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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although the technology required to build the sculptures is complex, the forms themselves are playful. The exhibition includes sculptures with elements built from a sports car, a motorcycle, a pickup truck, railroad bridges, two cannons, toy submarines and robots, a meteorite and enough real, solid gold bricks to make a $4-million hole in the Ft. Knox inventory. Boys' toys are a Burden staple, illuminating another dimension of power: Fun!
Speaking of which, the show also makes clear how Burden builds on a variety of artistic traditions. He amps them up to the "Extreme Measures" of the retrospective's title.
"Porsche With Meteorite" suspends an exquisitely restored sports car from one end of a steel seesaw, balanced at the other end by a massive chunk of suspended space debris. It's a heavy-metal Alexander Calder mobile, acknowledging a sculptural innovator of childlike play.
Each carefully detailed garment in a row of "L.A.P.D. Uniforms," made in the wake of the Rodney King beating and subsequent police trial, is just more than 7 feet tall, making explicit an outsized authoritarian presence. The uniforms hang on a wall edge-to-edge, like cut-out paper dolls. Although recalling Joseph Beuys' famous business suits made from felt, Burden's behemoth uniforms are drained of spiritual warmth.
The show's star is "The Big Wheel," a 1979 masterpiece finally getting its New York debut. Burden mounted an 8-foot, 3-ton, cast-iron flywheel, remnant of industrial America, on a stand constructed from massive timbers.
"The Big Wheel" is Marcel Duchamp's "Bicycle Wheel" on steroids. Duchamp had mounted an ordinary bicycle wheel on a plain kitchen stool, making a 1913 sculpture whose useless energy bumped up against its contemplative spin. The Duchamp responds to a flick of the wrist; the Burden is powered by a beat-up motorcycle, which the museum revs up a couple of times a day to spin the flywheel at fearsome speeds.
When Burden made it 34 years ago, Duchamp had become "the big wheel" of 20th century art, bumping aside Picasso and Matisse as generative kingpin for younger artists. Watching Burden's colossal flywheel spin today, and knowing that its muscular, hypnotizing energy will naturally dissipate over time, you see art's power travel in a quickly rising and slowly falling arc.
Calder. Beuys. Duchamp. Has Burden come to bury Caesar or to praise him?
That question hangs in the show as palpably as the meteorite or the self-supporting, cast-concrete blocks that make up his elegant rendition of "Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge." In "A Tale of Two Cities," a room-filling landscape built from 25 tons of sand and rock, scores of plants and 5,000 toys engaged in sandbox combat, the best and worst of times are "fun" and "war," creation and destruction. The duo can be perused through helpfully provided binoculars, but the optical instruments clarify little — except for the sculpture's gnawing ambiguities.
"The Big Wheel" was a critical pivot in Burden's career. Previously, he had gotten notice through a series of more than 50 performance art pieces — roughly one per month — characterized by cockeyed danger.
In the show, pristine notebooks chronicle how the artist was locked for five days in a small school locker at UC Irvine; had himself shot in the arm by a rifle-toting friend; jammed live electrical wires into his chest; crawled half-naked through broken glass; lay beneath a tarpaulin at the side of a parked car on La Cienega Boulevard; lived for three weeks on a high shelf in a New York gallery; was crucified through the palms of his hands on top of a Volkswagen Beetle; and more.
Most of the performances had no audience in attendance. Or, like the street tarp and high gallery shelf, they made you wonder whether the artist was actually present.
This is my body, the performances seem to say — albeit without a shred of self-aggrandizement. Since the performances were not enacted for an audience, they were not theater. They were, instead, a literal embodiment — turning abstractions from art and modern life into something corporeal.
That's what a sculpture does too.
The notebooks contain a few matter-of-fact photographs plus his performance descriptions, written in a concise, nonsensational manner. The descriptions are as simple and direct as "The Big Wheel" and the other sculptures he has made since.
The retrospective, ably organized by New Museum director Lisa Phillips, might not be able to accommodate as many monumental Burden sculptures as one might ideally like. But it beautifully articulates the evolving continuity of one of the most profound careers in contemporary American art.