Photo of Jack Burnham by Lutz Dammbeck, 2002
Photo by Lutz Dammbeck, 2002

  a node for jack burnham  

13 November 1931 - 24 February 2019

Jack Burnham was the most profound and farsighted writer on art and technology in the 1960s and 70s -- not to mention his importance as a theorist, critic and curator. Yet most of his books are out of print now. How can that be?

At the conclusion of Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968) he had written:

"[The] cultural obsession with the art object is slowly disappearing and being replaced by what might be called 'systems consciousness.' Actually, this shifts from the direct shaping of matter to a concern for organizing quantities of energy and information...

"Deep-rooted drives lasting several millenia are not erased from the human personality overnight. Yet there is abundant evidence that the modern era of artistic expression through sculptured objects is drawing to a close. Taking the path outlined up to now, it would be logical to speculate on the quasi-biological nature of future art...

"[It] is generally acknowledged by scientists working in the field of bio-electronics that there are no qualitative physical differences between living and nonliving matter; both groupings represent, simply, an ascending scale of complexity in the organization of matter. Therefore organisms artificially created may possess consciousness. Their level of subjectivity and intelligence depends upon their creator's ability to simulate or improvise upon biological principles...

"Unless the world is substantially altered for the worst, the logical outcome of technology's influence on art before the end of this century should be a series of art forms that manifest true intelligence, but perhaps more meaningfully, with a capacity for reciprocal relationships with human beings...

"It also implies a gradual phasing out, or programmed obsolescence, of all natural organic life, substituting far more efficient types of life forms for our 'inferior' and imperfect ones..."

It's a full-blown Faustian vision. Burnham probably went overboard on the historical determinism angle - later editions of BMS dropped the claim that synthetic creations would make "all natural organic life" obsolete, and his later writings focus on the mythic and mystical aspects of art. But regardless of whether you agree that synthetic life is the next step in sculpture, it is undoubtedly true that Jack's outline of "systems esthetics" was a pivotal contribution.

Jack Burnham was my hero during the 1970s, when I was a young artist just starting to write for Artforum and he was at the peak of his career. I was too poor to buy clothes back then, so Jack gave me his brother's old US Army uniforms from the 1950s. I wore them proudly, since they said "Burnham" on the breast pocket. Now I would like to do something to repay him for the support and inspiration he gave.

This site (online since August 2000 and most recently updated on 19 May 2024) aims to be a gateway to Jack's writing and to perceptive comments on his work by other people, whether the articles themselves are located here or elsewhere, online or offline. Many thanks to Michael Bonesteel, Michael Ringland, Kevin B. Leonard, Timothy Garrett, Barry Alpert, Stephan Pickering, Edward Shanken, William L. Tchakirides, Michael Schippling and Lutz Dammbeck for information, suggestions and research which have helped to expand and improve this site. Your feedback, written contributions, ideas and new links are eagerly sought.

Robert Horvitz

Photo of Jack from the Software show catalogue
Jack's photo in the Software catalog, 1970


Jack Wesley Burnham Jr. was born on 13 November 1931 in New York City and grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts. He studied at the Boston Museum School and the Wentworth Institute before graduating from the Yale School of Art with a BFA in 1959 and an MFA in 1961. From 1956 to 1968, he worked intermittently as a signpainter and draftsman, but sculpture was his main focus - often including light (incandescent bulbs, neon, etc.; a photo of a ceiling-mounted piece from 1968, made of electro-luminescent tape and aluminum channels, appears in Beyond Modern Sculpture; click here for a monochrome photo of his "viewer activated luminous ribbons" shown at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago, 22 July – 16 August 1968). He was a Fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1968-9 and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973-4 to work on a book about Duchamp. During his most prolific period as a writer, he taught art history at Northwestern University in Illinois, becoming chairman of the art department in 1976. He took time off from Northwestern to teach at the University of California at San Diego, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Colgate University, and Williams College. In the 1980s he moved to the University of Maryland (College Park campus) and again chaired the art and art history departments. One of his students recalls his final years as marked by tragedy: "The second semester I took a class with him he was apparently living in his office [this would have been after his divorce]. Obviously he was circumspect about it but it's not the kind of thing that can remain hidden. Colleagues I understood tried 'reasoning' with him but he was on his own line and counsel. It led to his resignation... The things that bind people to each other in common simply slipped from him. [Anne] Truitt was in touch with him and she intimated he had had a breakdown. He had nowhere to go and no one at his side..." He told a friend in 1981, "At this point I'll have to pass on rejoining society." By the time he died in February 2019, many people had forgotten he was still alive.




Poster announcing Burnham's lecture on Duchamp at RISD (year unknown)
Poster from the Rhode Island School of Design's archive (probably from 1985, since October 8th was on Tuesday that year)

cover of Dissolve into Comprehension

NOTE: George Braziller Inc., the firm which published Jack's books, gave its archives to the Princeton University Library. According to the online catalog of the Library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the manuscripts and correspondence related to Beyond Modern Sculpture, The Structure of Art, Great Western Salt Works and The Structure of Art (revised) are in C0795 Box 4.


FeedbackArt into SpaceChris Burden