2 Artists Quit UCLA Over Gun Incident

Times Staff Writer

Internationally known artists Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins have retired abruptly from their longtime professorships at UCLA in part because the university refused to suspend a graduate student who used a gun during a classroom performance art piece, a spokeswoman for the artists said Friday.

“They feel this was sort of domestic terrorism. There should have been more outrage and a firmer response,” said Sarah Watson, a director at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, which represents Burden and Rubins. “People feared for their lives.”

Neither Burden nor Rubins would comment when contacted by The Times. They submitted their retirement paperwork Dec. 20, over the school’s winter break.

The handgun incident occurred Nov. 29 at UCLA’s graduate art studio annex in Culver City.


The brief performance involved a simulation of Russian roulette, in which the student appeared before the class holding a handgun, put in what appeared to be a bullet, spun the cylinder, then pointed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger, according to one student’s account that was confirmed by law enforcement sources. The weapon didn’t fire. The student quickly left the room, then the audience heard a shot from outside. What ensued is not clear, but police said no one was hurt.

The incident prompted investigations by university police and the dean of students’ office into whether the student violated criminal law or student conduct codes. There is some confusion over whether the gun was real.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office determined Friday that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal misdemeanor charges, spokeswoman Jane Robison said.

Lawrence Lokman, UCLA’s assistant vice chancellor for communication, said the dean of students’ office was continuing to investigate whether university rules against weapon possession were violated, which could lead to disciplinary action. University officials said no action had been taken and that the student was continuing his studies.

Lokman said students can be suspended immediately, without the usual process of hearings and appeals, if the dean of students’ office considers them a safety threat to themselves or others. In this case, he said, after an assessment by “qualified psychological experts,” the dean’s office determined that suspension was not warranted. Watson, however, said Burden and Rubins felt that the student should have been suspended while the investigations were continuing.

Burden made his name in the early 1970s with influential and controversial performance art. In his best-known piece, “Shoot,” performed in a Santa Ana gallery while he was a graduate student at UC Irvine, Burden had an assistant stand 15 feet away and shoot him in the upper arm with a .22-caliber rifle.

Watson said Burden’s work was controlled and that the audiences never felt in jeopardy. The UCLA case is different, she said, because it was a surprise action and “there was genuine fear.”

Even before the incident, Watson said, Burden and Rubins were unhappy at UCLA because of budget cutbacks and bureaucratic issues that “got in the way of them adequately running an art department.” Burden headed the new genres program, which includes performance, installation and video and digital art; Rubins oversaw sculpture instruction. What they perceived as university officials’ lack of urgency about the handgun incident, Watson said, “was sort of the last straw.”

Burden, 58, and Rubins, 52, are married. He had taught at UCLA since 1978, and she since 1982. Burden stopped doing performance art in the late 1970s and transitioned to sculpture, often making pieces that reflect on political issues or creating erector-set-like works inspired by the world of civil engineering.

Rubins is known for huge assemblage works made from parts of scrapped vehicles and appliances, including a sculpture of steel wire and old airplane parts that dominates an outdoor plaza at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles.

Burden, whose annual salary was $128,300, and Rubins, who earned $88,300 per year, both were scheduled to teach courses and advise master’s degree candidates during the current winter quarter and coming spring quarter -- duties Carolyn Campbell, a spokeswoman for the School of the Arts and Architecture, said are being assumed by other faculty members.

University officials provided no details about the handgun performance, which took place at the Warner Building, a warehouse-like structure where graduate art students have studios.

The student who did the performance is Joseph Deutch, 25, according to the campus police log entry on the case. Campus police said that in the course of the investigation, Deutch handed over a gun that was not a real firearm. Robison, the district attorney’s spokeswoman, said there was “insufficient evidence to show a gun was discharged or any bullet fired.”

Barbara Drucker, who chairs the art department, and Ron Athey, a visiting instructor who taught the course and was present during the performance, conducted a meeting at the Warner Building a week after the incident to dispel rumors and allow students to air any concerns, as well as to emphasize rules against possessing weapons on university property, a university spokeswoman said. Athey, known for piercing and cutting his body as a form of performance, did not return calls.

A graduate student who attended the meeting said a few students expressed safety concerns but more were alarmed that the university, if it disciplined the artist, would be cracking down on freedom of expression.

UCLA has 11 remaining tenured art professors. Those contacted declined to comment about their colleagues’ retirement; others did not return calls or referred them to university spokespeople.

Christopher Waterman, dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture, said Friday that he didn’t foresee the art department losing stature despite the abrupt loss of professors he described as “world-renowned artists, great creative forces.”

“Change is a natural thing, and we’re looking forward to conversations” about strategy for shaping the department’s future in the search to fill the two vacant professorships, he said.