Chris Burden, Extreme Measures, New Museum

Among my first stops during this year’s New York trip was the New Museum, which is currently featuring a museum-wide exhibition of works by Chris Burden.

His work spans several decades and includes sculpture, performances and pieces that blur the boundary between the two. While the exhibition officially focuses on “weights and measures, boundaries and constraints”, the theme that seem to most unify all the pieces was “play”. Certainly, he has access to toys on larger scale than most of us could only dream of as kids who loved building sets. This was most apparent in his series of bridges, made from custom erector sets and other materials.

20131123-IMG_9390

Similar principles are at work in his large-scale sculptures, which use metal and found material and also included a sense of motion. The Big Wheel is indeed a huge wheel constructed from weathered metal.

20131123-IMG_9382

It is designed to spin freely, and visitors are treated to a twice-a-day “performance” of the piece where a motorcycle is used to start the wheel spinning. You can see a bit of this in the following video:

A nearby sculpture address the absence of motion with a perfectly balanced Porsche and meteorite. I am curious as to how Burden obtained such a large meteorite to use in this piece.

20131123-IMG_9375

Motion is taken to another extreme in an outdoor piece (shown as video documentation in the exhibition) where large steel beams are dropped into a pool of wet cement. As the positions, angles, are unpredictable, the result is a rather chaotic jumble of vertical steel spires. The video itself is quite interesting with the motion of the cement in response to the the dropping beams.

Perhaps the element of play is most apparent (and most poignant) in A Tale of Two Cities. Burden constructs a tableaux of two city-states at war using sand, plants and a large array of toys.

20131123-IMG_9392

Some of these toys (in particular, a few of the space-themed toys) were familiar from my own childhood. And certainly we sometimes created battles with them. But those fantasies never touched on the realities of war, and somehow Burden made that very apparent in this piece. Perhaps it was the presence of bullets among the toys that made it seem like something very, very bad could come of this.

The exhibition also includes other conceptual pieces, as well as some examples of Burden’s early video work, which was interesting precisely because it seems dated.

Chris B├╝rden: Extreme Measures will be on display at the New Museum through January 12, 2014.

Ellsworth Kelly and Metropolis II at LACMA

While in southern California for NAMM last month, I made a point of stopping at the LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The museum and the trip to get there through downtown LA were the perfect coda to the overload of NAMM. And by chance, it was the opening day for a retrospective exhibit of works by Ellsworth Kelly.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

I am quite familiar with Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings through SFMOMA (see my review of the Fisher Collection show from 2010 which featured several large pieces). His large panels in single colors with rectangular or curvilinear shapes are quite iconic, as are his grids of colored squares. But in LACMA’s comprehensive exhibition, which focused on Kelly’s printmaking along with some drawings and paintings, I was exposed to different and unexpected directions in his work. There was a room of minimalist panels, but all in black and white instead of his usual bright colors. There were also pieces with organic and complex patterns based on plants and rivers. In between there were brightly colored abstract works that seem to bridge the gap between the organic and the minimalist.

An example of the familiar and unfamiliar in Kelly’s work appears in the first gallery. Around the corner from a large set of four solid shapes is a piece with a similar curvilinear shape but a rougher and more natural looking texture.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next section featured Kelly’s studies in abstraction, influenced from his time in Paris in the 1950s. Here were see experiments with different pairs of colors on the same shape, with simple titles such as Orange over Blue (Orange sur Bleu). The shapes, rounded rectangles and arrows, seem manually cut and have the imperfections of natural (or at least handmade) forms. But through the medium of printing with different colors, they become more mechanized.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next room was the most surprising. All the works here were in black and white, something which I had not associated with Kelly up until this moment. One wall featured the same curvilinear or angular shapes as his more colorful abstract works, but in monochrome they are far more severe. But this is good thing. In monochrome, he plays with contrasts and positive and negative space with the shapes without the distraction of color.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

But even more unexpected were his monochrome prints based on natural forms, which were in this same room. He did a series of lithographs of botanical forms in the late 1960s that featured simple line drawings that capture the imperfections of natural subjects. I would never have guessed these pieces were his without the labels. More recently, he did a series of large monochrome prints based on the texture of the moving water in the some of the world’s most famous rivers.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

So how does one fit these in the context of Kelly’s more colorful abstractions? Certainly, the black fields can be seen as simply another color study; and the rivers can be seen as abstract but complex textures informed by nature. The textures of the rivers can be seen reflected in abstract piece Red Curve (State I) from the first room of the exhibit. The botanical pieces are the ones that are the most difficult to place in context aesthetically, the artist himself states that “the drawings from plant life seem to be a bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the paintings of 1949 that are the bases for all my later work.” It is possible to see the repeated curving shapes in his abstract work as inspired by plant forms.

The final room featured more of the style that I most associated with Kelly: angular solid fields and color grids.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

It was in this last room that another museum visitor came up to me and asked, “Why is this good? What do you see in it?” I’m sure I was gazing rather intently at various pieces which probably signaled to her that I had a genuine interest in this work. I did my best to try and answer her question, which seemed to be as much about minimalist artist general as Ellsworth Kelly in particular. For me, good abstract and minimalist art captures my attention and “arrests the mind” (with apologies to James Joyce). Additionally, all art and perception of art has context. There was the context of each piece, even if a single-color panel, within the greater body of work on display. There was context of my experience, and joy in looking at these works in the quiet gallery, the calming effect. There is also the execution, choosing the right colors and the right proportions for shape and size of each piece, that Kelly was able to do consistently. I’m not sure the woman was particularly satisfied with my answers. She walked away saying “I guess I just don’t understand why this belongs in a museum.” I did my best – I do truly want to share the enjoyment of modern art, and especially abstract art, with others, which is why I write articles like this.


Also on view at LACMA was Metropolis II, large kinetic installation by Chris Burden. It features stacks of highways weaving their way among densely packed buildings. A continuous stream of cars speed along the highways, some of which are six lanes across. The result is a frenetic pulsating vision of a future city, or an imagining of the pace and anxiety of a contemporary city. This piece is best experienced in motion, and you see a bit of it in this video:

This piece of course appealed to me as a person who loves cities and the urban landscape and who has a fascination with the patterns of roads and highways. Looking from above, the traffic is simply a current like moving water and provides none of the stress that one experiences on actual city streets. I can also admire the amount of work that must go into making something like this. The toylike scale of the installation also gives it a playful quality. It was just fun to experience.

Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings will be on display through April 22, and Metropolis II is ongoing. Both are worth seeing if you are in Los Angeles.