Shoot”) in which he had himself shot by a friend.
I’d call that serious art. Gimmicky, okay, but really, how can you top that? My personal favorite among Burden’s performance pieces was when he attached marijuana joints to paper airplanes and sailed them back over the barbed-wire border fence into Mexico, whence they came.
If you had to sum up Burden’s distinctive contribution to the art of our time, it would be that he brought politically rooted performance art and idea-based sculpture into the mainstream. His process and practice were inevitably accessible and contained an element of fun, a impishness that conceptual art often lacks.
We’ll miss you, Chris. Your life was April 11, 1946-May 10, 2015. We’re glad for what you left behind.
Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.