This is an edited excerpt from the final pages of ‘Queer Behavior: Scott Burton and Performance Art’ by David J. Getsy, published by University of Chicago Press in 2022.
In 1982 Scott Burton (1939–89) would look back on his turn to making art in 1969, saying, ‘in the late ’60s I wanted to be politically radical, but I saw the ludicrousness of that in the art world. I saw that the only way to be radical as an artist is in your work’.1 Performance, with its live relations with the viewer, remained central to Burton’s utopian thinking about the possibility for a demotic, egalitarian art – starting with his instructions for Self-Works that tested behaviour and authority in 1969. As is evidenced by the multiple practices that Burton developed in the 1970s, Burton was constantly rethinking how his work could enact his aims. However, across these experiments, his baseline was performance with its shared temporality with the viewer.
As he said in 1973, performance ‘reevaluates the role of the artist in the culture, submitting him to the transaction with the viewer’.2 It was this relatedness that Burton prized in much of his work. Whether in his street works, his durational performance art pieces, or his dissembling furniture sculpture, performance was the baseline. Most of all, it activated behaviour – the ways in which people relate to and treat each other.
Burton’s sculptures of the 1980s (both public and independent) perform for, on and with their users and viewers. They solicit touch and use FIG.1. Their familiar functional capacities both speak to and direct bodies into positions and relations. They covertly signal complexity (whether through a reference to site, to design history or to the figurative underpinnings of Burton’s sculptural practice). Theatrically, they wait to hold your body FIG.2. The demotic ambitions for his sculpture’s behaviour in public spaces took inspiration from street cruising, and he explored its subversions of public space and its forging of unexpected moments of ‘contact’ (to recall Samuel R. Delany’s key term from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue).3 His sculptures present a place to rest, to loiter, to sit and to watch FIG.3. He once remarked: ‘that’s my audience – people waiting for people’.4 This opportunity for contact through making a place to sit is central not just to his public commissions but also to the sculptures of benches, tables and chairs that are placed in museums, courtyards and other trafficked spaces.
Over the years of working on Burton’s art, I have sat and watched the ease with which people use his sculptures of the 1980s. With some, as with the café tables in Urban Plaza South at the Equitable Center in Midtown Manhattan FIG.4, there is a comfortable everydayness in how they offer themselves. With others, such as his Rock Settees that for many years sat in the atrium near the entrance to the National Gallery of Art, Washington (NGA) FIG.5, visitors would comment, perhaps puzzle a bit, but nevertheless sit down. When I first started writing this book, I was in residence at the National Gallery’s research centre, and I made a point of watching how people reacted to these sculptures. The Rock Settees did what Burton hoped they would do: be both familiar enough for people to know what to do with them (sit) and unfamiliar enough so that their users reflected on their own expectations for a boulder, a chair or a sculpture. I would see visitors walk around and talk about the sculptures, before sitting down and talking with each other (about other things, no doubt). These humble moments of familiarity coupled with unfamiliarity were repeated and regular, and sometimes I sat on one of the settees, too, which could also lead to conversations about these seats and the place they made.
While the NGA Rock Settees are from later in the 1980s, the sculptures reprise a form that characterised Burton’s work in the first years of the decade. Burton had begun making these boulder works in relation to one of his earliest site-specific public commissions, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle (completed in 1983). For that project, he determined to use materials from the site, and he made seating and viewing areas from the boulders dredged from Lake Washington in the process of constructing a pier.5 Whereas Burton’s sculptures of the 1970s had focused on the layered meanings of design styles, he began to expand the idea of his sculptures as useful in the 1980s. He also began to explore the creation of viewpoints and seating arrangements in these site-specific installations. This perspectival focus extended to the works themselves, and the boulder works appear as natural forms from one angle and ersatz furniture from another, interlacing usefulness and familiarity with the monumentality of earthworks to create novel furniture forms. The rock chairs and boulder benches are meant to stand out and prompt conversation because of their unconventionality as furniture. With their performative heaviness and the displacement of the natural form of the boulder to an interior space, these sculptures looked a lot like art to some visitors. Indeed, it was the perception of them as sculpture that often led people to comment to me on the fact that this is art you can touch and use, unlike most everything else in the museum. Their unconventional form did not inhibit people’s use of them (or knowledge about how to use them) but rather became part of the experience in which something unfamiliar or odd became acknowledged and accepted for the ways in which it acted as if it was a familiar thing (an everyday bench). Even a boulder bench speaks with a demotic ease and directness.
Around 1983 Burton pivoted from the unorthodox rock chairs to (equally weighty) geometric forms that harkened back to Minimalism FIG.6. These are the works for which he is most remembered, and they share the obdurate massiveness and immovability of the rock chairs but in forms that were more graspable – and that could be related and recombined into new conjugations. These works stood out less than the boulders, and they operated more like his public works with their integration into their sites. A good example of this is another Burton work that I have watched for a long time, Low Piece (Bench) FIG.7 at the Art Institute of Chicago. The curators have often installed this sculpture in the post-war galleries, where it dissembles as a bench. Many simply rest on it when looking at a nearby painting (or their phones). This work does not prompt the same conversations as the Rock Settees, but both works are equally graspable, comprehensible and usable as furniture. Whether self-consciously or casually, visitors sit on Low Piece (Bench), responding to its solicitation to rest, to wait and to look around.
Throughout the 1980s Burton pursued the parallel tracks of public commissions and independent sculptures. Like his public art, his discrete and non-site-specific objects aimed at approachability, usefulness, and permanence. At the same time, they are obdurately difficult objects that vex museums, galleries and collectors because of their solicitation of touching and bodily use (and because of their recalcitrant weight, which rivals the work of some other Post-minimal and land artists). In their impermeable and immovable solidity, Burton’s sculptures offer contact, and this openness to touch cannot be considered apart from the AIDS crisis that paralleled Burton’s turn to public sculpture after 1980. Burton lived with HIV during the time when he was designing his most ambitious public works, and their offers of bodily support, care and ongoing solicitations of contact must all be seen in relation to the AIDS crisis and Burton’s personal experience of it FIG.8.6 Queer Behavior: Scott Burton and Performance Art charts the years of Burton’s practice before the AIDS crisis changed the terms of what it meant to make contact, share space and think about sex and intimacy as forms of community, resistance and experience.
Both the public art and the independent sculptures of the 1980s were, as I hope my brief examples attest, emergent from the central themes that Burton explored in his performance art of the 1970s. While they might not at first look like it, they are ‘homocentric’ – Burton’s term for a perspective rooted in queer experiences – in that they extrapolate out from a core of queer experience a larger account of how we might accept unfamiliarity and create contact.7 The very premise of the insult ‘queer’ (and of its defiant reclamation) is that it describes that which has been cast out from the ordinary and the normal. Burton’s work, by contrast, sought to get to the potential of the demotic, the everyday and the ordinary through an embrace of the queer challenge to behaviour and its rules. In this way, Burton refused to accept an opposition between the homocentric and the demotic, instead pursuing queer experience as a foundation from which to challenge the accepted conditions and rules that we see as ordinary and ‘normal’.
Burton’s sculptures model possibilities. They solicit multiple interactions, and they provide a complex account of how sculpture can relate to (and support) a human body. They lean on the anthropomorphism of all furniture, taking on just enough of the traits of furniture (a back, a seat, etc.) to be seen-as and used-as a chair, a bench, a table and so on. Viewers regularly accept his works as furniture, even if they also recognise that they are unlike other benches or seats they have seen before. In Burton’s sculpture of the 1980s, the categories of ‘chair’ or ‘table’ would become capacious sites of potential. A boulder could become a bench, a cylinder served as a table and any right angle was potentially a chair. His sculptures make themselves available widely and persistently. Burton developed his Individual Behavior Tableaux as a means of showing how the same body could signify differently depending on pose and comportment, and he also saw that epicene potential in his usable objects. ‘You could say that people are like furniture. They take different poses and suggest different genders’, he said in 1979.8 For Burton, both bodies and chairs were performing agents that could be more than they might first appear and exceed the presumptions that others brought to them.
In a 1980 interview with Edward Brooks DeCelle, Burton clarified how his interests in the category of furniture and its functionality were also homocentric. Replying to a question from DeCelle about his current projects, Burton declared that he had plans for:
a lot of furniture pieces – tables and chairs and I’m trying to get some public commissions underway. I’d like to design public parks […] With the furniture I wish to do work which has some meaning to people other than it being something by Scott Burton. It has to be not only useful but interesting. Any chair is useful but a very striking looking chair – something that isn’t like a usual chair – can make people perhaps more flexible in their attitudes to accept more things – to become more democratic about what a chair is. They may even become more democratic about what a person is. Art can be a moral example. The gay world doesn’t get enough good moral examples from visual art.9
It was this statement that endeared me to Burton’s project, and I have used it as a touchstone in my earlier writings.10 Burton clearly stated the ways in which his desire to make his sculpture was rooted in demotic, queer and utopian ambitions. His aims were to open experience to many and to break down the barriers that establish the ‘normal’ – whether that be ‘normal’ art, ‘normal’ furniture or ‘normal’ people. Both in his sculpture’s successive openness to new bodily interactions and in his performance’s conjugation of possible genders located in a single body, Burton sought to make room for the acceptance of difference and possibility – to model how to be ‘more democratic about what a person is’.
We are all limited by our own experience; Burton was no different. But what I find so compelling about his understudied work of the 1970s was how he tried to see wider potential in his queer experience. The central questions for Burton’s work were behaviour and public space, and he came to an understanding of the priorities for his demotic public art by interrogating performance, queer signalling and the shared space of the street. He looked to behaviour as a common language – albeit one that each person speaks with their own inflections, dialects and purposes. For Burton, behaviour was tied up with the queer imitation and arrogation of ordinary life, and he asked what it meant to be more than what was expected or seen. He saw this as an open question about how we might behave differently with each other.