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Chris Burden

Born: Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.

Chris Burden (1946-2015) was a pioneering and influential performance and installation artist, sculptor, and educator.

Burden was born in Boston; his mother was a biologist and his father an engineer and Harvard professor. The family moved to Europe when he was young; at 17 he won a National Science Foundation grant which enabled him to travel throughout the United States before settling in California, which remained his home base for the rest of his life. He attended Pomona College from 1965 to 1969, beginning his studies in architecture and physics before eventually earning a BFA in sculpture. [1]

From there he moved to the University of California at Irvine to pursue an MFA from 1969 to 1971, where he studied closely with installation artist Robert Irwin, among others. Initially trained in Minimalism, Burden moved away from conventional sculpture and toward the relatively new and unexplored genres of conceptual and performance art, using his own body and pre-existing everyday objects as his primary media. For his thesis project he was confined inside a school locker for 5 days.

Upon graduation, Burden’s site-specific performances continued to intensify in both quantity and content, emerging in the context of war overseas, a growing culture of violence in the U.S., and the many self-improvement and self-help movements of the era. Among the best-known and most controversial of these pieces were Shoot (1971), in which he had an assistant shoot him in the arm in a gallery space; Trans-fixed (1974), for which he was crucified on the back of a Volkswagen; and Doomed (1975), in which he remained on display for an open-ended amount of time at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago without food or water, placing his life in the hands of museum personnel and attendees. According to ArtNews, he created 54 such works in total before turning his attention to large-scale sculptures and installations beginning around 1980.

As one writer later put it, these new pieces often employed

“materials common to childhood playtime activities (such as Erector sets, toy soldiers, model train sets, toy vehicles, and construction models) to create miniaturized yet still monumental reconstructions of structures and environments. These works diagram dense political and historical relationships, and register the depth of our mechanical and technological imagination.” [2]

In 1984, during a residency at Artpark in Lewiston, N.Y., Burden created the first version of his performance/sculptural installation Beam Drop. (While this incarnation was eventually dismantled, the artist re-created the project in Inhotim, Brazil in 2008 and Antwerp, Belgium in 2009.) Architecture historian Mark Linder describes the execution and implications of the piece in this way:

Beam Drop was made by dropping (from a height of 80 or 90 feet) 60 variously sized steel beams, some weighing a ton, one at a time from a large construction crane into a 10-foot-deep pit of wet concrete. Working at a scale and with materials and processes normally associated with architecture, Burden reminded us of the incredible potential energy latent in finished buildings as well as of the disasters that ensue when it is released.” [3]

In 2009, Burden noted

“I see this sculpture as Abstract-Expressionist sculpture. In the same manner in which Abstract-Expressionist painters threw paint at their canvases, I threw beams at the earth, like a game of pick-up sticks.” [4]

The artist’s best-known late work is Urban Light, a 2008 piece installed outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art composed of 202 historic streetlights. In 2013 the New Museum in New York City mounted a major retrospective of his career under the title Extreme Measures.

Burden began teaching part-time at UCLA in 1978 and became a tenured professor in 1986. He and his wife Nancy Rubins, a sculptor and fellow professor, both opted for early retirement from the university in 2005 in a highly publicized and controversial protest of the administration’s handling of an incident in their department.

Chris Burden died of lymphoma on May 10, 2015.


Gagosian Gallery’s Chris Burden homepage

’10 Chris Burden Masterpieces”

UbuWeb’s collection of 4 compilation videos

UbuWeb’s collection of 4 audio performances

Roger Ebert interview with Burden (1975)

Modern Art Notes Podcast audio interview with Burden (2011)

Brooklyn Rail interview with Burden (2013)

New Yorker profile of Burden (2007)

New York Times profile (2013)

[1] Some of Burden’s earliest exhibitions and performances (circa 1970) were held at the Pomona College Museum of Art under the directorship of Helene Winer, who in 1975 became the director of Artists Space, an influential alternative space in lower Manhattan. Burden, Winer, and Burden’s UC Irvine mentor Robert Irwin were all invited to give presentations at Hallwalls, the artist-run gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., during its first two seasons (1975-76). (Burden performed a new piece called The Fall of Western Industrialism and the Automobile.) These visits proved to have long-lasting implications not only in Buffalo (where they established vital personal and aesthetic connections with the art scenes on both coasts) but by extension throughout the international art world of the late 1970s and early 1980s, because, as art historian Douglas Eklund notes in his book The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, Hallwalls co-founders Diane Bertolo, Charles Clough, Nancy Dwyer, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Michael Zwack all subsequently showed work at Artists Space, many of them moving to New York and following Winer to her commercial gallery, Metro Pictures, where they were embraced as part of the first generation of post-modernists.

[2] Author unknown, promotional copy for Chris Burden: Extreme Measures on the New Museum website, [Accessed 5/19/2015]

[3] Mark Linder, “With a Big A: Artpark After the Architectural Turn,” in Artpark: 1974-1984, edited by Sandra Q. Firmin (University at Buffalo Art Galleries/Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), p. 221.

[4] Chris Burden, quoted in [Accessed 5/19/2015]