Chris Burden studied art, physics, and architecture at Pomona College, earning his BA in 1969. Influenced by undergraduate instructor Mowry Baden, who was interested in phenomenology and the relationship of sculpture to the body, Burden subsequently enrolled at UCI, where he earned his MFA as part of the first graduating cohort in 1971. The artist later became a professor of studio art at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1978 to 2005.
In the early 1970s, Burden shifted his focus from sculptural work to performance art, a move that was informed by minimalism. In Burden’s account, “The only problem with [my early sculptural work] was that the apparatus was often mistaken for traditional objects of sculpture . . . I realized I could dispose of the apparatus and simply have the actual physical activity as the sculpture.”1
Burden subsequently acquired an international reputation for physically intense and often violent performances such as Shoot (1971), a work in which Burden was shot in the arm by a friend at F-Space Gallery in Santa Ana. For Five Day Locker Piece (1971), his MFA thesis, Burden folded himself into his two-foot-by-two-foot locker for five days without food. The locker above him contained a five-gallon supply of water from which Burden could drink through a straw, while the locker directly below contained an empty five-gallon bucket. Days after he removed himself from the locker, Burden rode a bicycle on a loop in the art gallery for two weeks straight.
According to Burden, Locker Piece was a breakthrough in that “he realized that he didn’t have to make an apparatus – instead of making a box, [he used] a pre-existing box, distilling work down to the essence.”2 He meticulously documented each of his performances, for still and film cameras as much as for the audiences who attended.
On February 29, 1972, Burden appeared on the live Irvine cable television show All About Art, hosted by Phyllis Lutjeans, curator of education and performance art at Newport Harbor Art Museum. In a self-published volume documenting his performances, Burden recounts the event: “In the course of the interview, Phyllis asked me to talk about some of the pieces I had thought of doing. I demonstrated a TV hijack. Holding a knife at her throat I threatened her life if the station stopped live transmission. I told her that I had planned to make her perform obscene acts.”3 The video footage was subsequently destroyed.
Burden has identified Robert Irwin, Tony DeLap, and John Mason as influential instructors at Irvine. Burden notes that the lack of facilities at UCI forced students to find their own studios and buy their own equipment; these experiences, he says, helped students mature professionally much earlier. Furthermore, Burden understood that acceptance to the Irvine MFA program already constituted entrée to the art world: “You literally [could] go to the beach and stare at the horizon for two years and still get your degree.” It was about being “chosen for [your] prior work—not about getting grades and pleasing professors.”4
Since the late 1990s, Burden has made scale replicas of existing bridges in addition to bridges of his own design using Erector and Meccano engineering sets. In 2008, he permanently installed Urban Light, an outdoor sculpture consisting of 202 antique cast iron Los Angeles street lamps (which he collects and restores), at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The lights are illuminated every night from dusk to 10 p.m., transforming the piece into what Burden calls “a building with a roof of light.”5
1 Interview with José Antonio Sarmiento: “Hacer arte es verdaderamenta una actividad subversiva,” trans. Chris Burden, Sin Titulo 3 (September 1996): 58.
2 Chris Burden, interview with Grace Kook-Anderson, April 14, 2011.
3 Chris Burden, Beyond the Limits, ed. Peter Noever (MAK, Ostfildern: Cantz, 1996), 132.
4 Chris Burden, interview with Grace Kook-Anderson, April 14, 2011.
5 Los Angeles County Museum, Collections, “Urban Light, Chris Burden,” http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=161897;type=101
Works in Our Collection
If You Fly
Lithograph, 31/50, 1973
30 1/8 x 22 1/2 inches
Gift of Dee Bryan in honor of her sons and their families