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Review: Powerful 'Extreme Measures' is in moment with Chris Burden

'Chris Burden: Extreme Measures,' a retrospective at the New Museum, needs only a small sampling to show artist's deep influence.

November 08, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

NEW YORK — Chris Burden's sculpture "The Other Vietnam Memorial" is not included in the compelling retrospective of the Los Angeles-based artist's four-decade career, which fills all five floors at the New Museum here as well as the building's roof and façade.

Perhaps the omission is not surprising. The downtown museum is relatively modest in size, while many of Burden's industrial-strength sculptures and installations take up lots of room.

The show can offer only a thumbnail sampling of his output, plus documentation of many other works.

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More to the point, however, when "The Other Vietnam Memorial" was shown uptown in an important 1991 group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, prominent local critics dismissed it out of hand.

The 13-foot-tall memorial sculpture, fabricated with the icy precision of a weapon of war, is like a gargantuan steel Rolodex tipped on its side. It features a dozen movable copper pages etched with small representations of the names of some 3 million Vietnamese soldiers, civilians and refugees killed during the American episode of the decades-long Indochina war.

Societies usually build memorials to their own dead, not to their killed enemies. The chilling monument magnifies — and eviscerates — a certain imperial, bureaucratic mind-set that helped lead the United States into a cruel foreign adventure.

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Power is a central motif of Burden's work — the power of nations, social tribes and individuals; of science, nature and technology; of knowledge, experience and expectations.

And, not least of all, the power of art. "The Other Vietnam Memorial" is obdurate and unemotional, exuding an aloofness one doesn't expect from a memorializing sculpture. Its unsociability creates an unnerving vacuum.

Perhaps that's why local critics, largely unfamiliar with Burden's art, were disturbed. The flinty sculpture did not remind them of a memorial they knew well — Maya Lin's brilliant wall in Washington, D.C., a quiet and very different masterpiece of cathartic energy to which Burden obviously referred. His sculpture commemorates a hard fact of the modern American psyche, but emotional release is not its aim. Writers at the New York Times, Art in America and the Nation deemed the work a failure.

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It's not, of course. Power is a subject not immune from sentimental regard, and sentimentality is not Burden's stock in trade. His work can be difficult to wrap your head around, but the response to his memorial reflected the grip — the power — that familiarity and past experience commonly hold tight.

As I noted at the time, the sculpture offered further compelling evidence that Burden, now 67, is among our most significant artists. The retrospective, "Chris Burden: Extreme Measures," is the artist's first major museum show in New York. A marvelous show, composed from 16 works made since 1979 plus documentation of many more, it begins with an appropriately monumental gesture.

Burden has turned the entire building into a pedestal for two outdoor sculptures. The trio (museum included) implies an unexpected narrative.

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Pinned to the building façade like a colossal, 4,000-pound brooch is "Ghost Ship" (2005), a crewless, self-navigating sailboat. Using sophisticated GPS technology, the artist once sailed it more than 500 miles from a northern island in the United Kingdom to the coastal port of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Bringing a ship from the kingdom's most remote inhabited island to an old shipbuilding center was one oblique way to carry coals to Newcastle.

Standing on the roof are two "Quasi-Legal Skyscrapers," variations on Burden's 1991 deduction from a loophole (since closed) in L.A. building codes. The code suggested that the largest structure one could erect without a permit would be 400 square feet in area and 35 feet tall, so Burden built a schematic skyscraper. He described the wholly unexpected structure as "a modern-day log cabin."

At the New Museum, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the sculptures resonate in different ways. The "Ghost Ship" evokes the area's 17th century colonial Dutch origins as New Amsterdam, outpost of a mighty empire built from mastering the sea. The "Twin Quasi-Legal Skyscrapers" recollect the World Trade Center, once dominant on the nearby skyline, a modern symbol of the Empire State.

New Amsterdam and the twin towers are gone — imperial disappearances subtly commemorated by this sculptural tableau. An art museum is ostensibly a hedge against mortality, but the irregularly stacked cubes of the New Museum's building suddenly seem fragile and transient, similarly destined for inevitable oblivion. The present is vivified.

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