"'Urban Light' artist Chris Burden's sculpture brightens Pomona College," by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” a street lamp assemblage outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is an improbably popular spot for visitor photo ops and selfies.
Inside LACMA, his 2012 kinetic sculpture “Metropolis II” is also wildly popular: Modeled on a modern city, it’s got 1,100 tiny vehicles rushing along on HO-scale tracks in and around a network of buildings.
A less-heralded piece by Burden, who died Sunday at age 69 of malignant melanoma, stands on the campus of his alma mater, Pomona College.
• VIDEO: A tour of “Untitled Sculpture”
“Untitled Sculpture” is a yellow and black sculpture in the Lyon Garden that may remind you of an oversized Rubik’s Cube (although Burden’s piece predates the toy).
Nobody’s taking selfies with “Untitled,” at least not during two recent visits, but his connection to Claremont is worth talking about.
Burden was good at getting people talking. Some of his early performance works were dangerous or spectacular: He was shot in the arm (“Shoot”), confined in a school locker (“Five Day Locker Piece”), electrocuted (“Doorway to Heaven”), crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle (“Trans-fixed”) and, perhaps the ultimate horror, advertised on TV (“4 TV Ads”).
That provocation seems a long way from 2008’s “Urban Light,” which quickly became a city landmark on the order of the Hollywood sign. Burden collected vintage street lamps, restored them to working order, painted them gun-metal gray and clustered them in a thicket on Wilshire Boulevard. His intent was to bring back a sense of miracle to the Miracle Mile, and if you’ve seen “Urban Light,” and how people interact with it, you’d have to say he succeeded.
“Untitled Sculpture,” by contrast, was his first large-scale artwork. It was made twice.
The first version came in 1967 when he was a Pomona College junior and found he had access to 40 or 50 sheets of plywood brought to class by his art teacher.
As Burden explained in a 2010 interview with the college’s Glenn Phillips: “Nobody else is using it. ... I get to make something huge!”
He spent months building “Untitled Sculpture” and painting it, layer upon layer — you’d think this would have given him plenty of time to think of a title — before mounting it on Marston Quad for a week.
Because the neophyte artist hadn’t realized that plywood would warp, the original piece was long ago thrown away. But when the college was preparing “It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973,” a 2011-12 exhibit tying in to the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, Burden remembered the long-ago piece and suggested recreating it to represent his work.
Burden made new drawings and was closely involved in its fabrication, according to Rebecca McGrew, senior curator of the Pomona College Museum of Art and co-curator, with Phillips, of the exhibit.
“It’s exactly the same size, exactly the same shape and almost exactly the same colors,” McGrew told me Monday. But this time it’s in aluminum, not wood.
A Massachusetts native, Burden studied at Pomona from 1965 to 1969, starting with architecture but transitioning to sculpture when the algebra and physics coursework proved over his head. Besides, he liked physically making things.
And he liked Claremont, where he could work outdoors year-round and ride his motorcycle to Mount Baldy. Its conservatism surprised him, though: When the faculty suggested liberalizing the rules about opposite-sex dorm visits, the student body vetoed it. “What is this place?” Burden recalled wondering.
Hey, Claremont didn’t allow alcohol sales until 1968, so that’s where he was.
And that’s where I was on Sunday afternoon when I learned via Twitter that Burden had died. I immediately headed on foot for Lyon Garden to take a fresh look at “Untitled Sculpture.
To see this colorful object, 6 feet wide, tall and deep, resting on the grass as you round the bend into a college courtyard is startling and comical.
Is this really here? Did God drop it?
“Untitled Sculpture” doesn’t hold your interest like “Urban Light” or “Metropolis II,” but as you walk around it, you see it’s not strictly a cube: Two segments are indented, and one segment extends on the opposite side.
In the interview, Burden said his understanding of how sculpture was different than two-dimensional art began with this piece and led to his interest in performance art.
“In order to understand it, you need to see it from all sides. You can’t look at it from one side and understand what you’re looking at,” Burden said. “That became the basis for performance, actually, because how do you get the essence of sculpture? It’s about body movement, right? Well, it’s about performance. Just get rid of the sculpture, and try to distill it down to the essence.”
The sculpture stands right outside the college art museum, visible to whatever staffer is working the front desk — and occasionally giving them heartburn.
“People are always wanting to stand in the cubby or climb up. The paint scratches easily. It makes us bite our nails, because we want everything to remain perfect,” McGrew said with a chuckle. “That didn’t bother Chris at all. It’s there, he wants people to engage with it.”
Feel free to take a selfie.