"I'VE been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it's always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city," Chris Burden said the other day as he sat in a new public plaza facing Wilshire Boulevard at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Linking the soon-to-open Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the museum's original campus, this plaza is taking shape as the setting for Burden's largest sculpture to date, "Urban Light," an installation of 202 restored and fully operational vintage streetlights.
Wilshire is one of the main thoroughfares of the city, but LACMA's multiple tall, imposing and mostly unadorned facades have done little to address the endless stream of traffic that flows by, Burden noted. There's nothing like the grand Beaux Arts entry staircase that serves as a meeting place and a lure for visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "What faces Wilshire," Burden said, "hasn't been very inviting."
The opening of the BCAM, designed by Renzo Piano to hold contemporary art, will mark a new beginning for the 42-year-old museum, and Burden, 61, hopes that his monumental installation of 1920s and '30s-era lamps will become both a city landmark and a more fitting entryway to the sprawling campus. Nearly all of Burden's cast-iron lamps once lighted the streets of this region, and their variety in a very literal way represents distinct styles that distinguish different neighborhoods -- present and past. Arranged so the visitor can walk among the fixtures, "Urban Light" is a nod, Burden said, to what a museum should be: "It sounds kind of corny, but when you walk through the lamps into the museum, it's like a pathway to enlightenment. It's symbolic."
Arranged in strict formation, with the tallest standing about 30 feet in the center at the back, flanked by others of various heights and forms, with the smallest standing about 20 feet tall, the lamps look like a platoon of soldiers ready to march. All their parts are original, collected by Burden over seven years. The bases display elaborate floral and geometric patterns, and the fluted shafts and glass globes that cap them have been meticulously cleaned, painted and refurbished to create an exuberant glow. The first lighting is scheduled for Feb. 7 as one of BCAM's kick-off events, and "Urban Light" will illuminate mid-Wilshire's evening sky regularly thereafter.
A fanatical collector
Burden found his first lamps on a trip to the monthly Rose Bowl Flea Market in December 2000. Although he may still be best known for his provocative conceptual art from the 1970s, including having himself shot in the arm as a performance piece, he has been making large-scale assemblage sculpture for the last three decades. He is also an avaricious collector: Trains (toy and full-sized), cars (real and miniature), Erector sets and oriental rugs are just a few of the categories that he has amassed in vast quantities, either with a design in mind for specific artworks or with a vague notion of future use
Lamps had been on his mind as well -- he liked the forms -- and he'd been eyeing reproductions at Home Depot. So seeing "the real thing," as he put it, a couple of worn lamp shafts lying on the ground, grabbed him. He quickly asked the price: "They're $950 each," Burden remembers the dealer telling him, which he then bargained down to $800 if Burden would take the pair.
"I whipped out my checkbook and wrote him a check for $1,600," Burden said. He asked if there were more and was told "maybe." It was the beginning of a cat-and-mouse relationship in a subculture of fanatical collectors who care deeply about cast iron and see the beauty in preserving pieces of the past, and whose interest keeps prices steadily rising.
Burden didn't have a plan for the lamps at first, though he said that after he'd gotten about six he knew they would become part of his art. The number grew to 70, then 100 and onward, and the lamp obsession seemed unstoppable.
Some of the lamps were mostly intact -- though always needing some repair -- but more often Burden turned up stray parts, which he, his crew and a group of lighting experts he came to know reassembled and wired into working lamps. Over the years the landscape surrounding Burden's Topanga Canyon studio became dotted with what he calls "lamp carcasses" in varying states of disrepair, pole upon pole lying flat on the ground waiting to be renewed and reused.
He chose to paint them all a neutral gray, giving the variety a modicum of uniformity, and he imagined placing them in minimal arrangements. They became, at his hand, the ready-made material for large-scale installation art.
For a solo show at New York's Gagosian Gallery in late 2003, Burden suggested installing more than 100 of the lamps inside the Chelsea space, creating a "forest of lamps," a series of lamp-filled rooms that would represent "bringing L.A. light and culture to New York."