L.A.'s Iconic Installation 'Urban Light' by Chris Burden '69 Turns 10

Urban Light, LACMA, Chris Burden, Sculpture, Artwork

The sun had set on another warm winter weekend, and young people streamed out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at closing time.

They didn’t leave, though, instead lingering on the plaza, posing and playing among the 202 towering lampposts of "Urban Light," the sculpture by the late Chris Burden ’69 that has become an L.A. icon since it was first illuminated 10 years ago this month.

“It’s like moths, going to the light,” says Sofia Yáñez, a graphic designer from Tijuana who had traveled to L.A. to visit the museum on one of its occasional free days with Cecilio Lanz, a digital graphic designer and video producer.

All around, people with cell phones or cameras, couples and families with children, posed and climbed and dangled from the lampposts like Gene Kelly, minus the rain.

“When you see the art and you make the pictures, you become part of the art,” Yáñez says. “I think that’s why this is so popular, because usually you are not able to touch the art. You don’t just feel this. You interact with it, to give it your own meaning. You become part of the piece.”

Visiting the museum usually costs $25 for adults and $21 for students, but "Urban Light" is always free, and it is always open – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Perhaps that is part of why it has become one of the most Instagrammed spots in one of the most Instagrammed cities in the world, with hundreds of thousands of posts with such hashtags as #urbanlight, #urbanlights and #lacmalights. The allure of the streetlamps has helped LACMA become the fourth-most geotagged museum in the world in 2016. This year, the museum celebrated the beloved artwork by handing out special-edition temporary tattoos on a free-admission day in January and will have a special “Urban Light” 10th anniversary giveaway on social media.

Burden at Pomona

Burden’s work is visible on the Pomona College campus as well, in the yellow-and-black untitled sculpture displayed in the Lyon Garden outside the Pomona College Museum of Art. The six-foot aluminum-and-lacquer cube is meant to be walked around, not touched, and the perspective of openings or doorways to nowhere shifts as one circles it.

The current sculpture – which will move across the street for the projected opening of the new museum in 2020 – is a reproduction overseen by Burden in 2011, four years before his death at 69. Burden designed the original as a student in 1967, placing the oil-on-plywood piece on Marston Quad after sculptor David Gray, a member of the art faculty, gave away sheets of plywood.

“It’s all my free plywood! I get to make something huge!” Burden remembered in an interview published in 2011 for the retrospective exhibition, “It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-73,” at the Pomona College Museum of Art. “There was a learning curve there, too,” Burden recalled. “I wasn’t told that plywood shrinks and expands. Well, it wasn’t steel or aluminum, so basically as the weather changed, all the stuff just cracked. In hindsight, that was okay. How do you learn? You learn by getting lost.”

Rebecca McGrew ’85, senior curator at the Pomona College Museum of Art, recalls visiting Burden at his Topanga Canyon studio and seeing the vintage street lamps he collected that would later become “Urban Light.”

“I felt incredibly honored to know Chris and was very sad that he died so prematurely,” McGrew says, noting that when Burden arrived at Pomona, he was interested in architecture but Pomona didn’t offer an architecture major, so he studied art, math and physics. “What’s interesting to me is how that thread of his interest in architecture is evident from his time at Pomona, runs through much of his work, and you can see it manifested in 'Urban Light,' one of his last artworks,” McGrew says.

Burden’s early career included performance art and such jolting works as "Shoot," a 1971 piece in which he was videotaped as a friend shot him in the arm with a rifle, and "Match Piece," a 1972 performance at the Pomona College Museum of Art in which he shot lit “match rockets” at a nude woman, his first wife. Later, he circled back to architecture, constructing Erector-set skyscrapers, the freeway-inspired "Metropolis II" that is on exhibit at LACMA, and steel-beam sculptures. But he is immortalized by the city’s streetlamp temple on Wilshire Boulevard.

A Legacy of Light

“As Chris Burden liked to say, ‘They were public art before I made them public art,’” recalled Michael Govan, LACMA director and CEO, in a video the museum produced around the time the installation was closed for renovation in 2016. (In addition to the posts being repainted, all 309 incandescent bulbs are being converted to LEDs, courtesy of a gift by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.) Govan had been seeking art to define the once-empty museum plaza when Stephanie Barron, a LACMA senior curator, told him, “You should go see what Chris Burden is doing.”

As soon as Govan walked toward Burden’s studio and saw the lights, he recalled, “I knew.”

The lamps are mostly from different parts of the L.A. area dating to the 1920s and 30s, with the tallest known as “Broadway Roses” for their distinctive cast-iron rose detailing and their former location downtown. From the L.A. area’s many cities came one unifying piece of art for the LACMA expansion designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

“Renzo Piano had envisioned this piazza space, and someone argued, well, does Los Angeles really need piazza spaces?” says Pomona’s McGrew. “In Los Angeles, instead, we need places that activate the boulevard, and activate our public spaces. Chris Burden’s 'Urban Light' couldn’t be more perfect as a symbol for illuminating Los Angeles.”

It is also perfect for Instagram, even though the app didn’t launch until two years after the LACMA lights.

“I guess you could say in the age of social media, it’s become a place you have to take a photo,” says Christina Scholze, who was busily snapping cell phone photos with Jaine Park, a friend who lives near her in the San Fernando Valley.

“It’s like leaving your footprint here,” Park says.