On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

SCOTT BURTON: THE LAST TABLEAU 1991

Although it was generally assumed that Scott Burton's art, like his life, had come to a painfully premature end on December 29, 1989, in the year of his fiftieth birthday, it turns out that in his typically canny and future-oriented way he had kept a major surprise in store for posterity. During the last two years that remained for him under the darkening shadow of AIDS, he was dreaming up an extraordinary sculptural tableau that now, in retrospect, might well be read as the summa of his career. Happily, as with his other projects, he had calculated with maquettes, exact measurements, and the most precise choice of materials, every last, incisive detail of his austere fantasy, so that should anybody care to do so, it could eventually be fabricated, even after his death.

This, in fact, is just what has happened here at the Whitney Museum, where the curtain has at last been raised, with a mixture of posthumous sorrow and living triumph, on the final drama of Burton's art. This last tableau is a work whose spare, ritualistic clarity instantly commands the most fixed and wide-eyed attention, postponing for a long while our bewilderment in confronting something that belongs comfortably to no familiar category, including even the innovative furniture-sculpture hybrids that preoccupied the better part of Burton's energies in the late seventies and eighties. What we see first is something like a stage set with four immobilized players who are at once as inert as scenery and as emotionally commanding as the odd scenario that seems to have been frozen in its tracks (fig. 183). The two figures in the background preside as an identical pair of ominous guardians who, a good foot taller than average human height, tower above this strange rite like grandfather clocks. The center-stage figure, the object of this protected veneration, is a reclining goddess; like the sentries that frame her from behind, she confronts the spectator head-on. And the fourth figure, closest to the imaginary audience and placed at a diagonal before this implacable frontality, is a humbled slave who, with bent knees and elbows, remains eternally prostrate in a submissive posture of worship and sacrifice. Before these dramatis personae we feel privy to the unveiling of an archaic mystery cult that could range anywhere from a newly discovered deity in the Aztec pantheon to H. Rider Haggard She or a science-fiction fantasy on Planet X.

So awesome is this theatrical disclosure of a mythic shrine belonging to the realm of both imaginative anthropology and Freudian psychodrama that we almost forget we are also looking at an entirely different order of things, perhaps more comic than grave. For suddenly, these humanoid actors are transformed into totally utilitarian pieces of furniture of a kind that

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