Much of the international art world was in shock over the death of artist Chris Burden, 69, on Sunday after a long bout with melanoma. Burden's career spanned six decades and, in an era of specialization, covered many genres of art, some of which he helped to define. Infamous for pushing the edge with performances that shocked, he was as much an innovator as he was an instigator.
Here are ten unforgettable artworks of his. They range from video to installation, from sculpture to performance art. Some of them defy convenient categories and the man himself probably wanted it that way.
1. Urban Light
After more than forty years of pushing the edge, Chris Burden found mainstream success with a public artwork that became an icon for the region he called home. The piece is actually a history of Southern California public light posts from the 1920s and 1930s. After Disneyland and the Hollywood sign, it can be safely asserted that Urban Light is the go-to selfie spot in all of Southern California. The piece condenses and reformats the grid of the urban experience into a cogent sculptural setting and serves as a welcoming portal into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Antithetical to the crowd-pleasing art he would produce at the climax of his career, Shoot took place in 1971, near the beginning of his career. He basically had a friend shoot him in the bicep with a rifle from about fifteen feet away in an art gallery. Prior to the You Tube era, Shoot was one of those art world legends that was discussed in the hushed tones of the faithful recounting a saint healing the sick. In a culture that produced shootings on television and shootings in everyday life, Burden shocked the art world by engaging in this all American tradition.
When one entered the 1985 Paul Schimmel-curated career survey of Burden at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, passing through a turnstile was mandatory. That turnstile clicked a gearbox that pushed two large timbers a tick deeper into the museum walls. The ostensible effect was to ultimately destroy the museum. Was it a meditation on levelling the sacred institution? Was it a commentary on an artist becoming so popular that the legacy is eventually consumed and crushed? Did it have a subtext of environmentalism in its illustration of how overuse leads to destruction? It may have been all of those things, and more, but here is something it most definitely was: Scary to walk thru!
4. Medusa's Head
— Michael Sippey (@sippey) May 10, 2015
This massive hanging sculpture of an over-industrialized sphere from which there is no escape calls forth the ugliness of what we call civilization. Like the Medusa of antiquity, this thing is so ugly that we recoil, and yet, are we not flinching from that in which we partake? The piece debuted suspended from the ceiling of the then "Temporary Contemporary" Wing of L.A. MOCA for the infamous Helter Skelter show (again curated by Burden's champion, Paul Schimmel), the 1991 exhibit that announced to the international art world that MOCA did not take its marching orders from New York art magazine formalist flavors of the month anymore.
5. The Other Vietnam Memorial
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC has the names 57,939 war dead. Chris Burden was outraged when none of the three million Vietnamese citizens who died in the conflagration were memorialized so he built a massive copper and aluminum rolodex with common Vietnamese names. This deeply political polemic itself is a majestic construction and is so aesthetically pleasing that it unwittingly serves as a polite counter to Maya Lin's powerful DC memorial.
6. Beam Drop
A fantastic meditation on the pretensions of architecture, Burden dropped I-beams from a crane into a pit of wet concrete. Part homage to John Cage and Jean Tinguely, the results reveal a rare combination of process and chaos frozen in the dramatic moment of inception. This is about the closest Burden ever came to making an abstract artwork and his results are better than that of many sculptors who purposefully set out to make a compelling non-objective sculpture.
7. Trans Fixed
Another infamous performance, Burden had his hands nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle and was wheeled out onto a small street in Venice, California. The appearance was akin to the crucifixion of Christ but the commentary of doing it on a Volkswagen - as ordinary an automobile as Americans drove in 1974 - was left open to many interpretations. But the power of the image coupled with the fact that the artist actually had nails driven through his hands gave Burden the air of an indefatigable advocate for an art that took everything to its limits.
8. The Reason for the Neutron Bomb
A lot of Burden's art reflects the nihilistic tension in the Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War. But his most overt piece about this era replaces the shock of provocative performance with the awe of the spectacle. With 50,000 Soviet tanks stationed in and around East Germany, Cold War strategists announced they were developing a neutron bomb - instead of an atom bomb that destroyed everything within its blast range, the neutron bomb would have minimal impact on the location it was dropped but would release a blast of deadly radiation that killed everyone ("away with excess enemy/but no less value to property" as the punk band Dead Kennedys described in a song from 1979, the same year as this piece). Burden had 50,000 matchsticks glued onto 50,000 nickels to symbolize the vastness what was to be killed and, laying the nickels on the floor of a large gallery had "The Reason For The Neutron Bomb" emblazoned on the far wall. The installation was akin to being overwhelmed with information - scale used as spectacle.
9. Five Day Locker Piece
Chris Burden, Five Day Locker Piece (1971) pic.twitter.com/86QEI5teih
— tropical depression (@suburbanspectre) May 10, 2015
As a graduate student, Burden pioneered endurance performance, locking himself into a locker at UC Irvine. He stayed there for five days with nothing but a jug of water above him and what started out as an empty jug beneath him. The signal that he was willing to risk physical catastrophe to actually accomplish a performance's set goal raised the bar quite high for performance art from then on.
The nonstop whir of this crowd-pleasing monstrosity may have its origins in the same dystopic world-view that produced "Medusa's Head" but in this frenzied sculpture of what seems like ten thousand moving parts, dystopia gives way to whimsy. No less inherently critical of a world where frenzy replaces purpose, the bright colors and toy cars are too reminiscent of childhood play to be just a negative commentary on machine culture. The damn thing is just too fun to watch to not inspire one's instincts to create.
I pulled these ten from a list of twenty that I made after hearing the news. Few artists made as many impactful and influential artworks as Chris Burden did between Five Day Locker Piece in 1971 and Metropolis in 2011.