Victor Burgin: House Theorist With Attitude

Written by Lawrence Charles Miller

Victor Burgin
“25 feet two hours” 1969
Exhibition: Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-1979
On display at Tate Britain

Burgin face

Victor Burgin in Cologne, Germany, 2010

When Leo Castelli opened his gallery in the late 1950s he didn’t take on Willem DeKooning. Castelli was interested in the next best thing: The Greenbergian hegemony was breached. Years later, Jeffrey Deitch asked Castelli if his artists had anything in common. Castelli’s response: Duchamp or Mondrian. Ironically, the work of these two expatriate European artists predated and overlapped the development of the New York School. By the time Conceptual Art appeared in the late 1960s, neo-Dada (Johns, Rauschenberg), Pop (Warhol, Lichtenstein), Minimalism (Judd, Morris) and Fluxus were well established. Conceptualism’s DNA, like much of American art in the second half of the twentieth century, can be traced to Duchamp and Mondrian via this lineage. Minimal Art jettisoned an overload of aesthetic detritus. This clarity allowed a beautiful background for Conceptual Art’s mindful constructions. Here the magnetic forces of the alpha and omega danced. This explanation is written in an undeniable American shorthand. Until about 1980 the New York art world paid scant attention to Contemporary Art in Europe where a nascent postmodern zeitgeist had been humming for some time. The term postmodern might be defined as the period following the recognition that the Greenbergian hegemony had no heir apparent. Plurality defined the new era and it would roll on into the information age with its cacophony of media, technological advancement, and global authors.

Victor Burgin, Tate Papers

Victor Burgin, Section from Office at Night 1986 (detail), Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, © Victor Burgin

Conceptual Art, comprised of genres, was itself plural. British-born Victor Burgin worked a sociopolitical, cultural theory vein. His five decades of work influenced art that deals with identity, situational aesthetics, and social critique. His theoretical writings, his work as a professor and his concrete visual wanderings comprise a singular oeuvre. Burgin is a hybrid practitioner for whom the divisions of labor are quaint topiaries from the walled garden of Modernism. His expansion and integration of the artist’s meter represent a significant evolution. This construct by collapse may be his dominant achievement. Burin is characteristically lucid when he describes his position. “My decision to base my work on contemporary cultural theory rather than traditional aesthetics, has resulted in work whose precise ‘location’ is uncertain, ‘between’: between gallery and book; between ‘visual art’ and ‘theory’; between ‘image’ and ‘narrative’ – ‘work’ providing work between reader and text.”

25 feet two hours” was produced by Victor Burgin in 1969. It is included in the Tate Britain exhibition entitled Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979”. Here a vitrine contains a little box with index cards and a grouping of splayed postcard-size photographs. The top index card has written instructions that, in retrospect, serve the purpose of programming code for the arrangement of the objects to accomplish the action and visual goal suggested by the title. The postcard-size photographs look abstract. Enough said. It is a middling example of Conceptual Art circa 1969. The visual evidence alone suggests an equally pedestrian Fluxus manifestation.

25 feet two hours 1969 Victor Burgin born 1941 Presented by Tate Members 2010

25 feet two hours 1969 Victor Burgin born 1941 Presented by Tate Members 2010, Courtesy Tate Modern

Victor Burgin and the German artist Joseph Beuys are analogous figures. They represent concentrated aspects of their respected genres. Twenty years Burgin’s senior, Joseph Beuys associated himself with Fluxus (a movement so expansive that it could not be contained by the word movement let alone the name granted to it by George Maciunas). Fluxus has a humorous anti-Art ethos wherein any gravitas is serendipitous. Its rarity strengthens its poignancy. Beuys cultivated a fog of mysticism through which his jester/shaman was always visible. There is a romantic faux-autobiographical warmth in his work. In comparison, Victor Burgin is invisible in his hyper presence. His intellect digests reality with scientific appetite. Beuys created vapors. Burgin dissects them with precision. Burgin’s subsequent career delivers him to the cool pavilion of Conceptual Art. But, even there a subtle perfume is emitted. Its scarcity amplifies its resonance. It is ironic and notable that both of these influential and renegade artists embraced professorial roles in academia.

Victor Burgin went to graduate school at Yale University where he studied under Minimalists Donald Judd and Robert Morris. Burgin recalled Judd’s desire to see a form neither organic nor geometric. Burgin’s mind illuminated with possibilities. Final analysis of the forty-seven-year-old atmosphere that aerates the vitrine of 25 feet two hours” reveals sociopolitical systems, subjective longing, photography, the Internet, psychoanalysis, moving images, advertising, television, digital media, 3D digital modeling, and semiotics. Victor Burgin turns Pop Art inside out. He hands over icons – and their X-rays.

[no title] 1991 Victor Burgin born 1941 Purchased 1992

[no title] 1991 Victor Burgin born 1941 Purchased 1992, Courtesy Tate Modern

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