I first encountered Chris Burden, who passed away this last weekend in Malibu, in 1985 digging a hole in the floor. I was working on an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles’s Temporary (now Geffen) Contemporary in Los Angeles, a former car barn my then-employer, Frank Gehry, FAIA, had turned into an art museum by doing no more than putting in white walls, a few ramps, and some sprinklers and exit signs. Burden’s response was to turn his back on the cleanup job and dig into the even messier reality underneath the building—he called the piece Exposing the Foundation of the Museum. The original idea was that you would descend into this archaeological dig of L.A.’s history and see the site in a more heroic perspective from down at the dig’s bottom, but that proved too much even for the adventurous institution MOCA then was. Instead, you gazed at Burden’s work from the safety of the concrete floor, nonetheless becoming aware that there was a landscape larger than the Temporary Contemporary’s already voluminous interior and a reality rougher than either the architecture or the art around you.
Burden had that ability to change your sense of scale and place. His early work, which consisted mainly of performances, made him (in)famous because of the demands he made on his own body, including having an assistant shoot him in the arm (Shoot, 1971); lying crucified for two minutes, nailed to the back of a VW Bug (Trans-fixed, 1974); and living in a gallery for 22 days behind a partition (White Light/White Heat, 1974). Though Burden’s body was the focus of these works, what really made them effective—beyond the voyeurism the acts elicited—was how these works caused you to question the relationship between that body and its sites. Somebody shot should be on a battlefield or a crime scene, not in a gallery with the aura of its white walls and skylights; the Crucifixion took place at Golgotha; people do not live in galleries. It was the interruption of the body, and its being out of place, that mattered. The VW Bug was wheeled out of the garage with Burden on it, the engine was revved, and then he disappeared again into the garage: his crucified body was a momentary apparition in the streetscape, not a ritual.
In later works, the artist pushed and pulled at his sites, most literally in his 1985 piece Samson, in which he connected a turnstile to a 100-ton jack that torqued two wood beams with steel plates at their ends ever further against opposing walls every time you entered the gallery and caused the turnstile to click. Theoretically, your viewing of the art could destroy the building. During the 1990s, Burden reversed his movement out against buildings by turning towards miniatures, including Medusa’s Head (1990), which filled a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art, and the epic war scenes of projects such as Tale of Two Cities of 1981. The latest version of his insane take of a child’s desire to make a complete universe she or he can control was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Metropolis II (2011), a constellation of miniature buildings, trains and racing cars he set in motion with a manic energy that was both terrifying and exhilarating.
I find it ironic that the man who first gained notoriety for violence will be best remembered for a piece that, whether he intended it or not, has become a romantic icon for his home town: Urban Light, a 2008 piece consisting of 202 reused L.A. lampposts of the sort you would see in the backdrop of a noir movie, and which Burden arranged in an grid array in one of LACMA’s courtyards. The labyrinth of gray metal posts has become a favorite for kissing couples, wedding photographs, and children running through the maze screaming at the top of their lungs. Like his best work, Urban Light brings a landscape—one that we cannot usually see, and one that exudes a sense of mystery and perhaps even danger—into play, into place, and into a concrete form. Because he could do that in so many ways over so many decades, I think Chris Burden was one of the best architects to come out of Los Angeles since the Second World War, and we will thoroughly miss his perspective on and contributions to our human-made world.