From the mid-eighties through the late aughts, the main entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was through a hole in the postmodern fortress of the Art of the Americas Building on Wilshire Boulevard. In 2008, the museum opened a drastically reconfigured campus, designed by architect Renzo Piano, that shifted the center of gravity west to a new pavilion and walkway spanning the campus from Sixth Street to Wilshire Boulevard. To its west, a three-story red escalator rose to the top floor and main entrance of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum; to the east, a new staircase built to showcase Tony Smith's sky-scraping “Smoke” sculpture led up toward the old campus.
In the middle, the pavilion was supposed to be anchored with a replica steam locomotive hanging from a 160-foot crane and belching smoke, a still-to-this-day-theoretical work by Jeff Koons. Instead, LACMA head Michael Govan decided to erect an “open-air temple” on the site, made up of 202 vintage lampposts, painted a uniform gray, arranged symmetrically. Seven years later, it’s hard to imagine a Los Angeles before “Urban Light,” now the most famous work by Chris Burden.
But it’s also hard to imagine “Urban Light” before Instagram, which didn't launch until two and a half years after the installation was first lit in February 2008—the piece switched on a half-year after the first iPhone, a year after tumblr, and in the thick of flickr popularity, and by early 2009 it was already so well-documented that LACMA released an entire book of photos collected from submissions.
Before “Urban Light,” Burden's most famous work was 1971’s “Shoot,” for which he stood in a gallery in Santa Ana and let a friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle from 15 feet away. In an appreciation for Burden published yesterday, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz writes that the piece turned the artist’s body into “a living sculpture come to dangerous life in the blink of an eye, sacrificing for his work while enacting a complex sadomasochism of love, hate, desire, and aggression.” Burden’s early art was full of violence, mostly self-directed; he made the agony of artistic creation literal, and public.
For his 1971 graduate thesis at UC Irvine, Burden locked himself in a locker for five days, with water in the locker above and an empty bottle in the one below. For 1972’s “Deadman,” he lay covered in canvas behind the wheels of a car on La Cienega Boulevard (he was arrested for it). For 1974’s “Trans-fixed,” he was a crucified on a Volkswagen in a Venice garage. For a video called “Through the Night Softly,” which he paid to have broadcast as a television commercial, he crawled over broken glass down Main Street in Downtown LA. In 1974, for “Doomed,” he lay underneath a sheet of glass for 45 hours, until a museum guard brought him water.
But he also directed violence outward, in works about his control as an artist. In 1973’s “747,” he fired a pistol at a passenger jet from a beach near LAX, “a futile act of aggression,” as Complex describes it. In 1972’s “TV Hijack,” he brought his own camera crew to a television interview, then held his interviewer hostage with a small knife to her neck, live on Irvine’s Channel 3. Then he destroyed the show’s recordings of the events and gave them his crew’s.
In 1978, Burden became a professor at UCLA, just around the time he was beginning to move away from conceptual art toward more traditional sculptures, which were usually obsessed by speed and mechanical systems (he’d taken art and physics classes as an undergrad at Pomona, in the hopes of becoming an architect). 1979’s “Big Wheel” is an enormous iron wheel set in motion by the back wheel of a revving motorcycle and left to spin until it runs out of energy. (The piece now belongs to LA’s MOCA.)
For “SAMSON” in 1985, he connected two beams to a huge jack, stuck the beams between two walls, and connected the jack to a turnstile, so that every person who passed through to visit the work would imperceptibly weaken the walls of the gallery. In 1986, he dug down to the beams of what is now the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, for “Exposing the Foundations of the Museum.” In 1993, the year after the LA Riots, he made “LAPD Uniforms,” a set of oversized LAPD uniforms with handcuffs, handguns, and badges, installed like paper dolls connected at the wrists.
And in December 2000, Burden found his first lampposts at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. A 2008 LA Times article says he’d already “been eyeing reproductions at Home Depot,” so he pulled out his checkbook on the spot and paid $800 a piece for two iron lampposts. With that, he discovered a new subculture of “fanatical collectors who care deeply about cast iron.” Once he’d collected half a dozen, he figured he’d use them in his art. He met lighting experts who helped him and his workers refurbish the lamps and he painted them all gray and began to think of them grouped "in minimal arrangements." Eventually he had more than a hundred. In 2003, he wanted to install a “forest of lamps” in the Gagosian Gallery in New York, “bringing LA light and culture to New York.”
That piece was never completed, so Burden began to install the lamps in rows around the exterior of his studio in Topanga. By then he'd been teaching at UCLA for more than 25 years and his wife, the sculptor Nancy Rubins, had been there nearly as long. At the end of the fall semester in late 2004, for the final project in a performance art class, a graduate student loaded a gun with a single bullet, spun the chamber, aimed it at his own head, and pulled the trigger. The gun did not fire. The student left the room. The audience (fellow seminar members) heard a shot.
No one was hurt and the student claimed the gun wasn’t functional, but Burden and Rubins—reportedly already unhappy about “budget cutbacks and bureaucratic issues,” according to the LA Times—were outraged that the student was allowed to stay in school as the university investigated the matter. “By not taking immediate action against the student who brought a gun to campus, and who intimidated his fellow students by playing Russian roulette in their presence, the university has created a hostile and violent work environment,” they wrote in an email to the New York Times at the time. They both submitted retirement papers on December 20, 2004.
Meanwhile, Burden worked on his lamps, the hundreds that had come from Downtown LA (“the tallest and most ornate”), Anaheim, Glendale, Hollywood, and Portland. He started switching them on at night, and inviting people up to Topanga to see them. One visitor was Stephanie Barron, a senior curator at LACMA; in early 2006, when Govan became the museum’s director, she suggested he go up to see the lights—he told the LAT in 2008:
It was twilight, and the lights were lit, and I didn’t even have to get up the drive. It was so obvious. … On many levels it was clear that it was perfect for LACMA. It had architectonic scale, it would draw people into the campus, it would give us a sense of place. Govan showed the piece to Andrew Gordon, a partner at Goldman Sachs and now a co-chair of LACMA’s board, who agreed to buy an installation of 150 lampposts through his Gordon Family Foundation, though he and his wife “had not been big 'contemporary art participants.’
Once Burden got to work on the piece, though, he realized he would need more like 202 lamps to really make it a work.
So that’s how 202 ornate gray lampposts, mostly from around Los Angeles, erected in the 1920s and ’30s, reaching up to 20 or 30 feet, ended up arranged in a grid and stuck in concrete on Wilshire Boulevard on February 7, 2008, when “Urban Light” was officially switched on for the first time (there’d been a test run). The first portrait taken at the lights that we can find dates to February 12.
“Urban Light” was funded by investment banking money and sits in the BP Grand Entrance (sponsored by the global energy company!), but that’s not too hard to overlook in a city whose greatest landmark of the 20th century is two-thirds of an advertisement for a real estate development. As Burden said in 2011, “New York has plenty of landmarks, but here the field is wide open—it’s easy hunting.”
By that year, LACMA’s lamps were clogging Instagram and flickr and had appeared in a Vanity Fair photoshoot, a Guinness commercial, and an Ivan Reitman movie (No Strings Attached). Govan told the LAT at the time that he didn’t see a disconnect between Burden’s violent conceptual pieces and the lovable “Urban Light”: “His early work was also about the responsibility of the artist to his viewer and a sense of public or civic engagement.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times got it typically and hilariously wrong in 2009, writing that it had “become a leading example of a type of public art growing more prominent in Los Angeles: art you don’t have to leave the comfort of your convertible to experience.” The toddlers weaving between posts, the newlyweds clinging to them, the teenaged friends huddled together between a pair, and the cameras pointed at them all have a different interpretation.
Burden told Curbed in 2012 that “Urban Light” is exactly about human relationships to the places we’ve built for ourselves: the posts “represent human scale,” unlike the super-tall streetlamps we have today, and they’re “more ornate than they need to be,” small sculptures that dotted the streets as, well, advertisements for real estate developments.
“I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years,” Burden told the LAT in 2008, “and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city.” Piano turned the museum toward the city, but Burden gave it a pulsing heart, drawing people into his lamppost temple—which he said in 2011 “evokes the kind of awe we are preprogrammed by the history of Western architecture to feel when we walk through classical buildings with multiple colonnades”—and sending them out again to circulate up the BCAM escalator, down BCAM’s room-sized Barbara Kruger elevator, through the black web of “Smoke” and up the stairs to the old LACMA and the Japanese Pavilion, or just straight back to Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” where a 340-ton boulder, trucked in in a great spectacle from a Riverside quarry in 2012, sits on top of a long, walk-through trench cut into the sandy landscape.
“Boulder holding” photo ops are still a thing, but people don't love “Levitated Mass” the way they love “Urban Light,” probably exactly because Heizer’s piece is such a perfect counterbalance to Burden’s elaborately crafted, uplifting lights: It’s a reminder that human civilization has no claims to either monuments or history.