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On the Death of Chris Burden, Iconoclast and Art-World Agitator

Chris Burden, the influential American performance, sculpture, and installation artist known for courting controversy with his work, died early Sunday morning at his home in Topanga Canyon, California, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times. The cause of death was malignant melanoma. Burden was 69.

The Boston-born artist rose to prominence in the early 1970s following a series of works focused on personal danger as artistic expression. In one of his earliest and most well-known performance pieces, Shoot(1971), Burden stood in front of a white wall at F-Space Gallery in Santa Ana, California, where he was then shot in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle at close range. Other “danger pieces” followed throughout the 1970s, including Five Day Locker Piece (1971), Match Piece (1972), Deadman (1972), B.C. Mexico (1973), Fire Roll (1973), TV Hijack (1972), Doomed (1975), and Honest Labor (1979).

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Still from Chris Burden’s The Big Wrench (1980). Carnegie Museum of Art, Video Purchase Fund.

Beyond his performance pieces, Burden developed an interest in video early in his career. Carnegie Museum of Art has one such artwork in its permanent collection, The Big Wrench (1980). Part infomercial and part confessional, the video is an exercise in Burden’s ability to sometimes engage audiences through a mix of sincerity and deadpan humor. While not currently on view, the video is available to watch online via Electronic Arts Intermix. And the curatorial notes from the CMOA Archives offer interesting context on the video and Burden’s state of mind at that time:

In 1974 he began working with video, using it as an integral component of his performances, and to document his work. A few years later, Burden began producing sculptural objects, installations, and technological or mechanical inventions that addressed the artist’s relationship to an industrialized and technological society. The emphatically matter-of-fact story Burden tells in The Big Wrench (1980) is an account of his disastrous encounters with his eight-ton truck, “Big Job.” This fragment of the artist’s own life is not only an amusing—albeit terrifying—barometer of psychological existence, but a metaphor for contemporary technology and bureaucracy as well.

While daring performance pieces anchored his art practice at the outset of his career, much of Burden’s later work consisted of installations and large-scale sculptures. All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987), Hell Gate (1998), and Nomadic Folly (2001) are a few works that exemplify his widening range of interests late in his career. Urban Light (2008), a sprawling public art piece comprised of over 200 restored street lamps that’s located at the Wilshire Boulevard entrance to LACMA, is perhaps one of Burden’s most well-known pieces of the last decade. “I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told theLos Angeles Times in 2012. To right that wrong, he considered Urban Light a formal entryway to the museum.

From art-world agitator in his youth to respected sculptor in his later years, Burden cemented his legacy as a thoughtful innovator always willing to risk it all for the sake of free expression.

Image (top): Chris Burden during his performance piece ‘Shoot’ at F-Space Gallery in Santa Ana, California, 1971.