He Ain't Heavy. That's the Problem

Chris Burden, 1 Ton Crane Truck, 2009. Restored 1964 F350 Ford crane truck with one-ton cast-iron weight. Photographer: Jesse Untracht-Oakner. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

Once you've been shot in the arm with a rifle, crawled through a pile of glass and been nailed to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle, what's left?

Not much. See for yourself at "Chris Burden: Extreme Measures," which opened on Wednesday at the New Museum in New York.

If you're familiar with the drama of Burden's 1970s performance art, most of the pieces on display here won't seem particularly extreme. The retrospective has some of those early pieces -- documents of the original performances, that is, not the 67-year-old Burden dragging himself through glass all over again. But it means you get dragged through a lot of his more recent art, much of it so bland it feels like he simply gave up somewhere around the early 1980s.

"A Tale of Two Cities" (1981) is a diorama with, the wall text informs us, 5,000 toys, sand, plants and boulders. "Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge" (2013) is a stainless steel reproduction made with Erector Set parts. "All the Submarines of the United States of America" (1987) is a mobile with 625 miniature cardboard subs suspended on string from the ceiling. It's what a middle-aged hobbyist would make with a lot of free time.

Burden's ability to monetize his passion for arts and crafts is almost inspiring. A single cardboard sub sold at a 2008 Phillips auction for $8,750 (so, 624 to go). At an auction in 2010, a small Erector Set bridge like the ones in the exhibit carried an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. But given Burden's often challenging work of the distant past, this collection of toys feels flippant enough to be an act of aggression.

A recent New York Times profile of the artist says he originally wanted to leave the galleries empty and decorate the exterior of the museum with antique light poles and Erector Set towers but was turned down. The museum has to sell tickets. Burden is helping them do that. It's a tidy compromise that works for everyone but the visitor.

James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.

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