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Ian Lee Burn (1939–1993)

by Ann Stephen

This article was published:

Ian Lee Burn (1939–1993), artist and art writer, was born on 29 December 1939 at Geelong, Victoria, middle of three sons of Geelong-born Eric Frank Burn, builder, and his wife Amy Lillian, née Lee. Ian attended Geelong College (1944–55). After serving an apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery in the family business—an unlikely beginning for a conceptual artist who would come to value the idea of an artwork over its visual properties—he studied painting in 1961 and 1962 at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, Melbourne, under Alan Sumner and John Brack. In 1962 he was awarded the NGV Society drawing prize.

With other young artists—including George Baldessin, Jan Senbergs, Bea Maddock, and Paul Partos—by 1963 Burn lived in the seedy beachside suburb of St Kilda. The group shared an enthusiasm for the recently recovered early work of (Sir) Sidney Nolan, who had painted St Kilda scenes in the 1940s. Another formative Melbourne encounter was with the older painter Fred Williams, with whom Burn worked in a picture framing shop. Around this time he met his future wife, Avril Florence Nothnagel, who became the subject of a series of his paintings and prints. They married in September 1964 in Melbourne. In October the couple set off for Europe, after he had participated in several group shows and two solo exhibitions of his St Kilda series.

In London, while working at a picture framer’s with Partos and another artist, Mel Ramsden, Burn pursued an increasingly reductive abstraction inspired by the modernism of Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella. He moved to New York in 1967, precipitating a radical change in his painting from stretched canvas to plywood panel, from paintbrush to industrial spray, and from vertical easel to horizontal plane. When Ramsden joined him from London, they began a daily conversation about the limits of abstraction. Burn moved to using ‘invisible’ (Burn 1970) materials such as glass, acetate, and mirrors, which turned the gaze of the beholder into a self-reflexive encounter. He also began to use Xerox machines as an art process, producing distortion by repeated photocopying. In 1969, together with Ramsden and Roger Cutforth, he sent an exhibition of early conceptual art—including several of his Xerox Books—to the Pinacotheca Gallery, St Kilda.

Ramsden, Burn, and Cutforth formed the Society for Theoretical Art and Analyses in 1969, to publish and exhibit all their work as ‘Proceedings.’ The following year Burn and Ramsden joined Joseph Kosuth as the New York wing of the British conceptual art group Art & Language. Burn curated with Kosuth the first museum exhibition of conceptual art in the city, Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects (1970), held at the New York Cultural Center. He had maintained contact with Australia through writing and exhibitions, including participating in the 1968 survey of Australian contemporary art, The Field, and briefly returned in 1972. On arriving back in New York, he made a critique of internationalism and cultural dependency central to the work of Art & Language, New York. Among the group’s most inspired collaborations was 9 Gross and Conspicuous Errors, a video performance of agitprop punk rock lyrics shown at the John Weber Gallery in June 1976. However, internal divisions eventually closed the New York chapter of Art & Language.

Burn returned to Australia in 1977 with Avril and their young son. They settled in Sydney, and he taught at the University of Sydney and Alexander Mackie College for several years, while also developing trade union press materials with other artists and journalists. From 1981 he was a journalist with Union Media Services. He wrote and designed union campaign material; encouraged artists to develop Art and Working Life projects with unions; co-organised the Artworkers Union (1979); and wrote widely on art and politics, including National Life and Landscapes: Australian Painting 19001940 (1990) and Dialogue: Writings in Art History (1991). When preparing his early minimal and conceptual art for a survey, he found himself looking at paintings he had not seen since sending them back from London and New York in the 1960s. That process of recovery propelled him to return to an art practice which he had renounced decades earlier—landscape painting.

As an artist Burn forged a career that straddled remarkably different spheres, including regional Australian landscape, the extremes of New York conceptual art, trade union culture, and a return to painting, which was ended by his death. He drowned on 29 September 1993 at Pretty Beach, Ulladulla, and was cremated. His wife, son, and daughter survived him. His work on de-skilling and the politics of place and distance made him a model for the political legacy of conceptual art. According to Ramsden: ‘Ian’s achievements are complex. They flow from his commitment to the requirement that art be located within some sort of social base … [a] commitment to working … conversationally’ (Ramsden 1993, 35). A memorial lecture was established in his honour in 1996. His work is held by all State galleries, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Burn, Ian. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 30 April 1970. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Hutak, Michael. ‘Ian Burn Lost in Rescue Drama.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 30 September 1993, 24
  • Ian Burn: Minimal-Conceptual Work 1965–1970. Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1992. Exhibition catalogue
  • McCulloch, Alan. The Encyclopedia of Australian Art. Revised and updated by Susan McCulloch. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1994
  • Ramsden, Mel. ‘Tribute to Ian Burn.’ Art Monthly Australia, no. 65 (November 1993): 35
  • Stephen, Ann. On Looking at Looking: The Art and Politics of Ian Burn. Carlton, Vic.: The Miegunyah Press, 2006

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann Stephen, 'Burn, Ian Lee (1939–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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