Chris Burden, the boundary-pushing performance artist and sculptor who died in California from cancer on 10 May, aged 69, is being remembered by the art world this week. “He often carried a briefcase like some kind of accountant,” says Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the New Museum, who worked with Burden on Extreme Measures, his first New York retrospective, which closed last year. “It always had me fantasising about the crazy drawings he must have kept inside that bag—plans to overthrow some government, schemes to develop a futuristic weapon, blueprints for an imaginary city.”
Gioni recalls how the unassuming artist’s rare mix of imagination and practical know-how enabled him to realise seemingly impossible projects. “The expression he used the most was ‘You know what I am saying?’, which I always found slightly ironic, considering that his work often seemed to come from another planet. So, no, we didn’t really know what he was saying, but that’s why his work seemed so important. It’s sad that he is no longer here to ask us if we can understand him, while he probably knew that ultimately we couldn’t.”
Burden’s dynamic public sculptures delighted audiences across the US. Twin Quasi-Legal Skyscrapers (2013), two 36-foot-tall towers created for the New Museum’s retrospective, will remain on the institution’s roof for several months in tribute. Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum and the curator of Extreme Measures, says Burden hoped the monumental installation “would alter the skyline of our neighborhood.”
Burden’s final work is due to go on show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next week (18 May-21 June). Ode to Santos Dumont (2015) is an almond-shaped, motorised airship named after the pioneering Brazilian aviator. The work, which took Burden 10 years to complete, flies in perfect circles overhead.
The artist is represented by Gagosian Gallery (B60).