Dissolve into Comprehension
Writings and Interviews, 1964-2004
352 pp., 7 x 9 in, 32 b&w illus.
- Published: August 15, 2023
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: September 4, 2015
- Publisher: The MIT Press
Influential writings by the legendary art critic and theorist Jack Burnham—a pioneer in new media systems aesthetics and an early advocate of conceptualism.
Jack Burnham is one of the few critics and theorists alive today who can claim to have radically altered the way we think about works of art. Burnham's use of the term “system” (borrowed from theoretical biology) in his 1968 essay “System Aesthetics” announced the relational character of conceptual art and newer research-based projects. Trained as an art historian, Burnham was also a sculptor. His first book, Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968), established him as a leading commentator on art and technology. A postformalist pioneer, an influential figure in new media art history, an early champion of conceptual and ecological art, and the curator of the first exhibition of digital art, Burnham is long overdue for reevaluation. This book offers that opportunity by collecting a substantial and varied selection of his hard-to-find texts, some published here for the first time.
Although Burnham left the art world abruptly in the 1990s, his visionary theoretical ideas have only become more relevant in recent years. This collection seeks to restore Burnham to his rightful place in art criticism and theory, reestablishing his voice as crucial to critical conversations of the period. It gathers his early writing on sculpture, his essays on systems art and conceptualism, his views of the New York art world, and his later occult work—including an unorthodox interpretation of Marcel Duchamp's work that draws on the Kabbalah.
This valuable collection of Jack Burnham's writing presents a long-overdue opportunity to reconsider the breadth and significance of his work. Here we encounter the ambition and energy of Burnham's syncretic intellectual approach alongside its uneven and mercurial aspects. Burnham was the first to attempt a substantive theoretical critique of formalist orthodoxy in the US context, and his pioneering project to account for post-object art in the expanded field repays renewed consideration.
Luke Skrebowski, University Lecturer, Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge
In recent years, Burnham's star has risen among scholars and art professionals who have come of age with the Internet. This timely and fascinating collection of essays collates Burnham's prescient articulations of how art can be created and explored outside of entrenched modernist categories and media, whether it is dispersed in systems, converges with machines, or is mystically intuited.
Lars Bang Larsen, art historian and international curator; editor of Networks
Burnham was a fighter on the front lines of massive shifts in art and life in the postwar period. By bringing together both his famed and esoteric writings, this volume reveals the startling range and diversity of Burnham's thought. His watershed introduction of the concept of 'systems' into the sphere of aesthetics—an attempt to understand the transformation of the discrete art object in a universe of vast new interconnections between people, machines, and capital—still reads like a salvo. And yet Burnham's texts are not naïve paeans to technology. They are filled with doubt—anxious meditations on subjects and objects, networks and artworks, functionalism and formalism, synergy and breakdown. He saw not only the flexibility and intelligence of systems but their fragility, our 'technological house of cards.' In heralding the rise of information technologies in an art world preternaturally suspicious of such epochal changes, Burnham's investigations of materiality, anthropomorphism, catastrophe, and critique in another historical moment are so prescient as to continue to shape our own.
Michelle Kuo, Editor in Chief, Artforum International