Confrontation through art

It’s been 40 years since 1968, the year in American history that saw the Tet Offensive, the turning point in the Vietnam War that blew apart the Johnson administration’s assertions that the United States was winning the war. It was also the year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon, which lead to decades of conservatism.

Lowry Burgess, then a 28-year-old protester and now a 67-year-old professor in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Art who has installed artworks all over the world, has spent a lifetime trying to heal — Vietnam is “still an open wound,” he says — or to explain, to justify, or, perhaps, to ignore and forget the conflict.

A few weeks ago at the Carnegie Museum of Art, when Burgess read poems from his book, Quiet Axis, that were related to Vietnam, his gray-bearded face turned red and he nearly broke up as he spoke.

“I didn’t think I’d fall apart reading a text that’s so old,” he said the next day. “All of this is still so alive.”

While an art student at the University of Pennsylvania in the early ’60s, Burgess fell in love with Southeast Asian culture and studied 4000 years of failure to conquer Vietnam. He recalled one pivotal night in 1968 when a particularly bloody newscast made him realize that all of his protest efforts had been virtually ineffective. Burgess said protest was like “throwing marshmallows at tanks,” that American politicians were equally as implacable as the Soviet tanks that were rampaging through Prague at the time.

Burgess had also lived under the shadow of the draft for five years. “The draft made a lot of people very sweaty and aware,” he said. Initially, college students were exempt, but by the time the government began drafting college students, Burgess had married. Then, by the time the government started drafting married people, Burgess had had a child.

From 1966 to 1970, Burgess turned away from protest and to his art, another means of protest. He created four paintings, “The Lotus,” “The Rose,” “The White Lily,” and “The Crocus.” The four paintings, oil on canvas, are each approximately 12 feet by 16 feet. Only inches separate the paintings from the monotonous slate-grey floor tiles and the light-grey ceiling in the Forum 61 gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where the paintings are on display through March 23.

In 1968, Burgess had the first of many visions that would guide his work. The first vision was of a floating pond of water angled toward the sun in Afghanistan, a vision Burgess would actually create using holograms in Afghanistan in 1974.

Burgess believes that art has the power to fundamentally change society. Still, at age 67 and weakened by post-polio syndrome, Burgess believes that the country may have squandered a golden opportunity to break out of the cycle of history in 1968.

“For me, art is another form of direct confrontation,” Burgess said. “It is often more fundamentally important — aiming at a totally different layer of consciousness that ultimately changes the basis of the social conversation and fundamental change. I have done it and so have others — but you need to be within a whole field of actions along the same vector which are historically rare.”

Burgess rues the missed chances of the 1960s, the example he gives as the “whole field of actions,” a time when college students and youth around the world rose up and the movement challenged the establishment. “[Art stepped] out of the gallery, out of the museum, off the pedestal, off the wall and into the environment, into the city, into the social fabric,” he said.

Burgess’ paintings are intensely colorful and full of bold imagery, including an arm reaching out of the heavens in “The Crocus.” The paintings borrow the blues that belong to the ocean and to the sky, the reds of molten copper and volcanoes, the black with white specks of a night sky, and the white of lilies. No image or detail in the paintings is extraneous or arbitrary; for instance, in “The Lotus,” the stars are an actual constellation and the Buddha’s pose is one of reassurance.

All of Burgess’ work is extremely complicated and is marked by a worldliness gained from decades of traveling. In one installation, Burgess gathered from all over the world and mixed together sap of 44 trees, water of 33 rivers, and the blood of 33 people among other elements. He poured the mixture into two small metal pods and placed one on top of the Taygetos Mountains in Greece and released the second into the Mediterranean Sea near the mountains. He also sent the work “Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture” into outer space aboard NASA’s space shuttle Discovery in 1989.

Burgess’ childhood and the way he was raised contributed to his fascination with the world. “I grew [up] during the Second World War, and the world was very big for me because my father was in the South Pacific,” Burgess said.

“I got very strange gifts from the Pacific, you know, anthropological objects, Boomerangs. My teddy bear was a stuffed Koala bear from Australia — a real bear. A taxidermy bear was my teddy bear.”
Burgess was also influenced when, not even 5 years old, he visited massive aircraft carriers, monumental battleships, and even a Japanese two-man submarine that’s now in a museum in Norfolk, Va.

Because his father was fighting in the war, Burgess spent a lot of his early childhood with his grandparents and aunts. His grandparents were part of a newspaper-publishing family and had a broad view of the world that was atypical of the times, given that communication of the time was limited to the radio and newsprint. Burgess’ grandmother instilled in him from an early age an importance for watching the globe and understanding what was going on.

“When I went to see my grandmother, I would be asked — when I was 6 or 7 — what I thought of the Syrian situation,” Burgess said, recalling his grandmother with her short-wave radio, newspapers, and magazines. “So, already there was this global, ‘Don’t you know about what’s going on in South America or Japan or wherever?’”

Burgess has passed the lessons from his grandmother onto his own children and grandchildren, whom he often gives art materials to play with while he works in his studio.

“My family’s very important to me and my art,” said Burgess, who married his wife Janet in 1960. “She’s a constant companion and I rarely travel without her.” Even when Burgess traveled to Afghanistan in the 1970s, Janet and his children accompanied him: “We wanted our kids to grow up in a big world,” he said.

Although Burgess indulges in complexity, his paintings haven’t confused visitors to the Carnegie Museum. Assistant Curator of Education Lucy Stewart described the paintings as “one big ball of energy.” In a Carnegie Mellon podcast with Burgess, Miriam Seidel, a critic with the art magazine Art in America, said, “They’re bright, they’re out there.... You can just enter right in and start to experience them with whatever you bring to the gallery.”

Burgess, who spends a lot of time at the museum talking with visitors and is on a first-name basis with the security guards, related the reaction of one visitor who thought the paintings were “something healing.” Indeed, according to Burgess, the four paintings were a raison dêtre (“reason for being”) for himself and others while violence ravaged the world in the 1960s and the almost half-century since. The paintings, along with Quiet Axis, helped put man into context in the grand scheme of things.

Lest any of his mystical and complex philosophy begin to unravel, in 1987 Burgess wrote and published the poetry collection Quiet Axis about a set of related artworks of the same name; the set includes pieces from around the world and is the culmination of 40 years of work, which all began with the four paintings at the Carnegie Museum.

At his out-of-the-way North Side studio, which is sandwiched between a bowling alley and a funeral home, Burgess has binders that document his other arguments and sources of inspiration: lines from Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost, in addition to poetry, philosophy, and sheets of music. Loyal to his inspiration, Burgess has lines and entire poems committed to memory. In his office at Carnegie Mellon, he has thousands of books on myriad subjects as well as dozens of recordings and scores of avant-garde music, which has played a great role in his life. When Burgess was 15, one of his friends, an organist 12 years older than him, would perform the monumental works of French composer Olivier Messiaen and pieces by Max Reger; in the latter pieces, Reger added voices to Bach’s fugues (compositions in which one theme answers another within the work), which already had three, four, or five voices. Later, Burgess himself composed and was involved in musical circles, particularly around composers John Cage, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, and Maryanne Amacher.

Music and sound make Burgess see colors as he has synesthesia, a neurological blurring of the senses. In other kinds of synesthesia, people will “taste” sound or see different letters of the alphabet in colors. At Burgess’ studio, he’ll play Poulenc and ask you to listen for the one particular chord that he painted at the top of “The Crocus.”

In addition to his artwork, Burgess teaches art students at Carnegie Mellon and tries to pass onto them his view of the role of the artist in society. He wants his students to do more than criticize society through their artwork by trying to recreate the fervor of the 1960s, when art became a potent element of the protest movement.

Many have compared the war in Iraq that began in 2003 to Vietnam, a repetition of history that would seem to negate — or at least strongly challenge — Burgess’ life work, which focuses on a protest of the war that affected him so strongly.

“It has been like being in an echo chamber — same arguments, pretexts, and rhetorical twists — just different names and more sophisticated governmental evasions and distractions,” Burgess stated in an e-mail. “There is little sense of the striving for the ‘common good’ left.”

Burgess hasn’t found the spark of the generation of 1968 in the generation of 2008. Burgess said the college students of 2008 “are mummified by personalized media — cell phones, iPods, BlackBerrys, and computer blogging,” and that they don’t realize that “it is neither cohesive nor effective social communication. The dreadful end-process of postmodern methology [of criticizing rather than acting] has rendered direct speech nearly impossible.”

While the world may be trapped in a historical cycle, people have Burgess’ paintings and other artwork, which are meant to comfort rather than answer the why of war and destruction. Visitors have told Burgess they are inspired and comforted by the paintings, and so he, too, is comforted.

Despite his interest in war and protesting it, a fundamental optimism lies at the heart of Burgess’ work. Speaking of hope for the future, as Burgess wrote in one of his poems that NASA took into outer space: “O before, utterly before/Yet after, after all foresakeness:/Darkness beyond all darkness, even there slightly lifting, The Boundless Cube.”