High Style, Clear Form, Sharp Edge

Cover of the June 1987 issue, showing Scott Burton’s One-Part Chairs (A Pair), 1983/85, polished Rosa Baveno granite, 33 by 23 by 27 inches each.


LOTS OF ARTISTS work with words, and many have written criticism. But Scott Burton—performance artist and sculptor-slash-furniture designer as well as occasional curator, art historian and, early on, critic—is among the few to have been a senior editor at a major art magazine, as he was at Art in America from 1974 to 1976. Writing about Burton for A.i.A. (he died in 1989 of AIDS, at 50), this magazine’s longtime editor Elizabeth C. Baker remembered him “not only for his distinction as an artist” but also “as a lovable, obstreperous, astonishingly imaginative and brilliant colleague.”1 Elsewhere, Baker recalled: “As a critic his enthusiasms were passionate, his dislikes were categorical. He wrote as he would later cut granite, with high style, great clarity of form and a very sharp edge.” 2

Born in 1939 in Greensboro, Ala., and raised there and in Washington, D.C., where he moved with his family in early 1950s, Burton undertook some art studies (including classes with Hans Hofmann, in Provincetown) before enrolling in a quick succession of colleges (Goddard, George Washington, Harvard). He completed a BA at Columbia University in 1962 and an MA in English literature at New York University in 1963. His first significant job after graduation was as a reader for the literary agency Sterling Lord. Early friendships with such culturally prominent figures as Lincoln Kirstein and Jerome Robbins helped make fledgling successes possible: Burton’s play Saint George was produced at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in Stratford, Conn., in 1964, and his libretto for a ballet based on Aaron Copland’s Dance Panels was adopted by the New York City Ballet in 1965 (his storyboard images of the ballet’s two romantic protagonists were projected onto four huge screens).

Burton began writing short reviews for Art News in 1965, when it was under the editorship of Thomas Hess and numbered among its contributors the poets Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan, Peter Schjeldahl and John Ashbery. Baker had joined the editorial staff in 1962; as managing editor, she brought Burton on board in 1972. His first feature, in 1966, was on architect-turned-sculptor Tony Smith. Despite its resolute geometry, Smith’s sculpture struck Burton as allusively figurative (he noted examples of “erect sexuality” and contrapposto); in one notable analogy, Burton wrote of Die, a 6-foot steel cube, that it “is not the elimination or antithesis of expression, but the culmination of expression—like a scream so high it can no longer be heard.”3 Equally auspicious was Burton’s review of two group shows of 1969, in which he observed that “what was once painting and sculpture has become as important for duration in time as for location in space.”4 He concluded that such artists as Robert Morris and Bruce Nauman “blur the traditional distinction between performing and producing arts; that is, between art as service and art as object,”5 a description that would soon serve his own work well.

Art historian David J. Getsy writes that Burton’s performance career “reframed his experience of the everyday” and “put quotation marks around ‘life’ for him.”6 For example, Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s magazine received from Burton, under his own name, an article composed entirely of three excerpts from pieces that his friend John Perreault had published in the Village Voice. The full texts concerned a 1969 series of “Street Works” by various artists, Burton among them. But Burton’s selections (designated “for J.P.,” although they were compiled without Perreault’s knowledge) focused exclusively on his own acts. “Perhaps the most invisible and most sensational work was ‘performed’ by Scott Burton,” one extract says, going on to precisely detail the performer’s costume: pink octagonal glasses with blue frames, a green floral print jersey, brown wig, pink-orange lipstick.7 The following year, Burton explained, “I wanted to do something invisible. I wanted to be there and not be there. I did this—and it sounds funny but it’s not meant to be funny—by dressing as a woman.”8 For another series of street works, Burton performed what he called “a public nudity piece—which you might think of as a visual removal.” The subjects of this work, he added, were madness, criminality and the classic anxiety dream.9 To extend the theme, Burton drugged himself to sleep on a cot he placed in a hallway during a reception for “Street Works IV,” at the Architectural League, which hosted the entire series.10

But in what are perhaps the best known of his performance works, Burton did not appear at all. Instead, he enlisted performers to stage silent “Behavior Tableaux” examining the body language of social interaction. The first were presented at the University of Iowa in 1970; others followed at the Whitney Museum and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley and elsewhere. All involved stylized, slow-motion everyday movements and gestures, occasionally interrupted by brief blackouts. In a 1973 lecture, Burton established a theoretical framework for this work. “Performance is, most essentially defined, sculpture as theater,” he explained; “the performance artist initiates a transactional or situational relation with the viewer”11—a very early use, in this country, of these terms. Though the lecture was ostensibly about performance art as a genre, Burton went on to talk about a particular young practitioner (“his living tableaux and his object pieces form two recent series of works in different materials but with overlapping preoccupations—with the human figure, with dream states, with social relationships, with sexuality, and with art”12) whom he ultimately identified as himself.

IN LATE 1973, Baker accepted the top position at A.i.A., and soon added Burton to the staff. For the magazine’s six issues of 1974 (it was then bimonthly) and the first two of 1975, Burton is named on the masthead as its sole senior editor; for the rest of 1975 and all of 1976 he is joined by Schjeldahl.13 By the time he arrived at A.i.A., Burton had largely shifted from criticism to making sculptural installations. Earlier, his performance tableaux had alternated with arrangements of domestic furnishings—surrogate figures—positioned at first in wooded landscapes. His first freestanding art object was a bronze casting of a Queen Anne-style armchair, which was placed on a SoHo street outside Artists Space, where he had his initial solo exhibition in December 1975.14 “Pastoral Tableau” consisted of found chairs sitting on fake grass in front of a sky-blue curtain; they were arranged in two conversational groupings from which a lone chair was excluded.

Burton’s own translations of other vernacular furnishings—an adapted Adirondack lawn chair; seating hewn with a few strokes from rough boulders—and of high modernist designs soon followed. The quotation marks Burton had put around himself in performance work were now being used to offset “furniture.” Over the following decade, he would make chairs, tables and cabinets in materials ranging from stainless steel, onyx and mother-of-pearl to painted wood and molded concrete. Their forms were often irreducibly basic—cubes, cylinders, rectangles—and yet each object was subtly inflected by Burton’s acute sensitivity to shape, proportion, surface and weight, to art and design history, and to human character.15 A 1978 feature for A.i.A. by Roberta Smith began, “It might be said that it is Scott Burton’s ambition to take the taut assertive muteness that is Minimalist form and make it talk.”16 Smith also noted the work’s potent psychological presence: “Burton wants his objects to have charisma—a physical, quasi-erotic magnetism that is both fascinating and a little repellent,” she wrote. “Unoccupied, they do not seem empty. They almost seem to be their own people.”17

In 1980 Burton started to receive commissions for work in public places, from Cincinnati and Seattle to New York City, Buffalo, Baltimore, Houston, Toronto and London. Designing public seating, tables, lighting and (in some cases) paving and landscaping, he had the opportunity to shape urban space and the interactions that take place there. As he embarked on these projects, he stated: “A new kind of relationship (between audience and artwork) seems to be beginning to evolve,” one whose “content is more than the private history of its maker. . . . It will place itself not in front of but around, behind, underneath (literally) the audience—in an operational capacity.”18 Seven years later he would say, more simply, “all my work is a rebuke to the art world.”19 Yet his public work is as elegant and inviting as it is bracingly spare. Simple geometry prevails; visual congeniality is a premise; sociability is encouraged.

The complexities of Burton’s thoughts on the relations between sculpture and furniture are perhaps best expressed in two articles he wrote for A.i.A. about predecessors of great importance to him: Gerrit Rietveld and Constantin Brancusi. In both essays he developed the idea that furniture can represent itself through a kind of self-reflexive doubling of its function. Rietveld, Burton wrote, makes his chairs and tables serve as “sculpture conceptually as well as visually” by calling attention to structural elements that are usually concealed.20 In the longer and more ambitious “My Brancusi,” adapted from the brochure for a spring 1989 exhibition he organized at MoMA, Burton focused on the bases Brancusi made for his sculptures, and on the artist’s furniture. “Some of Brancusi’s pedestal-tables are of the same conceptual order as any of his busts or torsos,” Burton wrote. “His best pieces of furniture are not only functional objects but also representations of functional objects. . . . They are both object and subject.”21

Not hesitating to translate this abstract statement into physical and visual terms, Burton argued:

How can we look at Brancusi’s pedestal-tables to see their doubleness? What are the elements of transformation? Above all, and characteristically, simplification. Just as he treats a face by rejecting specific detail, he rejects the principal features of a typical table, namely legs and top. . . . He seems to take the shape of a normal tabletop, broad but thin, and squeeze it into a chunky, thick little mass. . . . It is often impossible to tell where the grounded support stops and the top (itself a support) begins.22

Turning to Brancusi’s Endless Column, Burton cited various art-historical opinions before concluding that this signature form was, like the pedestals, internally doubled. “It was unnecessary for Brancusi to put a figure on top: the column is its own image.”23 Lastly, Burton wrote of Brancusi’s studio, rendered famous by the sculptor’s own photographs. “We know of Brancusi’s impulse to create temples, but there is also a more worldly aspect to the work of his studio: it is that of the mise-en-scène.”24 In other words, it was a kind of behavior tableau—a surrogate performance.

ALONG WITH THE power of his work, the force of Burton’s personality made a considerable impression. Calling him “a truly major sculptor, central to the art of his time,” L.A. MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch describes Burton as one of his own “most important mentors.”25 Recalling their initial meeting in 1974, he says:

I was living in a rent-controlled apartment on Prince Street and Thompson in SoHo. [Walking up the street one afternoon,] I heard a tremendous commotion a couple of steps ahead of me. A pile of wet clothes was thrown out of a laundromat, and then a little body was thrown on top of the clothes. Being from Connecticut and not a native New Yorker, I thought you should help people out, so I helped Scott take his clothes up to his apartment. That was how we met and became friends.

Deitch recollects that Burton, who was at A.i.A. at the time, “had a fascinating quality of being a boylike innocent but was also deeply sophisticated. He became one of my guides to the world of art and culture”:

[He introduced me to] Gregory Battcock, David Bourdon—a whole circle of elegant gay guys, who were very important in interpreting art in those days. He was also connected with figurative painters through his friend John Button [with whom Burton then lived], artists who were not fully embraced by the conceptual establishment of that time. Their work was very connected to Scott’s performance work. [Additionally, Burton was] in the vanguard of gay liberation and knew about S/M clubs and various nefarious activities. This is before AIDS. Whole swathes of lower Manhattan were like Sodom and Gomorrah: the piers, clubs in what is now Chelsea, the Meatpacking district, places like the Crisco Disco and the Toilet. He introduced me to this scene, and it was of great cultural significance. He represented a remarkable fusion of a literary background, vanguard figuration and conceptual performance art. All of it informed his work. The sculpture has a lot to do with human behavior. The social furniture is only complete when you use it.

Also close to Burton from the 1970s on was the late art historian Robert Rosenblum, who eulogized him in an anthology of profiles of AIDS victims, edited by Edmund White. “Scott Burton streaked through our lives like a comet, a human phenomenon of such blazing intelligence and energy that, when he left a room, everything seemed to get dim,” Rosenblum wrote. “Perhaps the most compressed nugget of energy I ever knew,” he had an “almost insane mix of old-fashioned propriety and new-fashioned sexual liberation.”26 During one “memorable weekend,” Burton and a boyfriend joined the Rosenblum family at a summer rental on Shelter Island, “where we were members of a small and stuffy beach club,” Rosenblum recalled. “Suddenly, in this time capsule of American beachside exclusivity and decorum, there appeared an S/M fantasy of nipple rings and tattoos, of which the most startling were the blue spider-webs in the shaved skin of both of Scott’s armpits.”27

That he knew his own charms is clear from Burton’s wry description of a favorite piece of furniture by Rietveld, the Zig-Zag chair: “The dynamism is especially strong for such a small and unmassive object—it’s a wiry Napoleon of a chair, quite sexy, somewhat hyper.”28 He could upend conventional usage with a word, as when he called Brancusi’s Adam and Eve “Shakespearean in its comedy” and The Kiss “pronouncedly heterophile.”29 And that he was willing to go public with his bid for sexual liberty is evident in some of his early work, including a brief 1974 performance at Artists Space, Portrait of the Artist with Cothurni and Ithyphallus, in which he appeared in appliqued overalls and platform shoes with massively high heels; a big plastic phallus extended from his fly. (A cothurni, explained Edit DeAk, who as assistant director of Artists Space at the time had invited Burton to perform, was a platform used in ancient Greek drama to elevate the actors; ithyphallus means dildo.30) For the inaugural exhibition at PS1, in 1976, Burton installed Fist=Right of Freedom in a small closet with its open doorway barred by a heavy chain. The title was written in Old German lettering on a banner on the rear wall; above it was, as Burton’s catalogue statement notes, “a rubber forearm with clenched fist which penetrated the circular element of a suspended male symbol of polished steel.”31

But Burton could also be a consummate diplomat. Baker recently recalled a presentation he made to the sculpture committee of the Battery Park City Authority, supporting his and Siah Armajani’s (successful) proposal for theplaza in front of the World Financial Center. While Burton was, Baker concedes, an inveterate bad boy, on this occasion he gave what she remembers as an “unbelievably sophisticated presentation. It was a side of him I’d never seen.”32

Although it is not easy to find a line of continuity from the provocations of Burton’s early performance work to the demotic public art, his final work helped viewers connect the dots. Fully designed but not yet fabricated when he died, “The Last Tableau” consists of a pair of identical Guardian Cabinets, with polished bronze discs forming heads atop broad-shouldered cherrywood bodies; a pink granite Bench Goddess, shaped like a hard-angled version of a Toltec Chac Mool statue; and a stainless steel Slave Table: a stylized figure on hands and knees. Reviewing this ensemble for A.i.A., Richard Kalina noted that such Chac Mool figures, believed to be representations of fallen warriors, carry bowls on their stomachs for sacrificial offerings (including human hearts and other organs) “right where a viewer would be expected to sit.” Kalina found references as well to Henry Moore’s own homages to this pre-Columbian source, and, in the standing cabinets, to Duchamp’s Malic Molds and Oskar Schlemmer’s costume designs. But Kalina also observes the intensely personal aspects of this final work: “When he was developing it, Scott Burton was under a sentence of death. Domination, protectiveness and submission were scarcely idle abstractions for him.”33

Burton left reason to believe that he thought, in writerly terms, about the narrative arc of his life. As early as 1977, in an A.i.A. obituary for artist Ree Morton, he wrote, “She died still young, just past 40. Her death was not morbidly ‘appropriate’ like Pollock’s was supposed to be or like some suggested Eva Hesse’s was but a meaningless accident like Robert Smithson’s—loss without form.” But, he continues, in what can only seem an eerily prophetic assessment, “she had enough time, just enough, for her powers to mature.”34 Ten years later, for an A.i.A. compilation of recollections of the recently deceased Andy Warhol, Burton asserted, with characteristic independence, that Warhol “dealt particularly with the ‘hidden injuries of class,’ and for that he is still hated. But he was an unavoidable moralist who produced indelible pictures. His work of the ’70s and ’80s deserves the most serious reconsideration.” Himself already ill, Burton also wrote, “If each person’s dying is typical of that self, what is revealing about Warhol’s? Its coolness, I think. . . . Though it is not a Warholian emotion to feel sentiment at the loss, many of us, surprised, do.”35

Having distanced himself in the 1980s from his early work, Burton left civic fixtures that are, in isolation, not the easiest way to get to know him. In New York, they include seating and tables outside and in the lobby of the AXA building (formerly the Equitable Center) at Seventh Avenue and 51st Street, as well as the seating, railings, steps and lighting he created at the World Financial Center’s waterfront plaza in collaboration with Armajani, architects Cesar Pelli and Associates and landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg. Coolly functional and superbly reductive, these designs do not call attention to themselves, for reasons based—paradoxically—on passionate personal conviction and copious research as well as exceptional formal acuity. The many strengths of these public works, and of Burton’s less guardedly stylish freestanding objects, are manifest. But it is, arguably, as important to his legacy that published words endure as that granite withstands the test of time.

I am indebted to Nina Felshin, studio manager for Scott Burton from 1985 to 1989; Susan Wyatt, former director of Artists Space; and, especially, Elizabeth Baker for their help with this article.
1. “Scott Burton, 1939-1989,” Art in America, February 1990, p. 163.
2. Quoted in Roberta Smith, “Scott Burton, Sculptor Whose Art Verged on Furniture, Is Dead at 50,” New York Times, Jan. 1, 1990 (nytimes.com).
3. “Tony Smith: Old Master at the New Frontier,” Art News, December 1966, reprinted in David J. Getsy, Scott Burton: Collected Writing on Art & Performance, 1965-1975, Chicago, Soberscove Press, 2012, pp. 42-43.
4. “Time on Their Hands,” Art News, vol. 68, no. 4, 1969; Getsy, p. 79.
5. Ibid., p. 84.
6. Getsy, p. 19.
7. “Three Street Works,” 0 to 96, 1969; Getsy, p. 215.
8. “Literalist Theater,” transcript of an unpublished lecture given at the University of Iowa, June 25, 1970; Getsy, p. 218.
9. Ibid., p. 220.
10. Eduardo Costa, an artist friend of Burton’s, recalls that “Scott also got naked on the street, and a little later all the participants in ‘Street Works IV’ at the Architectural League, female and male, got naked and danced in the institution’s hall in what was perhaps the first nude group non-performance.” The event was a protest against the League’s rejection of Burton’s proposal to walk naked into the building on opening night. E-mail to the author, Jan. 4, 2013.
11. “Lecture on Self,” unpublished text of a talk given at Oberlin College, Ohio, May 5, 1973; Getsy, pp. 228-29.
12. Ibid., p. 235.
13. New York Times critic Roberta Smith remembers splitting the A.i.A. position with Burton: she worked in the afternoons, he in the mornings. “In Conversation: Roberta Smith with Irving Sandler,” Brooklyn Rail, April 2009, brooklynrail.org.
14. Although it was heavy, the chair—brought upstairs every evening—was continually at risk of theft; Thomas Lawson, now a noted artist, writer and professor, recalls being hired to keep an eye on it during the run of the 1975 show; see Claudia Gould and Valerie Smith, eds., 5000 Artists Return to Artists Space: 25 Years, New York, Artists Space, 1998, p. 296.
15. A survey exhibition of Burton’s furniture work was organized by Brenda Richardson for the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1986.
16. “Scott Burton: Designs on Minimalism,” Art in America, November-Dececember 1978, p. 138.
17. Ibid., p. 139.
18. Quoted in “Situation Aesthetics: Impermanent Art and the Seventies Audience,” Artforum, January 1980, pp. 22-29.
19. Quoted in Nancy Princenthal, “Social Seating,” Art in America, June 1987, p. 131.
20. “Furniture Journal: Rietveld,” Art in America, November 1980, p. 106.
21. “My Brancusi,” Art in America, March 1990, p. 150.
22. Ibid., p. 151.
23. Ibid., p. 157.
24. Ibid., p. 158.
25. All Deitch comments from a phone conversation with the author, Dec. 17, 2012.
26. Robert Rosenblum, “Scott Burton,” in Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, Edmund White, ed., Madison, University of Wisconsin Press in cooperation with the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, 2001, pp. 240-41.
27. Rosenblum, p. 243. Jane Rosenblum, the historian’s wife, remembers that “Scott was consumed with art history, he and Robert had that in common,” and Burton expressed “distinct, mad and hilarious opinions about everything.” E-mail to the author, Jan. 4, 2013.
28. “Furniture Journal: Rietveld,” p. 108.
29. “My Brancusi,” p. 158.
30. 5000 Artists Return, p. 39.
31. Rooms P.S.1, New York, Institute for Art and Urban Resources, 1977, p. 122.
32. Conversation with the author, Dec. 21, 2012.
33. “Figuring Scott Burton,” Art in America, January 1992, p. 98.
34. “Ree Morton, 1936-1977,” Art in America, July-August 1977, p. 14.
35. “Andy Warhol 1928-87,” Art in America, May 1987, pp. 140-41.