In 1971, Chris Burden had an assistant shoot him in the arm with a .22-caliber rifle.
He has willingly crawled through broken glass, been electrocuted and kicked down the stairs.
In 1972 he blocked both lanes of a California highway with two 16-foot-tall gasoline-soaked wooden “Xs,” set them on fire and fled. Burden fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747, in 1973. And in “Trans-Fixed” (1974), he was nailed atop a Volkswagen Beetle, like a vehicular Jesus.
But Burden is not imprisoned, institutionalized or leading a megachurch. He’s the main event at the New Museum, in the five-floor retrospective “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures.”
An influential and pioneering performance artist, Burden uses his body as both the subject and object of his art.
He slathered himself in Vaseline and thrashed on the floor while Matthew Barney was still in grade school.
Installed with spotless, surgical precision, “Extreme Measures” imbues Burden’s chaos and violence with the weight of art-historical inevitability.
Far from “extreme,” the show makes picking up a gun seem as normative and natural -- as academic -- as picking up a paint brush. The retrospective includes documentary films of some of these early guerilla tactics and masochistic antics.
There are also objects and artworks of enormous ambition and scale. A 30-foot-long sailboat is suspended from the museum’s facade.
Inside, a roaring motorcycle sets an eight-foot diameter flywheel in motion and a 1974 Porsche 914 balances on a teeter-totter with a meteorite.
There are cannons and gigantic Los Angeles Police Department uniforms. Big arches and bridges are built of Erector sets. And 625 miniature cardboard submarines dangle from the ceiling like a school of fish.
In the sprawling diorama “A Tale of Two Cities,” 5,000 toys do battle on a sea of sand.
Burden is bad-boy stuntman and elder statesman rolled into one. He will do virtually anything in that Conceptual realm where the distinctions among art, life, theater, spectacle and criminality blur.
Referring to the bullet passing through his arm, Burden said: “For that moment I was a sculpture.”
Okay. But was it a good sculpture?
If your standards meet his, you might think this circus is worth the price of admission. My interest is purely professional.
“Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” runs through Jan. 12 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery. Information: +1-212-219-1222; http://www.newmuseum.org.
The Neue Galerie’s “Vasily Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus, 1910-1925” would have made an excellent addendum to the Guggenheim’s recent Kandinsky retrospective and the Museum of Modern Art’s “Inventing Abstraction” and “Bauhaus” exhibitions.
It’s still exceptional. Stellar works from the Neue’s collection are bolstered by major loans, and the small show presents the artist in relationship to his peers.
Paul Klee’s colored rectangles jostle with Kandinsky’s free line and unfettered volumes, while Franz Marc’s blue horses frolic among his colleague’s pivotal landscapes and early abstractions.
The highlight is a whole gallery devoted to a reconstruction, at two-thirds scale, of Kandinsky’s wraparound murals for a 1922 show in Berlin.
The dark room’s abstract colored constellations are accompanied by Schoenberg piano pieces. It’s not completely convincing, but its multisensory, mind-bending immersion is a must for Kandinsky lovers.
“Vasily Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus, 1910 1925” runs through Feb. 10 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 5th Ave. Information: +1-212-628-6200; http://www.neuegalerie.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)