Scott Burton (American, 1939-1989), 'Münster Benches, a Pair,' Designed 1987; fabricated 1999. Painted aluminum, 40 by 190 by 58 inches each. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Museum Purchase

Scott Burton (American, 1939-1989)

Münster Benches, a Pair, Designed 1987; fabricated 1999
Painted aluminum, 40 x 190 x 58 in. each
Museum Purchase

Scott Burton was one of those rare artists who carve their own distinctive niche. His sculptural furniture straddles categories and blurs boundaries in ways that enrich the viewing experience. Reviewing Burton’s work, the late art historian Robert Rosenblum acknowledged a "bewilderment in confronting something that belongs comfortably to no familiar category." (1)

Burton entered the art world as a critic and historian, became a performance artist, and ultimately emerged as a sculptor and public artist. That unconventional trajectory gave him a broad historical and conceptual perspective as he developed his novel artistic practice. As a sculptor, Burton focused on furniture design and arranged his objects--often a cluster of chairs and tables--like tableaux or stage sets awaiting actors. Viewers observe and make use of the seating and tables to "complete" the work, whether it is displayed in a gallery or outdoors as public art. Inspired by modern design theories, Burton invited engagement with his sculptures as a means of heightening individuals’ awareness of the built environment and, as a result, their aesthetic sensibility.

Located in the Martin H. Bush Outdoor Sculpture Collection at Wichita State University, Münster Benches, a Pair is one of two editioned Burton sculptures originally commissioned by the city of Münster, in the former West Germany. In 1977, 1987, 1997, and most recently 2007, this Westphalia municipality engaged prominent international artists to create public art. While researching his project, Burton looked to the neighboring town of Hagen and its Villa Hohenhof, a 1908 house (now museum) designed by Henry van de Velde, the highly influential Belgian architect, interior designer, theorist, and teacher who was an early proponent of the fully designed environment, or Gesamtkunstwerk. In 1906 he established and became the first director of the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, Germany, which was succeeded after World War I by the legendary Bauhaus. Van de Velde developed the building, interiors, furnishings, and garden of the Villa Hohenhof, creating a vibrant embodiment of the encompassing-design ethos.

Knowledgeable about design history and sympathetic to the efforts of van de Velde and the Bauhaus modernists to awaken the public to a richer array of aesthetic pleasures, Burton based his commissioned benches on those in the Villa Hohenhof garden. Yet, as in all his other works inspired by design precedents, he altered the original, subtracting the undulating lines and flourish of art nouveau that van de Velde had employed. The result is a spare, reductive example of late-20th-century public art--one that invites those in the campus community to sit, pause from the academic bustle, and find a moment’s aesthetic pleasure.

--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Robert Rosenblum, "Scott Burton: The Last Tableau," On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 305.