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Frank Gehry on Chris Burden: 'gift of the gods,' plus art left unfinished

Frank Gehry discusses an uncompleted #ChrisBurden art project in Arles, France

Frank Gehry didn't know artist Chris Burden was sick. The two old friends were working on separate parts of Parc des Ateliers, a project in Arles, France, commissioned by Maja Hoffmann, an heir to pharmaceutical giant F. Hoffmann-La Roche and one of the art world's most influential patrons.

The massive cultural complex, estimated at more than $110 million and set near the city's historic core, will have contemporary art galleries, archives and artist housing and will be anchored by a soaring 170-foot twisted aluminum tower designed by Gehry.

Hoffman had commissioned Burden to create a project next to Gehry's building, the architect said Tuesday -- work that remained uncompleted as of Burden's death from cancer Sunday in Los Angeles.

"He had designed an extraordinarily beautiful watermill," Gehry said. "And something stopped it and we didn't know what. I suspect what stopped it was his health."

Gehry has known Burden since the artist was a student performing an art piece in a locker at UC Irvine in 1971.

"Over the years he’s startled us, shocked us, pleased us, excited us with his work," Gehry said. "Every time it’s a surprise, you never know where he's coming from. It's like he's hiding in the thicket and he pops out with something you just can't believe."

Gehry said Burden created handmade books featuring writing and photographs relating to his work when he was a young man. Gehry still has one of about a dozen.

"He wasn’t loquacious, but when he had something to say, he said it," Gehry recalled. "He was one of the sweetest human beings I've ever run across in the art world. You wouldn’t have known it from all the stuff about him and his projects, but he was very human and loving and easy to talk to."

When Burden first started catching the eye of the art world with his performance pieces, Gehry said, people might have considered it spectacle -- especially coming as it did from Hollywood. But people soon realized that they couldn't shake the impression the art made.

"It had a residual effect and created lasting and interesting questions about what the hell was he doing and what was he trying to say," Gehry said. "It lingers, and that’s one of the greatest things an artist can do -- leave you questioning -- that's the gift of the gods. A lot of us in the scene were pretty excited about it from the beginning."

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