scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Chris Burden, 69; pushed limits of concept, scope in art

Mr. Burden posed for photos in front of his sculpture "Metropolis II" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles. Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/File 2012

LOS ANGELES — When Chris Burden stood in front of a camera in 1971 and had a friend open fire on him with a rifle, he was making a bold statement to the world: a new artist had arrived, one who was willing to push the limits of art as far as his imagination would take it.

Over the next 44 years, that imagination would prove all but limitless as Mr. Burden had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen beetle and locked into a school locker for nearly a week. He built a 65-foot skyscraper entirely out of Erector Set parts.


To top it off, he constructed one of Los Angeles’ most stunning landmarks, ‘‘Urban Light,’’ a maze of 202 restored antique street lights that welcomes visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At night it illuminates an entire block of the city’s famous Wilshire Boulevard.

Mr. Burden, who died of cancer Sunday at age 69, also commented on the eventual arrival of driverless cars when he unveiled ‘‘Metropolis II’’ at the same museum in 2012. The huge, intricate kinetic sculpture, made partly out of Lego blocks, features 1,100 miniature cars racing through a high-rise city at a scale-model speed of 240 miles per hour.

‘‘Chris Burden is one of the most significant artists, not only of Los Angeles but of this period of time,’’ Michael Govan, the museum’s director, said when ‘‘Metropolis II’’ was unveiled.

Mr. Burden began his legacy in 1971 when he had a friend point a rifle at him and fire a single shot for a work called ‘‘Shoot.’’ The video, still available on YouTube, shows him wounded in the arm.

Three years later, he had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen bug for a piece he called ‘‘Trans-Fixed.’’

The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University did a small-scale replica of Chris Burden’s “Urban Light.’’Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2014/Globe Staff

By the end of the ’70s, however, he began to gravitate from performance art to large conceptual pieces.


In 1979 he created ‘‘The Big Wheel,’’ a huge kinetic sculpture in which a towering iron wheel comes to life with the revving of the engine of a motorcycle. It goes on to spin for hours, initially at frightening speeds, in a display of kinetic energy. Such energy seemed to fascinate the artist and animates several of his works.

‘‘He saw it not so much as the end of a process for a collector, but as a tinkerer, a scientist, somebody using models, toys, diagrams, to understand and explore the world around him,’’ said Paul Schimmel, former chief curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art and curator of the first retrospective of Mr. Burden’s work in 1988.

Born in Boston, Mr. Burden came to California to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art from Pomona College and the University of California Irvine.

He lived in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon arts colony with his wife, artist Nancy Rubins, who survives him.

Last year, the Rose Art Museum commissioned a smaller version of the “Urban Light’’ piece, 24 lanterns titled “Light of Reason.” At the time, it served as a symbol of the Waltham museum’s recovery after a widely criticized attempt to sell its prized collection of contemporary art by a previous university administration. Now, the piece is something else, said Rose Director Chris Bedford.

“It’s a point where people congregate, meet and study,” he said. “It’s become our character, our image, and that’s happened in less than a year.“


In a statement, Bedford lauded both the art and the character of Mr. Burden. “That Chris will go down one of the greatest American artists of his generation is self-evident to all of us,” he said. “A less well-known fact is how gentle, kind and caring he was. The bold artist responsible for ‘Shoot’ is the same man who took great care of all those fortunate enough to work with him, me included.”

Material from the Washington Post was used in this obituary.