Gickers | Chris Burden
2015.October.25, 8:35pm
Filed under: GICKERS | Tags: , ,


One of my favorite parts of ArtForum Magazine is the “Passages” section, which highlights artists who have recently died. Instead of the typical lifeless obituary, “Passages” includes current interviews and essays with and by living artists, friends and critics, often written rather casually.

For me, the subjects of “Passages” have two things going for them that make them stand out from most of the other artists featured in the magazine: (1) They’ve just died, so they probably produced their best-known work during my lifetime; and (2) They’re famous enough to have been selected for the column, meaning I’m probably familiar with their work.

A few weeks ago I opened the September issue of ArtForum and learned that Chris Burden had passed away in May. The magazine featured excellent, touching essays by several artists, including Vito Acconci. Burden was 69 and died of cancer, if that matters. His death doesn’t change what I’m going to try to do here: Explain why I’ve always felt an affinity with Burden, who I didn’t know, never met, and can’t even say I’m terribly familiar with.


I first learned of Burden while at Whitman College through Dennis Crockett, who was such a good art history professor that it doesn’t seem right to describe him as just “an art history professor.” When Dennis spoke in class, I felt like he was talking to me only. When he described trends in the art world, it seemed like he was re-writing my childhood so that anything I did afterwards was informed by all that came before. My floating head grew a neck, shoulders, arms, torso and legs, and then my feet reached the ground. Sounds rich, but that’s how I felt.

At the time I was probably nineteen or twenty years old, and I still thought that art was about colors and perspective and prettiness.

Chris Burden’s most famous work, and the first one I remember learning of, is called “Shoot.” In front of a small audience, he walked to one end of a gallery and held out his left arm. Another man stood sixteen feet away, raised a .22 rifle, and shot him in the arm. End of performance. Burden went to a hospital.

For another piece, Burden lay back atop a Volkswagen Beetle and an assistant nailed his hands to the roof of the car. The car was rolled out of a garage with Burden “crucified” on top, revved up for two minutes, and rolled back in the garage.

So that’s art, I wondered, and so is the Impressionist boat painting in the dentist’s office? I never questioned whether Burden was creating “art.” I just tried to reconcile his work with my own narrow experience of drawing, painting and sculpture. Maybe the idea that art meant bringing something new into the world could be applied to concepts, and there wasn’t any need for material proof that they ever even happened. But where do you go from there? I still don’t know.

That’s kind of a lie. The “Where Do We Go?” question is addressed in anything that anyone makes after they know of artists like Chris Burden. Art wasn’t just torn up and thrown out the window, it was just more informed.

There’s a kind of an answer in Burden’s later work. The performances I described above took place in the 1970s, about twenty years before I “discovered” them in college. Much of his later work explored scale and juxtaposition. Here are a few pieces I know of, in order of whatever I think of, and as inaccurate as I remember them:

  1. Burden raised money and placed silly TV ads. Some of them are painfully awkward, but Burden doesn’t care! Then there’s one that’s absolutely brilliant. I think I heard about it from Dennis Crockett two decades before I actually saw it on YouTube. It’s just text with a narrator reading out names: “Leonardo da Vinci … Michelangelo … Rembrandt … Vincent Van Gogh … Pablo Picasso … Chris Burden.” It was played as an ad during Saturday Night Live. Ha! Brilliant! (See Burden’s video ads here.)
  1. He built a giant Erector Set building, like as large as a real building.
  1. He made a piece called “You’ll Never See My Face in Kansas City,” where he just sat in Kansas City for a while, wearing a balaclava. No one could see his face! The man was a genius. Now think back to when he got shot in the arm: Title of that piece? “Shoot.” Effin’ hilarious!
  1. He built a giant vertical wheel, huge, out of concrete, so big that they had to cut out part of the gallery’s ceiling or floor for it to fit in. Then he backed a motorcycle up to it, and started it spinning, so when you see it you know it could totally wreck the gallery and kill everyone if it slipped off its axle.
  1. He made a giant slot car track that’s at the Los Angeles County Museum. I thought this one sounded dumb, but had a bit of an art experience when I saw it for real. I like art that makes you ask “Why?” Nobody asks why someone paints a pretty picture, but why did Burden take toys so seriously, or did he take them seriously? There’s a lot of Sisyphus, but it seems so brash and boastful that it’s like he enjoys the uphill part. Enjoy the uphill part: That’s a Burden lesson.

Another important thing about Burden is that he didn’t look like he was out to educate people. He just po-facedly said and did what he was going to do. You’ll cringe if you watch the videos I linked to above. He was a normal, kind of creepy-looking dude. There’s no sense of glamour, though to me he aimed high and challenged us to rise up to his smart, serious, humorous take on what art is, and what is important about new things.


I hope I absorbed some of what Chris Burden had to say, and I wish more people would pay more attention to new ideas in the art world. I mean just all of us. There’s something there that’s bigger than the world as we know it. I was lucky to have such an enthusiastic introduction in college. Everyone knows what happened art-wise in early 20th century France, maybe even what happened in New York half-way through the 20th century. After that it gets jumbled because it’s relatively recent, but it’s just as important to our collective thought. I know Chris Burden isn’t “new” – Hell he’s dead since May and didn’t die young – but I changed because of his work.

That’s the best thing I can say about an artist: I think differently because of Chris Burden. I suspect everyone does, even when we don’t know it.

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