Chris Burden dies at 69: artist’s light sculpture at LACMA is symbol of L.A.

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Chris Burden created “Urban Light,” a sculpture in front of the entryway to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that consists of genuine street lamps from Los Angeles’ past. He is pictured with the piece in 2008. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

 

When he had himself shot in the arm for a performance piece at a Santa Ana gallery, Chris Burden became fleetingly famous. But years later, when he created such outsized, imagination-charged works as “Urban Light,” the ranks of vintage lampposts tightly arrayed outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he left a longer-lasting legacy.

Burden, the protean Conceptual artist who rose from doing controversial performances in the 1970s to become one of the most compelling and widely admired sculptors of his generation, died Sunday at his home in Topanga Canyon. He was 69.

Paul Schimmel, a close friend of the artist and the former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art who had organized Burden’s first retrospective exhibition in 1988, said the cause was malignant melanoma. Burden was diagnosed 18 months ago, Schimmel said, but kept the information private except for a few family members and friends.

Burden’s final sculpture, a lyrical homage to Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian aviator who flew the first practical dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in a momentous 1901 flight, will be shown for a month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a special exhibition beginning May 18.

LACMA’s entry plaza is home to “Urban Light,” Burden’s sculpture in the form of a Classical Greek temple unexpectedly composed of 202 restored, antique cast-iron street lamps. Installed in 2008, it rapidly became something of an L.A. symbol.

“Chris’ work combines the raw truth of our reality and an optimism of what humans can make and do,” said LACMA director Michael Govan. With “Urban Light,” he said, Burden told him that he “wanted to put the miracle back in the Miracle Mile.”

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