This week Los Angeles lost two of the world’s most celebrated and pioneering performance artists. Rachel Rosenthal and Chris Burden both revolutionised performance art in their own, and greatly differing, ways. As L.A. mourns it is important to remember the work of these two remarkable artists.
At the age of 88 Rosenthal died leaving behind a rich performance legacy. Born into a wealthy Russian Jewish family in Paris in 1926, she fled France with her family after the outbreak of World War II. After living for periods in Portugal and Brazil the family eventually settled in New York where Rosenthal went on to study theatre. Initially a dancer, Rosenthal fell into the New York avant garde scene of the 1950s and became close friends with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and John Cage, who greatly influenced her and introduced her to Zen Buddhism. In 1955 she left the East Coast and travelled to L.A. which was to become her home for the rest of her life. There she founded a theatre group, Instant Theatre, which created improvised dance and drama performances for both adults and children and in which the artists George Herms and Lee Mullican became involved. Improvisation was integral to her expression, and in a 2009 interview she described its importance: “Chance is very risky for some people. To feel comfortable with chance gives you a one-upmanship over the lot. It gives you courage; you are not afraid to make mistakes.”
In the 1970s Rosethal became a prominent member of the L.A. Feminist movement and the L.A. Women’s Art Movement, co-founding the Womanspace Gallery in 1973, a gallery run cooperatively and dedicated solely to the work of female artists. This was also a period in which she became intensely productive, creating and performing some 30 full-length performance works by 1975. Her ‘courageous’, ‘chance’ performances became progressively radical and in 1984 she performed ‘The Others’ which featured herself and forty-two other animals including snakes, goats and monkeys all treated as equals and given their own biographies.
Animals were indeed central to Rosenthal’s personal and creative philosophy and she was often to be seen at events with her pet rat Tatti Wattles perched on her shoulder. Animal rights inspired much of her work and she was known to leave rehearsals to go and help find homes for abandoned pets.
Rosenthal’s principal themes of feminism, equality and animal rights were all informed by a fascination with humanity as a species, and as a part of the earth. In a 1995 interview when describing her work she explained: “It’s about our relationship to the Earth. It deals with who we are as a species and how we belong on this planet,” and when asked how this relationship was faring she simply said “In a word, lousy.”
The artist showed work across the world and her 1987 performance designed specifically for Documenta 8, ‘Rachel’s Brain’ won an off-Broadway Obie award in 1989. In the same year she also established the Rachel Rosenthal Company which continues to perform to this day. In addition she received awards and grants from Getty and Rockefeller and her work was presented in the Pompidou Center, ICA London, the Whitney Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 2000 her art and her teaching were honoured and she was declared a ‘living cultural treasure’ by the city of L.A.
Rosenthal remained active until the end of her life and attended a rehearsal at her company just a week before her death. She died leaving no immediate family and, perhaps fittingly, is survived by a much loved dog, Fanny, who will be cared for by Kate Noonan, the managing director of her company.
It is a much over and mis-used turn of phrase, but in this case it would truly be fair to say that L.A. has been rocked by the death of Chris Burden.
Born in Boston in 1946, as a child Burden lived between Massachusetts, Italy and France. After a scooter accident on the island of Elba at age 12, the young Burden was confined to bed for a long period and, as with a whole list of other creative geniuses, it was during this sickly stage of his youth that he became interested in art. He went on to attend Pomona College and later University of California, Irvine where he presented his master’s thesis ‘Five Day Locker Piece’ a durational performance piece in which he was locked inside a school locker that measured just two feet high, two feet wide and three feet deep. In the locker above the one in which he was contained he placed five gallons of bottled water and in the locker below, an empty five-gallon bottle. The piece was met with some anger and the university bickered over whether or not to grant the artist his degree. The LA Times points out that at a crucial turning point in art away from minimalism, Burden took the sacred box that was the artistic centrepiece of the likes of iconic California artist Larry Bell, and forced himself physically into it, in all his sweating, aching reality. Burden rejected the clean lines and the sterility of 60s minimalism and demanded that instead the viewer bear witness to the uncomfortable physicality, the materiality of his body and his presence.
In the same year Burden performed an even less comfortable work, which was to become one of his most famous pieces, ‘Shoot’, in which an assistant shot him in the arm with a .22 rifle from a distance of just 16 feet. The performance was captured on Super-8 film and shows the moment of action followed by Burden’s bleeding arm from where the bullet grazed. Ridiculed by many, and taken as an example of all that was wrong with contemporary art by less liberal minds, Burden became notorious. As with much of his work Burden was attempting to question balances of power and authority. By placing himself in such a vulnerable position the artist reveals the limits of his control.
A turning point (no pun intended) in his career came in 1979 with his work ‘The Big Wheel’, a performance sculpture- a genre which he was to favour in his following works. The work was activated by the artist and featured a motorcycle which powered a three ton, iron flywheel measuring eight feet across. When the engine of the motorcycle was revved, the rear tire would activate the flywheel and cause it to spin, beginning slowly and then becoming progressively faster. The motorcycle is then moved away from the wheel, the engine turned off and the wheel continues to spin for several more hours. Once again Burden’s work engages with power and sheer physical force, but here it also provokes real awe in its viewer. Critics have noted its debt to Marcel Duchamp’s readymade sculpture of a bicycle wheel attached to a stool and have posited Burden’s work as a tribute to Duchamp, ‘the big wheel’ of art who set conceptual art in motion.
Since then his work has continued to engage with power struggles and with the emulation of great artists and inventors. Amongst his most famous works ‘Metropolis II’ is a large and intricate assemblage of tracks and roads which thousands of toy cars and trains stream across, creating a miniature, buzzing metropolis, like all the wildest ambitions and dreams of a 5 year old boy made manifest. Burden explained: “The noise, the continuous flow of the trains, and the speeding toy cars produce in the viewer the stress of living in a dynamic, active and bustling 21st century city.”
Before his death at age 69 Burden had become something of an LA institution: his works are centrepieces of LACMA and MOCA and he was the first artist to be taken on by Gagosian Gallery in 1978. His final work will open tomorrow at LACMA ‘Ode to Santos-Dumont’ and is typical of the artist’s work as described by the art commentator Hunter Drohojowska-Philp who witnessed a showing of the work a few weeks ago: “Chris honored, examined and emulated the big dreams of others.”
Burden’s most famous work, “Urban Light”, rows of white vintage lampposts unnaturally clustered together outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which has become an emblem of the city, glowed dimly on the afternoon of his death. It takes on a new significance, no longer is it a symbol of the contemporary, but rather of a great generation of artists now gradually disappearing.