|Location||Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, United States|
Urban Light (2008) is a large-scale assemblage sculpture by Chris Burden located at the Wilshire Boulevard entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The installation consists of 202 restored street lamps from the 1920s and 1930s. Most of them once lit the streets of Southern California.
The cast iron street lamps are of 17 styles, which vary depending on the municipality that commissioned them. They range from about 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters), are painted a uniform gray and placed, forest-like, in a near grid. The lights are solar powered from dusk to dawn. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Susan Freudenheim described the restored lamps as displaying "elaborate floral and geometric patterns" at the base, with "fluted shafts and glass globes that cap them...meticulously cleaned, painted and refurbished to create an exuberant glow."
Urban Light was preceded by Sheila Klein's Vermonica (1993), which places 25 Los Angeles street lamps in a parking lot at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevards. The intersection had burned during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Burden viewed his sculpture as a formal entry way to the museum on Wilshire Boulevard: "I've been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it's always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city."
Burden first began collecting street lamps in December 2000 without a specific work in mind, and continued collecting them for the next seven years. He purchased his first two lamps at the Rose Bowl Flea Market after bargaining down the price from $950 to $800, each. He purchased about 60 from contractor and collector Anna Justice, who was instrumental in the restoration of sandblasting, recasting missing parts, rewiring to code, and then painting a uniform grey. As Burden's collection grew, the ground around his Topanga Canyon studio became littered with parts, which the artist referred to as "lamp carcasses". Most of the street lamps came from the streets of Southern California, including Hollywood, Glendale, and Anaheim, with some from Portland, Oregon. Among the 17 styles represented are the Outpost, Hollywood and Pacific Twin. The largest, most ornate, called Rose Poles, were from downtown Los Angeles; a few can still be seen at the corner of Broadway and Sixth.
In late 2003, Burden discussed installing a hundred of the lamps at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, but the gallery eventually balked at the cost. While he later sent 14 lamps to an exhibition in London, his goal was to keep as much of his then 150-piece collection together as possible. To that end, he invited visitors to view the streetlamps outside his studio, where he had installed them in dense rows on two sides of the building. Among the prospective purchasers in mid-2006 was The MAK Museum for Applied Art in Vienna and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, represented by its new director, Michael Govan. He visited the studio at twilight, and from the driveway, saw the lights lit and concluded that the installation would be a perfect fit. Govan was followed by Andrew M. Gordon, a Goldman Sachs executive who would later become chairman of the museum's board. Gordon approved the purchase through his family foundation for an undisclosed price.
The Urban Light installation took place amid changes to the LACMA campus, which included a new building, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and two new open spaces. The sculpture dominates one of them, a forecourt located between Wilshire Boulevard and LACMA's entry pavilion. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne gave the arrangement a mixed review, describing Urban Light as "a kind of pop temple, deftly straddling the lines between art and architecture and between seriousness and irony. It's also a joy to walk through. But there's no getting around the fact that it turns what might have been an actual public square along Wilshire—a space defined from day to day by the people using it—into an outdoor room for one sizable and very insistent piece of art." Hawthorne also argued that Urban Light was the first of four large-scale installations at LACMA in which Govan has challenged and undermined "the polite axial symmetry of the master plan he inherited from" architect Renzo Piano and his patrons. Those installations also include Tony Smith's black aluminum sculpture, called "Smoke", that fills the atrium of the Ahmanson Building, a palm garden by Robert Irwin installed along the edge of the Resnick Pavilion, and, just north, Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass. Another Chris Burden work, the kinetic sculpture Metropolis II, is located in a building adjacent to Urban Light in LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum.
Burden had said the lamps were designed to last for thousands of years. Even so, the LACMA planned to close the installation in the summer of 2015 for paint restoration, but delayed the closure due to Burden's death in May of that year. The museum ultimately made the repairs over two months beginning in May 2016, during which time the lamps were dark and off-limits to the public.
Since its 2008 installation, Urban Light has become a much photographed location, leading some observers to declare the work a Los Angeles icon. Among the first filmmakers to incorporate the installation in a motion picture was director Ivan Reitman, who used the location for a scene in his film No Strings Attached. He called the artwork "an extraordinary beacon" that "lights up a desperate part of Wilshire that felt almost abandoned at night." Urban Light was featured in the Tori Amos video Maybe California and the film Valentine's Day. The work appeared in a Guinness commercial and in a Vanity Fair article featuring cast members of the television series Glee, as well as in numerous amateur photos posted online. LACMA itself has featured the work as part of its own promotional efforts, including a 3D public service announcement preceding the film Megamind. In 2014, the sculpture was used in a dance scene in VH1's Hit the Floor.
- "Your Scene: Chris Burden's 'Urban Light' sculpture at LACMA". Los Angeles Times. January 25, 2011. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
- Freudenheim, Susan (January 30, 2008). "A glow in the dark: Chris Burden's collection of restored lamps will put LACMA in 'Urban Light.'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
- "LACMA collections: Chris Burden (including Multimedia download)". Los Angeles County Art Museum. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
- Haddad, Paul (June 8, 2015). "Meet L.A.'s Original 'Urban Light'". The Huffington Post. Retrieved August 18, 2015.
- Holliday, Peter J. (July 3, 2016). "When in SoCal, do as the Romans (and the Greeks) do". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 6 July 2016.
- Philips, Lisa; et al. (2012). Chris Burden: Extreme Measures. New York: New Museum, New York and Skira Rizzoli Publications. pp. 208–209.
- Philips, Lisa; et al. (2012). Chris Burden: Extreme Measures. New York: New Museum, New York and Skira Rizzoli Publications. p. 195.
- Hawthorne, Christopher (February 7, 2008). "ARCHITECTURE REVIEW; County museum's expansion reflects two clashing visions; The new building is Eli Broad's realm, while LACMA's director applies his influence elsewhere". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- Hawthorne, Christopher (July 7, 2012). "Critic's Notebook: Art on an architectural scale at LACMA". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
- "Metropolis II | LACMA". www.lacma.org. Retrieved 2016-11-06.
- Hill, Libby (March 24, 2016). "LACMA's well-known 'Urban Light' will go dark for two months". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 17, 2017.
- Finkel, Jori. "'Urban Light' lights up the screen". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
- Maher, Tiffany (June 2, 2014). "Tiffany Maher feed: 'A night I will never forget ~ @hitthefloor #devilgirls @LACMA @VH1'". Twitter.