No one said anything, or even guessed. Everyone waited for it, what could come after abstract expressionism, which had died alongside Jackson Pollock in a senseless, drunken car crash on August 11, 1956. There weren’t any theories on how artists could further the surface of a canvas with paint and tool. The growing meaninglessness of abstract painting merely ramified after numerous aesthetic dead ends. Unquestionably, no American painter could replace Pollock. However, what would come next didn’t need a spokesman, or a macho flâneur with an anger problem for that matter. The art world was about to explode with an androgynous art wave imbued with the spirit of Duchamp, who said: “The whole trend of painting was something I didn’t care to continue” (Tomkins, 2014, p. 100). Many artists of the next generation excoriated the canvas, turned away from the emotive and toward the cerebral. For them, experience became the creator and the artwork.
From the early 60s until his death in 1989, Scott Burton was one of these new artists, a true Renaissance man. First gaining notoriety through critical theory and art criticism, Burton served as a writer and editor for two of the oldest and most esteemed art publications, ARTnews, from 1965 until 1972, and Art in America, from 1974 until 1976. Beginning in 1969, he exhibited with like-minded artists on the street, then in galleries and museums. Next, he loosely choreographed performance art, ephemeral interactions between artist, viewer, and discarded furniture and props. While creating performances, he started to focus on object and form by making monumental pieces of furniture meant for public consumption, in 1975. This union between art and design would be a central part of his oeuvre until his death, before which he curated exhibitions that elevated those known as designers to artists, such as in the first “Artist’s Choice” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and “Burton on Brancusi” in the spring of 1989.
There was a philosophical motivation throughout Burton’s work, the pursuit to fully explore his concept of sculpture. In contrast to adopting any traditional conception of sculpture, Burton was driven by pursuing his very own conception of it. He divided art into two categories: “art” (painting), and “sculpture” (which appeared to be everything else). In his “Lecture on Self,” given at Oberlin College on May 5, 1973, he summed up sculpture as such:
By sculpture is meant no longer the stable object but simply three-dimensional visual art—whatever is offered in an artistic context that is not painting. Recent examples of this category of transformed sculpture have included not only aggregates of mutable or impermanent materials but also works of plastic art that are not constructions at all but instead made of language (conceptual and information art) or of photography, films or diagrams (documentational art) or of theater (performance art). . . Performance is in medium a form of theater but in category a form of sculpture.
Why this mattered to a contemporary audience was because moving from a modernist practice toward a new focus on the fluidity of sculpture was a major divergence. It wasn’t just minimalism or reductive art, since Burton was just as committed to figurative, realist and, even at times, abstract art. It was no mistake that his distinguishing factor was a sincere acceptance of all art and a mission to destroy any boundaries delimiting art. This perspicacity was most evident in his verbal and visual treatment of the human body and later in his anticipation of how someone would interact with his artwork. His life’s work consisted of writing, performance, and objects. All illuminated his definition of sculpture, which is one category comprised of many artistic forms with a human center.
Scott Burton was born in Greensboro, Alabama, to Walter and Hortense Moberly Burton. His parents soon separated, and in 1952 he moved with his mother to Washington, where he grew up (Smith, 1990). In high school, Burton trained informally with painter Leon Berkowitz, who interacted with many top artists of the time, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. Berkowitz was associated with the Washington Color School, yet he adamantly refused to be labeled a member of any art group or movement. Berkowitz claimed that his canvases, which were engulfed by bursting nebulae of colors, had “more to do with nature and poetry” than with contemporary art dialogue (Proenza, 2014).
The relationship between Burton and Berkowitz foreshadowed Burton’s mature artwork, which formed a communion between artist, viewer, and nature, as well as a conflation of art genres. Burton responded to Berkowitz through poetry, often dedicating his poems to Berkowitz and his wife, Ida Fox. In “The Paintings of Leon Berkowitz,” a poem Burton wrote between 1956 and ’57, Berkowitz’s paintings were described as an enchanting swim on a rainy day. Here, Burton related art to human experience: “When flowers furl and black rains come / Still whirl the paintings and the sun” (Burton, II.3. MoMA Archives, NY).
Moreover, Burton dedicated numerous poems to Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian poet, who garnered posthumous fame for his fluid use of language, such as creating neologisms or using archaic sayings (Burton, II.2. MoMA Archives, NY). Hopkins’s historical importance came from the changes he had brought to poetry, which confronted conventional ideas of meter. Specifically, Hopkins turned away from an accepted poetic rhythm found in most Middle English and Modern English poetry, as he implemented a rhythm imitating natural speech, which he called “sprung rhythm.” Hopkins may have been another inspiration for Burton to challenge norms and pursue what to him was organic rather than traditional.
After taking courses at a few East Coast colleges, Burton obtained a BA from Columbia University in 1962 and an MA in English Literature from New York University in 1963. By 1965, he was working at ARTnews under the editorship of Thomas B. Hess (Smith, 1990). Hess gained recognition for rebutting Clement Greenberg’s approach to criticism, in which Greenberg rejected the notion of intention, insofar as a conscious choice, and instead championed for the individual artist and how a particular, elite audience responded to the artist’s work. Hess’s writing style was strong, direct, detailed, and persuasive. Few could win an argument against him. Not only erudite, he was also instrumental in the history of Abstract Expressionism; fellow critic Harold Rosenberg even credited him with coining the term “Action Painting.” Working under a strong figure like Hess might have been one factor that led to Burton’s influencing art history through criticism.
Burton’s articles and essays defined the direction of his artistic practice, which was disproving the canonical binaries of art theory. Most eloquently elaborated on by David J. Getsy, who said in his introduction to Burton’s collected writings that, at a pivotal time in Burton’s career, “[Burton] advocated for reductive abstract art while defending figuration. . . and he argued for the urgency of time-based and ephemeral art practices in the same years that he curated exhibitions of realist painting” (Getsy, 2012, p. 2).
His writings also recalled his early study with Berkowitz and illuminated a sustained dedication to nature as subject matter. For example, in 1967, for Art and Literature, Burton covered figurative artist John Button, his partner throughout the 60s. At the time, their romantic relationship neared an end, and the article served as a farewell homage, whether Burton had intended so or not. Burton lauded Button’s drive to capture a time and essence of landscape, not a narrative. In an early description of Button’s Blue Windows, Burton wrote that “its light, its weather—and what buildings or roofs we see are sufficient to define the blue-gray-white atmosphere as it envelops and transforms solid surfaces as well as sky” (Burton, 1967). Throughout the essay, Burton was most moved by illustrations of time and space.
As a critic and editor, Burton delineated art history and honed the craft of communication, making explanation of his own art flawless and turning theory on its head. He underscored temporality and the viewer’s situation as criteria for the evaluation of artwork. He wrote, for example, an introduction for a pivotal minimalist exhibition, “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” at Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, featuring artist such as Claes Oldenburg, Douglas Huebler, Michael Heizer, Carl Andre, Richard Serra, and Robert Ryman. Temporality to Burton meant that art existed not only in space, where it was installed, but also in time, the moment the viewer saw it. He included the viewer in his explanation of an artwork because the viewer’s interaction affected what the piece did. Therefore, the very quality of the artwork was in constant flux, as it changed due to environment and interpretation (Burton, 1969). Likewise, these thoughts were implemented in Burton’s artistic practice.
Burton’s performance depicted natural interactions between the viewer, or the human body, and furniture, which he had removed from its intended environment and set in an unusual place — on stage, for instance — without completely losing its utility. Although he treated the human body with dignity, he also treated it as he did the other props in the performance, as ends to communal means. In turn, the human body was dependent upon furniture in his performances. Therefore, he viewed these durational performances as living sculptures, an amalgamation of materials reacting to the change of time and space.
In 1969, Burton participated in his first group exhibition in the series “Street Works.” Along with artists and artist-critics such as Marjorie Strider and John Perreault, Burton performed in public situations, directly in contact with the viewer and found objects. Burton referred to these types of performances as “literalist theatre” during a lecture at the University of Iowa on June 25, 1970. By calling them this, he implied that these actions mimicked ordinary life. He performed these tasks out of desire, not necessity, and urged the viewer to do so as well. These desires included, to name a few: “Hurrying or perhaps running to a destination. / Dropping some coins as if accidentally and then picking them up. / Asking directions as if you’re lost and then going to that place” (Burton, 1970).
In an untitled performance from “Street Works,” Burton concealed his body from the viewer, other artists participating in the show and his friends, as a successful attempt to be overlooked. Perrault, a colleague and critic at the Village Voice, reviewed “Street Works” and detailed Burton’s performance:
Perhaps the most invisible and most sensational work was ‘performed’ by Scott Burton. . . Burton walked the area in disguise and went completely unnoticed. He wore pink octagonal glasses with blue frames, a green floral print, jersey slip-over with a large cowl (worn down), uncuffed navy blue elephant bells, a beige coat low-heeled shoes with matching gloves. He also wore a short brown wig, pink-orange lipstick, Guerlain perfume, and carried a plastic, flower-printed shopping bag and an umbrella decorated with white daisies. He was completely invisible (Perreault, 1969).
Ultimately, his actions constituted a challenge to the viewer. An expected performance transformed into a banal scene in which the viewer waited for the climax but received silence. Notably, as a writer, he perhaps embraced silence with respect to noise in the prevailing discourse on art. Moreover, his disguise mirrored a side of his personality not evoked through writing. Sexually liberated, daring, and direct describe both Burton and his performance.
The next year, Burton developed “Behavior Tableaux,” a performance unique to him that he would work on for the remainder of his art career, eventually showing it at the Whitney. The series of performances involved pieces of furniture that he had culled over time, which he then brought together in ways that paralleled human interactions. Selecting a number of participants, he envisioned the viewers and pieces of furniture as stationary, and the environment as animate subject matter. His sensibility correlated quite positively to the praise he had given his ex-partner Button for realistic landscapes, capturing moments versus narratives, in the aforementioned essay from 1967.
Describing Burton’s tableaux, a journalist for Iowa City Press-Citizen announced, “an unusual and new art form will be presented” in “Two Evenings,” an exhibition with Strider and Burton at the University of Iowa in 1970 (Burton, II.4. MoMA Archives, NY). He was correct. At this time Burton’s performances had tremendous weight, for during the late 60s and early 70s, the viewer had been regaining power slowly. Furthermore, until the 50s, performance ranked below sculpture and painting in the art hierarchy. Now, artists embraced performance as “the spirit of the twentieth century, which is one of challenge, challenge of fundamental assumptions in every discipline from science to art” (Shearer, 1976). On trend, Burton spearheaded the discussion integrating art with other discourses by way of dissolving the notion of hierarchies in Western art.
In Burton’s writing and performance, he mainly concentrated on art’s homogenization, the viewer’s presence, and temporality, but he discovered environment after creating pragmatic sculpture. Moving away from Duchampian theory, which aimed to shift boundaries of art definitions, Burton rendered his central intention, to dislodge the definitional categories of sculpture or furniture, thus divisions in the discourse of art in general (Francis, 1985, p. 8). As if his thesis, pragmatic sculpture, from 1975 onward, married his sharp, critical eye with his hyperbolic performance, bringing about new controversies to debunk. Nancy Princenthal discusses this shift in “High Style, Clear Form, Sharp Edge,” an article in Art in America:
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 [his tableaux]. 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 (2013).
Consequently and appropriately, his artwork culminated with the chair; the chair symbolized all that he criticized. It was the head of the patriarchal American family, an implication of hierarchy, and a place for Greenberg’s followers to sit and judge art without interaction or consideration of environment. However, a chair had qualities that he could play with. It had a specific use value. It was democratic, malleable, and comfortable. Most importantly, one could say that a chair was only a chair when intended to be occupied by a human body, meaning it fit all his criteria for evaluating artwork.
His first piece of sculptural furniture was the bronze cast of a wooden Queen Anne-style armchair left behind in Burton’s apartment, fittingly entitled Bronze Chair. He exhibited the object across from Artist’s Space on the sidewalk of Wooster Street in 1975 (Oberlin College). Simple, decorative, and démodé, the chair would not catch the eye of passersby. However, the owner of the original chair had clearly taken to it. The frame had bent from weight and the seated posture of the owner. The bronze replica depicted these nuances—knobby arms, worn surface, off-kilter legs, charming bumps, divots—and confronted the viewer with questions of ephemeral worth and individuality. The chair was not elegant, but it served its purpose, and were it not for Burton, its essence would now be disposed.
Burton also used Bronze Chair as a visual instrument to reconstruct social norms and disguise the artist, or at least the purpose of the artist. In 1977, Bronze Chair was featured in the “Improbable Furniture” exhibition catalogue, along with images of furniture by Burton’s influencers, Constantin Brancusi and Duchamp. By and large, Burton eschewed emotion in his work, but not entirely according to some critics. The author of the catalogue essay, Suzanne Delechanty, suggested that the use of real and fictional furniture was an artistic device that disorders and reorders fragments of daily life in order to curate an emotive environment and performance for the viewer (1977, p. 19). Delechanty illuminated this through an example of Bronze Chair, which had “one foot in function, one in the banal, another in art, and a fourth in the aesthetics of style” (1977, p. 19). The viewer, more than the artist, endowed their emotive responses onto or in the chair that Burton had created. Not immediately recognized as “art,” the prop was a concrete depiction of human behavior, immortalized like a Greek or Etruscan chair, and left, not repurposed, by the artist.
Bronze Chair depended on the viewer. However it did not complement its environment as well as Burton’s later chairs would, such as Rock Chair (1981). This object signaled his return to natural materials and inherent aesthetics, which were romanticized in his early poetry. Taking from the environment, he cleaved a seat through a two-ton boulder of sierra granite and conceived the chair with great thought to its accompanying architecture. Rock Chair blended into its surroundings, and so Burton the artist became as invisible as the artist in his performances, his presence inconspicuous, but felt.
Thus, careful treatment and presentation distinguished Burton’s pragmatic sculpture from both art and design. Eric Gleason, director at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, who recently worked with Burton’s pieces, said: “All of Burton’s objects are imbued with a choreographic quality that really does set them apart from the rest of 20th century design. There are so many ways to physically interact with his works, and these subtleties are exhibited in every piece.” Ergo, viewer interaction, not dealer nor artist, determines the artwork.
Near the end of Burton’s life he espoused functionality of design with sculptural material and process, evident in civic design such as Six-Part Seating, conceived in 1985 and posthumously fabricated then installed at the northeast corner of the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. in 1998. The sculpture was installed on a lawn and comprised of six highly-polished granite chairs arranged in a ceremonious circle. There was a stark difference between outdoor design and Six-Part Seating. Burton’s simplicity and perfectionism exhibited the natural beauty of his material, putting nature on display. Furthermore, like his tableaux, the sculpture set the stage to present moments not narrative, object, not artist.
Burton could walk away from his art and let it be consumed how he had always wanted. In his own words, in an interview by Edward de Celle with Mark Thompson, Burton said, “I don’t make installations. My objects are sculpture because they are exhibited in galleries and museums, but they are also pieces of furniture that you sit on or use as tables or storage pieces” (Burton, VI.C.62. MoMA Archives, NY). Just as direct, Burton continued to expand the purview of public art until his death in 1989.
There is so much left to learn about Burton’s life. Unfortunately, when an audience compartmentalizes art history, it ghettoizes the breadth of his oeuvre and focuses only on the tangible, his pragmatic sculpture. However, the 2012 publication of Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art and Performance, 1965–1975, recent exposure in a solo-exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, and a posthumous retrospective at Institut Valencia d’Art Modern 2003, have incited some interest, and hopefully interest in his work will continue to develop over the future. More information may be gathered on him at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, to whom he bequeathed his estate. His request was “to establish a fund in his name dedicated to ‘exploring and furthering appreciation of the close relationship between the fine and applied arts’ and ‘promoting and preserving [Burton’s] artistic reputation’” (Halperin, 2015). As of now, Burton may be remembered for vigorously damning the old and championing change by breaking himself from modernist practices and brazenly tackling antiquated ideologies with a new visual lexicon.
Megan M. Garwood is a New York writer, editor, and contributor to RIOT MATERIAL and Living Form. Her work appears in various publications, including The Wall Street Journal and SUITED. She is the founding editor of Chalet Magazine and has held contributing editorial positions at Whitehot Magazine, On-Verge, and RIPP.
The Advocate, Issue 310. (January 22, 1981). Accessed via Scott Burton Papers, VI.C.62. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
Burton, Scott. (1969). “When Attitudes Become Form: Notes on the New” (1969). In Getsy, David J. (2012). Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art & Performance, 1965–1975. Chicago, IL: Soberscove Press.
Burton, Scott. (1967). “John Button” (1967). In Getsy, David J. (2012). Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art & Performance, 1965–1975. Chicago, IL: Soberscove Press.
Burton, Scott. (1970). “Literalist Theater” (1970). In Getsy, David J. (2012). Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art & Performance, 1965–1975. Chicago, IL: Soberscove Press.
Burton, Scott. (1973). “Lecture on Self.” In Getsy, David J. (2012). Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art & Performance, 1965–1975. Chicago, IL: Soberscove Press.
Richard Francis. (1985). Scott Burton. London: The Tate Gallery.
Getsy, David J. (2012). Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art & Performance, 1965-1975. Chicago, IL: Soberscove Press.
Halperin, Julia. (June 2, 2015). “MoMA struggles to fulfil sculptor’s last wishes.” The Art Newspaper. Retrieved from http://theartnewspaper.com/market/art-market-news/moma-struggles-to-fulfil-sculptor-s-last-wishes/
Improbable Furniture Exhibition Catalogue. (1977). Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.
MoMA. (March 1989). “Press Release.” Retrieved from
Perreault, John. (May 11, 1969). “Art.” Village Voice, pp. 14–15.
Princenthal, Nancy. (March 11, 2013). “High Style, Clear Form, Sharp Edge.” Art in America. Retrieved from http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/high-style-clear-form-sharp-edge/
Proenza, Mary. (March 27, 2014). “Leon Berkowitz, Santa Fe at David Richard.” Reviews. Art in America. Retrieved from http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/reviews/leon-berkowitz/
Scott Burton Papers. II.2, II.3, II.4. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
Linda Shearer. (February 24 – April 4, 1976). Scott Burton, pair behavior tableaux. New York, NY: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Smith, Roberta. (January 1, 1990). “Scott Burton, Sculptor Whose Art Verged on Furniture, Is Dead at 50.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/01/01/obituaries/scott-burton-sculptor-whose-art-verged-on-furniture-is-dead-at-50.html
Tomkins, Calvin (2014). Duchamp: A Biography. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art.
Unknown. (July 29, 1970). “Iowa City Press-Citizen.” Retrieved from Scott Burton Papers. II.4. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.