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Unmasking Chris Burden : His Art Has Always Challenged the Rules; For a While, So Did His Antics. Now, L.A.'s Notorious Bad-Boy Artist Has Settled Down. Or Has He?

November 29, 1992|KRISTINE MCKENNA | Kristine McKenna frequently writes about art for The Times

Not everyone is so hesitant to analyze Burden's developing aesthetic. "I wasn't surprised when Chris started doing performance work," recalls landscape architect Regula Campbell, who met Burden on the first day of school at Pomona in 1965, "because I saw the roots of that work in his personality all along. He had an extreme personality--he wanted to be extreme--and he always had a streak of exhibitionism. We all wanted to be Angst -ridden and were fascinated by the dark side of things then, and Chris and I both had motorcycles we used to roar around on." Campbell was present at some of Burden's scarier events. When she looks back now, she shakes her head: "When you're young," she says, "you never think that people can get hurt." Barbara Burden, Chris' former wife, also witnessed most of the performance pieces. "I was convinced then--and still am today--that those were great artworks," she says, "but I still tried to talk him out of doing them. Obviously, I was never successful," she adds with a laugh. "His friends never tried to prevent him from doing the work, and he always found people willing to help out, particularly as he continued to work in the same way. People began to realize he was a serious artist and not just some nutty guy."

It was in 1974 that performance art began to wear thin for Burden. By then, the media had caught up to him, and critics eagerly awaited each production. "People were starting to expect certain things of me, and I didn't want to get boxed in by that," he says. "The press was getting kind of hysterical, and I knew if I kept doing that work I was going to be turned into the Alice Cooper of art. Sensationalism was never what that work was about."

Still, Burden's performances would continue sporadically through 1980, but by 1975 he was branching into other media, and in two months that year, he put together "B-Car," a from-scratch functioning automobile-cum-artwork.

"That was the turning point," says Burden of the car, which looks a little like a cross between a soapbox-derby entry and an early Indy racer. "B-Car" signified a return to sculpture, and it was also a sign of his growing fascination with various forms of hardware and technology--wheels, gears, engines, vehicles, boats, planes, weapons and all manner of other toys. When "B-Car" opened in New York, though, all it garnered was a fistful of California-bashing reviews.

Once again, the early returns were wrong. The car ushered in a 10-year period of consolidation for Burden; grants had just started rolling in (there would be four from the National Endowment for the Arts and one Guggenheim), he landed the plum artists' gig, a university teaching job, at UCLA, and he worked on a slow but steady schedule of exhibitions and installations.

At the end of the '80s came the retrospective in Newport, and from the vantage point of 1992, Burden looks back with gratitude. "The retrospective was a good thing for me," he says, "and I did pretty well in the '80s. Because there was so much money churning through, and everything was popping, there was a lot more opportunity for guys like me, who aren't marketable."

The proceeds from sales and commissions from that time period financed Burden's next really big splash, "Medusa's Head." He began the sculpture in the living room of his house. "But," he says, "by the time the plywood frame was finished, it was so heavy that the house was making weird noises." He and his chief assistant on the project, Tim Quinn ("It's my vision, but it's the assistants' hands," says Burden), hefted the sculpture outside and into the shed. Ultimately, it was transported to a workshop in the Valley.

"I thought it was going to take three or six months to make the thing," he says. "It took two years and a lot of money--$250,000, as much as my house cost."

The piece was first shown in 1990 in Whitechapel Gallery in London, where it bombed completely. "The British press was totally outraged by it," Burden says, relishing the story. "They said it was big and arrogant and just looked like grimy industrialism. 'The audacity! The sheer size of it! How dare he!' The piece was damaged when it was in England, and the press said it was punishment for my 'hubris.' "

On this side of the Atlantic, though, the piece has been more successful, and it put Burden back into the news the way nothing had since the performance pieces years before. Still, the words that ended up in print were not what you could exactly call kind: "scorched earth," "bad-boy spirit," "big festering skull."

Burden, on the other hand, finds the piece beautiful. He uses the word liberally to describe the five-ton sphere that is now disassembled and packed away. He wishes someone would buy it, not so much for the money, he claims, but just to give it a home.

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