Furniture Landscape

Occupying the Space between Art and Design

“When the term “applied” art is used judiciously, it defines that object which is both useful and of uniquely harmonious, inventive form. As such, it is parallel to and entirely equivalent with the “fine art” object which is useless and of uniquely harmonious, inventive form.” (B. Richardson, Scott Burton, exh. cat., Baltimore Museum of Art, 1986, p. 19)

Fine art and design, or applied arts, have for the most part been ghettoized into separate fields. Scott Burton understood that it was at the juncture of these fields that the most intriguing objects could be made – works which have the sensitivity of sculptural forms, but which can speak to a public outside of the established art world in their real world utilitarian value. Steel Furniture Table and Steel Furniture Chair are two such works that exhibit both sculptural and utilitarian attributes. By quoting from both design and fine art, Burton created a unique aesthetic that is specific to his concept of what art’s aims should be and to the era in which he worked.

One can begin by offering a traditional fine art description of Steel Furniture Table and Steel Furniture Chair. Both exhibit a virtuosity of form, each constructed from a single piece of steel. Their mass is dense – once placed they are not easily moved, so ideas of site-specificity are paramount to understanding the sculptures. By elevating the quotidian to the level of high art, Burton speaks to a neo-Dada lineage, recalling such works as Painted Bronze, Jasper Johns’ sculpture depicting two beer cans cast in bronze. When considering artistic lineage, the artist could use the work to quote Pablo Picasso’s Chair from 1961, which similarly employs one sheet of steel. Of course, confining the works to a fine-art reading would ignore their utilitarian aspects, arguably one of the most important qualities of the pieces. An understanding of design history helps to further contextualize the artist’s thinking and material decisions. The creation of furniture from a single sheet of any material became possible with the invention of wood bending technology in the mid-nineteenth century. It was not until 1927 when Gerrit Rietveld created the Birza chair from a single sheet of fiberboard that the practice was fully integrated into design. Rietveld worked alongside the artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg as part of the de Stijl movement, attempting to reduce forms to their essential elements in order to create a new utopian era in which hierarchies were shattered and equality of man would be achieved, at least in part, through a joint revolution in art, design and architecture. However, even a collection of both design and art historical facts and precedents cannot fully explain the power and purposes of these works. While part of a lineage of artists and designers, Burton has an esthetic and theoretical framework that is uniquely his own, which is often rooted to the site of exhibition.

Burton first took the domestic chair into the realm of fine art with Bronze Chair, which he conceived of in 1972 and fully realized in 1975. The artist cast a salvaged Grand Rapids Queen Anne style chair in bronze and placed it on the street in front of Artist’s Space as part of an exhibition in 1975. Just as with Johns’ Painted Bronze, Bronze Chair becomes a piece of fine art sculpture by virtue of its medium. However, instead of placing the work in the interior of the gallery to signal this transformation, Burton positions the piece to appear discarded on the street, in very much the same fashion as he came across the original wooden chair that served as the basis for this sculpture. In a time when the streets of SoHo were often covered with such debris, it looked like yet another portable item that could be taken by any passerby. However its extreme weight made it impossible to carry and ensured that it would remain where it was installed. Through a careful tension between place, material, and subject, Burton places the work in a space between the fields of art and design, between the theoretical and the lived experience.

Scott Burton, Bronze Chair, 1972-1975. © 2015 Estate of Scott Burton, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Bronze Chair is also very much in tune with the socio-political climate of the 1970s. By signaling the domestic in the public forum of a New York street, Bronze Chair speaks to the assertion of the second-wave feminists that the “personal is political” – a phrase that began as the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch that was published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970 and remained a rallying cry for members of the movement. With the radical civic change that was occurring through-out the sixties and seventies, equally radical forms of art arouse, of which Burton was intimately involved. Much of the artwork of the 1960s and 70s in America dealt with the relationship of the single individual to the larger community. Minimalists such as Tony Smith, Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Carl Andre built sculptures from industrial materials which analyzed the relationship between viewer, artwork and the site of exhibition. Some of these artists like Robert Morris as well as artists not associated with Minimalism engaged in Performance art, which further explored ideas of the body’s relationship to the world around it. Starting in the late 1960s, Burton wrote extensively on both Minimalism and Performance art, building the theoretical framework that would serve as the basis of his own artistic practice. In an article written for ArtNews in 1966 on Tony Smith’s renowned work Die, Burton reveals what inspires him most in artwork: “Die, with a minimum of form, indelibly gives form to – shapes –its environment. What is around it, outdoors as well as in begins to ‘lead up’ to it, as to a climax. (…) Die has such a presence (…) It demands and provokes affective response” (S. Burton “Tony Smith: Old Master and the New Frontier”, D. Getsy, ed., Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art and Performance 1965-1975, pg.43). Burton was captivated by the way in which a sculpture, paired down to its essential form could affect the entire space around it, transforming its surroundings into an aspect of itself, in essence blending the line between architecture and art - the site of exhibition and that which is being exhibited. The true power of Die is that it can affect its environment in such a direct way that its power is perceptible to those outside of the artworld. Making a truly democratic art that spoke to as large an audience as possible became a paramount concern for Burton.

 “I feel the world is now in such bad shape that the interior liberty of the artist is a pretty trivial area. (…) Communal and social values are now more important. What office workers do in their lunch hour is more important than my pushing the limits of my self-expression” (S. Burton qtd. in B. Richardson, Scott Burton, The Baltimore Art Museum, exh. cat., pg. 10). Like the utopian Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin working in the interwar period in Russia, Burton believed that art should be in the service of the widest range of people possible, not confined to the relatively small and privileged class of art aficionados. In his article for Make a Political Statement written in 1974, he praises Tatlin for advocating that artists create works that transcend the useless realm of fine art and meet the quotidian needs of as many people as possible. “The art class is a conservative and stagnant class. It cannot hope to become a politically active class in its group social behavior. (…) But so far artists have not produced new styles or kinds of art that relate to more than a small part of the rest of the people or that have any vital relation to the energies – expressed or frustrated – of the whole culture. (…) Tatlin was right when he designed /invented a new stove, a set of clothing, an orniopter, and a media megatower” (S. Burton “Make A Political Statement”, D. Getsy, ed., Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art and Performance 1965-1975, pg.244). Just as Tatlin desired to affect wide-spread social change through creating art that also had utilitarian value as quotidian design objects, Burton desired his art to speak to the everyday lives of as many people as possible. The form of the chair and table – the basic furniture that surrounds the average person at school, work, home, etc, was the most effective form of escaping the ghetto of fine art.

Vladimir Tatlin in coat of his own design in front of stove design, c. 1919.

In order to insert his work into a circuit outside of the established art world, Burton strove to create sculptures that were relatively silent and unassuming in comparison with the works of the artists he admired such as Smith. This sense of quietude is captured in his instructions for a performance piece he wrote: “Theme is psychology but not of “characters” –specific fictional individuals. Not drama. A sequence of moving tableaux vivants; performed sculpture. Not verbal but plastic and visual. But not abstract; behavior of performer imitates actuality. But not illusionistic (pantomime). Pseudo-real gestures and poses, without the specialized or symbolic movements of dance. “Narrative.” Attitudes rather than emotions” (Ibid., 225).” This description can easily capture the nature of his physical sculpture: They are not mimetic – pure recapitulations of design forms. They are not overtly assertive and dramatic like Smith’s works. They are simple forms that lend themselves to a use, but which aspire to more than simply providing a place to sit or place an object on.

Steel Furniture Table and Steel Furniture Chair capture the essence of Burton’s grand social project. Inserted into any location, they call into question the basic assumptions about the function of design objects, architecture and, depending on the location, fine art, in a subtle yet poignant way.

I feel the world is now in such bad shape that the interior liberty of the artist is a pretty trivial area. (…) Communal and social values are now more important. What office workers do in their lunch hour is more important than my pushing the limits of my self-expression. 

—Scott Burton

Scott Burton

Scott Burton was born in 1939 in Greensboro, Alabama and moved to Washington, D.C. with his mother when his parents separated. Burton found his passion for art early, studying with the artist Leon Berkowitz while he was in high school and progressing to the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Provincetown.

Doubting his ability to make a career as an artist, Burton turned to literature, obtaining a B.A. from Columbia in 1962 and an M.A. from New York University in 1963. During this time, he began a relationship with the painter John Bulton, who introduced him to the New York art community. Throughout the 1960s, Burton attempted to be a playwright and librettist, but in 1965 started writing art criticism. In 1966, he began as an editorial associate at ARTnews, under the editorship of Thomas B. Hess and eventually became an editor himself.

By the late 1960s, Burton began staging performances that featured men interacting with found furniture. In 1975, he realized his first sculpture in bronze, initiating the sculptural work that he would become best known for throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Burton passed away due to AIDS related complications in 1989 at fifty years old. His work is in major institutions including the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American art, both in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His public art installations are in many cities across America including New York, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Portland.

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