‘Poetic Practical,’ a new book from Gagosian, presents 67 abandoned projects surrounding architecture, power, and political systems

“I am constantly searching for the edge,” once said Chris Burden. And indeed, the artist’s work was always centered around testing society’s limits. Back in 1971, bent on illustrating the total violence of the Vietnam War, he staged performance art pieces that posed significant risk to his own body. In Shoot, for instance, Burden’s friend shot him in the left arm with a .22-caliber rifle, from a distance of 15 feet.

Burden was radical, provocative, methodical, curious, brave. His work was pioneering in the field of conceptual art, exploring the nature of suffering and human endurance through his body alone. “Burden’s working process often started with a problem or a question that he sought to solve,” explained art historian Sydney Stutterheim. “That reflects his rootedness in the scientific method—in developing a hypothesis and then producing a series of tests to see whether or not something could be executed. This conceptual approach made it all the more likely that some projects would never be achieved.”

Drawing for “My Dream Show at the MAK,” 1994. © 2022 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy © The MAK and Gagosian.

Last month, Gagosian announced the publication of Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden; Burden was the first artist to be represented by Larry Gagosian, from 1978 through the end of his career. The book takes a nontraditional approach, presenting the 67 works the artist was unable to complete in his lifetime—the physical manifestation of the creative process Stutterheim outlined above. “The projects are divided into sections devoted to energy, systems, architecture, and power, and to Xanadu, a monumental unrealized installation of a cityscape,” reads a statement from the gallery. The works take on various mediums and methods, but Burden’s fascination with boundaries and their extremities remains the same.

Yayoi Shionoiri, executive director of the Chris Burden estate, put it well: “Often I get asked, ‘What’s most representative of Burden’s work? Was he a performance artist? A sculptor? A site-specific-installation artist?’ And I answer, ‘He’s all of those things because he’s in pursuit of the idea and the concept.’”