L.A. Remembers Urban Light Sculptor Chris Burden, Who Died at Age 69

Chris Burden's iconic Urban Light sculpture the day of the artist's death.
Chris Burden's iconic Urban Light sculpture the day of the artist's death.
Photo by Catherine Wagley

Late yesterday afternoon, it was business as usual at Urban Light, artist Chris Burden’s now iconic sculpture in LACMA’s entryway. The sculpture, made up of 202 restored, gray-painted street lamps from L.A. of the 1920s and 1930s, was serving its usual role as a constantly in-use photo op. A group of tourists was asking strangers to take their picture as they experimented with poses; a dad pretending to smoke a cigar as his teenage daughter clicked away and his embarrassed son averted his eyes.

None of them seemed to know that 69-year-old Burden, the artist behind Urban Light, had passed away only hours earlier, following an 18-month battle with melanoma. The only sign that something had changed was the KTLA News van pulling away. LACMA announced it would keep the lights on late into the night, in honor of their maker.

Artist Ben Jackel had just returned from a visit to Urban Light — he’d gone to pay respect — late last night, when reached via email. Jackel studied with Burden at UCLA in the early 2000s, and is one of many L.A. artists who worked with him directly or were profoundly influenced by his art. “He didn't make art like other people,” says Jackel. “He was an inventor, a tinkerer. He could build anything and broke every rule in the book while doing so. He let us all know that anything is possible.”

Artist Nathan Danilowicz, who also worked with Burden at UCLA, remembers that sense of possibility, too. “He would say that you can literally do anything you want,” he says, “even stare at the wall all day. Actually one student did a project about just that — staring at walls.”

The work Boston-born Burden began doing as a graduate student at University of California Irvine, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was all about testing limits. His locked himself in a two-foot high, three-foot deep locker for five days as his graduate thesis project. In 1971, Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with .22 rifle. It was meant to just graze him, but the friend missed and it hit deeper. Photos of the aftermath show the then-young artist wide-eyed, holding his bandaged arm. He was “crucified” 1974, nails lightly hammered into both his hands as he lay face-up across the hood and windshield of his wife’s Volkswagen beetle. He bought air time in the mid-1970s and aired footage of unsettling performances as "ads."

It was daring work like this that curator John Tain, who works with the Getty Research Institute's contemporary and modern collections, learned about as a high school student in L.A. When he left this city for college, Tain says he “continued to measure all artists, especially the ones who did performance, against what Burden did, which to me marked the limit of what could be done in its radicality, but [also] in the economy of its intelligence.”

Screenshot of TV Ad, a "commercial" Burden filmed and aired in 1973EXPAND
Screenshot of TV Ad, a "commercial" Burden filmed and aired in 1973

In a 1975 performance, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Burden lay on a gallery floor underneath a sheet of glass that was leaning against the wall. He stayed perfectly still, which frustrated some visitors who had come for spectacle. One woman threw her bra at the glass. And Burden stayed still, late into the night, then all the way into the next morning and then through the following night. It had been 45 hours when a museum staffer — the staff had become quite nervous about Burden’s well-being — brought a pitcher of water out to him. Then he got up. He had been waiting for museum staff to intervene all along: that was the performance, to give them the control but not tell them, and stay still until they put an end to his stillness. He hadn’t anticipated them waiting that long.

Late film critic Roger Ebert ended a compelling reflection on this performance by marveling at Burden's sporadic, often snapshot-based documentation of his work. "For Chris Burden," he says, "I believe, the experience is what remains. His experience, and ours." He then points out that Burden stopped performing soon after and "became a teacher."

Burden joined the faculty of UCLA in 1978, and started the New Genres program there. He stayed on faculty until 2005, when he resigned after the school refused to suspend a student who had brought and shot a handgun on campus as part of a performance based on Russian Roulette. Burden was practical and concerned as a teacher, and, at that point, no longer putting himself in danger in the way he had in the 1970s. His new work was ambitious in a different way: an 1,100 square foot city made up entirely of war toys; a 65 foot skyscraper made of Erector toys; a self-navigating, crewless yacht that took a 330-mile journey in 2005; and the LACMA crowd-pleasers Urban Light and Metropolis II, an impressive web of model skyscrapers and weaving freewaves around which 100,000 electricity-powered toy cars travel.

Metropolis II at LACMA
Metropolis II at LACMA
Alissa Walker

Performance artist Micol Hebron remembers some disappointment when, after she’d transferred from UCSD to UCLA partly to work with the man who had taken so many physical risks, Burden told her and her classmates he had never wanted to be a performance artist. “He said that he had always wanted to be a sculptor, but with so little money as a young artist, he couldn’t afford to make sculptures, so he did performances instead,” Hebron recalls. “That stuck with me for several reasons. I realized that a true artist was someone who made good work no matter what the medium; that a good artist could have great ideas and make great projects, no matter what materials they had on hand.”

He pushed his students to do the same. Hebron still remembers his assignments vividly. One term, he told his students they had to earn $1000 in 10 weeks, daunting for college kids in the early 1990s. Those who earned it all would get an “A,” $800 would be a “B” and so on. Another assignment was to hand-build a boat that could carry each student's own weight and a third to create a communication system that did not involve electricity.

"His assignments always had myriad layers of meaning and application. They required engineering, performance and innovation," says Hebron. “Chris was a profoundly inquisitive artist in so many ways. But, the one characteristic that comes to mind as an overarching quality is ‘power.’ All of his work explored potential power — potential political power, potential economic power, potential electrical power...potential power of the body….the potential power of art.”


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