Chris Burden - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor and Performance Artist
Biography of Chris Burden
Burden, the son of an engineer and a biologist, was born in Boston in 1946 and grew up in France and Italy. When he was 12, Burden was involved in a motorcycle accident in Italy that required his foot to be operated on without anesthesia. This traumatic event seemed to be the catalyst for his future works that focused on self-inflicted physical pain. Burden moved back to the states and finished high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1965, he moved to California and studied physics and architecture before receiving his B.F.A from Pomona College in 1969 and his M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine in 1971, where one of his teachers had been the artist Robert Irwin. Burden began his performance pieces while still in college, and his master's thesis consisted of his shutting himself in a locker for five days without food, with a five-gallon jug of water above him and an empty five-gallon jug below him for waste. Burden was excited about the idea that his body and his actions could be considered a work of art with little or no other materials involved. This early performance set the tone for the often-masochistic pieces for which Burden would become famous. His pieces were usually done in front of a small audience who had heard of the event by word-of-mouth; he did not advertise in advance of his performances.
Burden's performance pieces consisted of inflicting actual physical pain and discomfort upon his body through some type of self-mutilation or a test of physical endurance through mounting and extreme discomfort. He was once referred to as "the Evel Knieval of Contemporary Art," as he would put himself in conditions that would be considered torture by today's standards. When asked about the intensity of his performances Burden would say it was a way of expressing himself artistically at a time when he did not have the money to express himself in any other way.
Burden's performances fit into his era's interest in pushing the limits of what could be considered art. However, Burden did not associate himself with any of the performance art movements of the time. Unlike many other performance artists, Burden would often video record his pieces, as the element he wished to place emphasis on was not the ephemeral, but the physicality of using his own body as the art. Burden began to work in performance art in the early 1970s, exposing himself to potentially dangerous actions. In 1974, for example, he performed Trans-Fixed (that involved his being nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle) in Venice, California.
Between 1974 and 1983, Burden received four National Endowment for the Arts grants and from 1978 to 2005 he served on the faculty of UCLA. Burden's later work moved away from performance and veered more toward large-scale sculptures and installations with small, multiple parts, fueled by his interest in war toys and models. These pieces found their inspiration in politics, technology, engineering, and machinery, and usually had moving parts sometimes involving actions by people. His large-scale pieces related to his performances in their reaching beyond the conventional limits. "I am constantly searching for the edge," he stated when asked about the physical limits of gravity, distance, weight, and water in his work. Many of his installations are done with the help of grants; he has received numerous awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In 2005, he left UCLA amid some controversy surrounding a stunt pulled by a student that caused some to label Burden a hypocrite. The student apparently brought in a very real-looking model of a gun and pretended to play Russian roulette in Burden's class before going out into the hall and setting off a firecracker. Burden argued that there was a time and place for that type of performance and it was not in the classroom.
In 2013, the New Museum mounted the show "Chris Burden: Extreme Measures," the first New York retrospective of the artist's work and his first major show in the United States in more than 25 years. Burden has exhibited all over the world, but is usually considered part of the Los Angeles art scene. He has stated that he does not want his early performance pieces reproduced and has turned down requests from Marina Abramovic to recreate Trans-Fixed (1974). Burden died in the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles where he worked and lived with his wife, the artist Nancy Rubins.
The Legacy of Chris Burden
More than any other recent American artist, Burden pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in art, forcing viewers and critics to redefine their narrow, outmoded definitions of what art was and what it could do. He helped prove that art did not have to result in an object, and that art could be pushed to extreme limits and still be "art." This meant that art could be an experience, but because of the extreme discomfort that he forced both himself and his audiences to endure, not very many people actually saw his art in person. However, the works were documented in the form of photography and the printed word, which is how we continue to know and talk about them. His influence extended to future conceptual, performance, and installation artists, among them Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramovic.