Excerpt from interview with Glenn Phillips, May 18, 2010
Glenn Phillips How did you first visit Pomona, and how did you decide to go to school there?
Chris Burden I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of high school in La Jolla [California] at the Scripps Oceanography Institute. I got a tiny National Science Foundation grant and took a Greyhound bus across the country. But when I was in La Jolla, I didn’t link up with the scientists. I spent most of my time there developing and printing my art photos.
California was an eye-opener for me. I had my first taco, and I learned how to drive a motorcycle. The room I rented was right on La Jolla Shores beach, and the surfers wanted a place to store their surfboards. Their dads were in the air force and had brought back Honda motorcycles. Hondas hadn’t been imported here yet. So the deal with these surfer guys was that if I let them store their surfboards in my room, then they’d let me teach myself how to drive their motorcycles.
I went to a prep school in Cambridge, and we were expected to have college interviews. On the way home, I drove back east with a couple of friends. Pomona College is on Route 66, so I ended up having an interview at Pomona, and subsequently ended up going there.
I started at Pomona as a pre-architecture student. That meant you signed up with the art department. You took art courses, physics, and advanced algebra concurrently. Well, the physics and algebra courses, especially the physics courses, were really hard at Pomona. So right away I started drifting towards art, because you’d have to spend forty hours a week on the math. It didn’t seem interesting at all, and a lot of the physics was over my head. I really liked making things.
One summer, I think the second summer, I went back and worked in an architectural office, called Cambridge Seven Associates. At the time, it looked like you had to be fifty-five years old and a principal in the architectural firm before you got to make any decisions. I was the lowest of the gofers. There were ex-Harvard graduate students from the architectural program on the lower levels of the building, drawing toilets and blueprints, and I was the gofer of the gofers, organizing magazines in the sub-sub-basement. The principals were all on the top floor, so the hierarchy of this company was physically structured by the building. And I just went, “Man, I cannot go to college for four years, and then do four years of graduate school, and then be sitting, working for somebody, drawing toilet bowls and blueprints, in the hopes that when I’m fifty-five, I’ll be able to design a building!”
So I came back to college, and it was at that point that I decided to become a sculptor. I’ll never forget going down and telling the chairman of the art department, Nick Cikovsky, that I didn’t want to be a pre-architecture student anymore. I wanted to become an artist, and specifically I wanted to become a sculptor. And he said to me, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s bad enough to be a painter, but a sculptor, you’re just committing financial suicide.” He used those very words: “financial suicide.” And I went, “Huh, well, we’ll see about that.”
GP You first studied sculpture at Pomona with John Mason. What was he like as a teacher?
CB John was a good teacher. This is going to sound kind of weird, but he would go in his office, and he was super grumpy and kind of intimidating for everybody to approach. The door would be open, and he would just sit there. And even as a student, I realized what the deal was—he didn’t want to be there. He was doing time. Drive out from East L.A. twice a week, sit in the goddamn office from one to five, and he’s done his job, right? If students want to come in and ask questions, they can. But I realized, he’s an artist, you know, he doesn’t want to be here! So in a way I kind of empathized with him.
GP You still have one of the sculptures you made in John’s class.
CB I was having a debate with John about what constituted art. Could a design object be art? Could something that was utilitarian also be sculpture? John said no. We were talking about making some fiberglass luggage. Well, couldn’t that be art? So I wanted to make this sculpture, this shape, which is sort of a three-sided Henry Moore. It was supposed to actually be a knife. On the sharp side, I was going to embed a razor, or a razor strip, so that it could be used as a chopper, a rocking chopper. I spent a lot of time making that thing, trying to get the perfect shape. I thought I could cast it solid. John didn’t say a thing. I finally finish the whole thing—it’s perfect—and then John says, “Oh, well you can’t cast that as a solid. It has to have a core, and you have to cut it in half.” Oh, crap. I had to start over. But you learn when you make a big mistake. John was a good teacher in that sense.
Ultimately, I never inserted the razor. By the time I got it done, it had been so much work, I just let it go as what it was, a beautiful shape.