On Rachel Rosenthal and Chris Burden

Hosted by

It was a dark week as we learned of the deaths of two important L.A.-based artists, Rachel Rosenthal, 88, and Chris Burden, 69.

Image Not Available

Rosenthal was an eccentric presence, easily spotted at art events with her shaved head, for many years carrying with her a pet rat called Tatti Wattles. But she was more than a character and overcame rough beginnings. Born in Paris to Russian parents, she studied theater in New York and came to Los Angeles in 1955. Influenced by Antonin Artaud, she founded Instant Theater, using drama and dance techniques based on improvisation. Artists of the period such as George Herms and Lee Mullican were happily involved. In the 1970's, she became an early supporter of the LA Feminist movement and evolved as an influential performance artist. She also formed her own company. As an important teacher and inspiration, she was named a "living cultural treasure" by the city of LA in 2000.

Image Not Available
Chris Burden
Courtesy of the Chris Burden Studio and Gagosian Gallery
Photo: Josh White/JWPictures.com

A little less than two weeks ago, a handful of critics, curators and others were invited by Gagosian Gallery to see the performance of Chris Burden's Ode to Santos Dumont. It was held in an airplane hanger in Camarillo but utterly worth effort as we were able to see the artist's latest invention, a dirigible powered by small motor. (As it turns out, the very word comes from the French diriger, "to steer.") Scarcely a word was spoken as the ship floated along in a large circle. It was mesmerizing and in that quiet time, I thought of the many ways that Burden had managed to harness technological innovation to the trajectories, vagaries and personalities of history. In this case, he was presenting the wealthy Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont who was determined to change the orientation of a hot air balloon so that it moved horizontally rather than vertically to fly around the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1901. (Cartier designed the Santos wristwatch at his request, as he found it clumsy to always refer to a pocket watch.) Burden was not on hand but it turned out to be his farewell performance, having lost his 18-month long battle with melanoma.

Image Not Available
Chris Burden, "Ode to Santos Dumont"

As critics and historians bemoan the possibility of true originality in contemporary art, it is worth remembering Burden who has left a legacy of unchallengeable brilliance. His early interest in architecture while a student at Pomona College colored his ambitions, even in his earliest performance art. Where does a person stand in a society and why? What is our relationship to history and the ways it is shaped by technology? What is our moral responsibility? Burden was exceptional in that his responses to these questions were always indirect, oblique, intellectual and unexpected, often provoking other questions. There was absolutely no one else operating in his sphere and there is no expressing how great his loss is felt.

Image Not Available
Chris Burden, "Urban Light"

To see a video of the last performance, click here. Or you can see for yourself as of Monday when the piece is installed at LACMA for four weeks.