Magazine article Artforum International

Nancy Burson

Magazine article Artforum International

Nancy Burson

Article excerpt

Etan Patz Update (Age 6 to Age 13); 1984

In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.

As a novelist who'd love to reinvent narrative, I'm always looking to art for ideas that I might translate into language, then implement in such a way as to explode the qualities traditionally associated with the novel. While visual art can be almost anything, from a documented, unrealizable idea to a slightly altered meteor crater, fiction is confined in a way that makes even painting's relatively limited arsenal seem gigantic. Modernism enlarged art's possibilities immeasurably, and kept viewers in tow, but the unconventional novel is still proving itself. Some of us whose talent leaves us stuck with words, but who see the world as far too complicated to be served only by linear plot and psychological spelunking, long to appropriate art's physical freedom. Sometimes I spot some fascinating formal sinew, particularly in abstract sculpture, that suggests a kind of linguistic equivalent that might just tweak my writing into an unnatural yet palatable state. But because of the narrowness of my subject matter an d approach, I almost never come across a work of art that strikes me as a visual comrade--a rare exception being Nancy Burson's Etan Patz Update, 1984, a computer-generated "age progression," or "age enhancement," of a New York City boy who disappeared from SoHo in 1979 at the age of six.

At the time that she made Etan Patz Update, Burson was an unusually famous contemporary artist, best known for composite portraits that merged human features with those of animals and inanimate objects. Her work had been showcased in any number of popular contexts, including People magazine, and that high profile is what led the FBI to her: The agency enlisted Burson to create updated images of missing children. Although Etan Patz himself has never been found, a number of the artist's other updates did assist in the recovery of vanished children, and the FBI eventually acquired the composite-imaging software that she'd helped design. Nowadays, age-progressed images are ubiquitous, making Burson that extremely rare artist whose work has had profound consequences outside the realm of high culture.

In creating the "update," devised with the help of computer software that combined Patz's features with those of the relative closest to the age Etan would have been in 1984, Burson could only hope that a human approximation of the resulting image might exist somewhere in the world; there was in fact little chance that the boy was still alive in 1984. He was the most famous missing child of the '80s, the de facto poster boy for all the world's young and unlocatable, and his face received enormous publicity in both the print and electronic media, yet the coverage failed to turn up any useful leads as to his fate. Other missing children had been found with far less assistance, and the ineffectiveness of this widespread campaign pretty much meant that Patz was dead.

And, in fact, by the mid-'8os, popular speculation about this milk-carton kid revolved less around his whereabouts than around the manner of his presumed death. Ultimately, unfounded reports of Patz's involvement in child-prostitution rings, and purported sightings of him in pornographic videos and snuff films, received far more media attention than the stalled narrative of the FBI's investigation. …

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