Scott Burton was an artist of stunning clarity who retained an ambiguous relationship with the term “artist” until his death in 1989. His career encompassed (in the following order) brilliantly cogent criticism, sparingly minimalist performance, occasional curatorial excursions, and a body of sculpture that was also liberatingly usable furniture. The form to which he devoted his greatest concentration was the chair. At first he simply made arrangements of furniture found abandoned on the street, setting up tableaux and experimenting with serenely uninflected activities that would ultimately lead to performances (which he called “Behavior Tableaux”) in which the human body and the furniture shared a choreographic codependency (“preverbal kinesic and proxemic systems of human interaction”1 ). The final stage of Burton’s development was the creation and utilization of his furniture in the public realm, where it was intended to be both amenity and totem. He was very much concerned with the totality of the gesture whereby his sculpture was conceived in relationship to the architecture of the landscape. It was important to Burton that he was recognized as a public artist.
Today, Burton’s career feels particularly modern in its embrace of the ambivalent and its unwillingness to just resolve itself into a single practice. His intricate relationship with function and aesthetics began quite early. In an interview with critic Peter Schjeldahl, Burton talked about the towering importance of design to his work: “[In] Washington, D.C., in the ‘50s, where my family had moved from Alabama, modern furniture just spelled modernism to me, and modernism spelled liberation. It was still avant-garde then. Furniture companies like Herman Miller, Knoll, and Dunbar meant as much to me as Picasso and de Kooning, in much the same way. I was just obsessed.”2 In the end, Burton was annoyed at being constantly asked to differentiate his work between design and art; for him there was no difference. The synthesis he achieved between the two was due solely to the intense, questioning creativity he brought to both.
Scott Burton, correspondence with Martin Friedman, March 14, 1972 (Walker Art Center Archives): “It uses several performers whose movements and groupings illustrate preverbal kinesic and proxemic systems of human interaction (‘body language’ and ‘personal space’ arrangements).” ↩
Quoted in Peter Schjeldahl, “Scott Burton Chairs the Discussion,” Village Voice, June 1, 1982, 86. ↩