You can thank Max.
One afternoon in 2000, artist Chris Burden was wandering through the Rose Bowl Flea Market with his friend Paul Schimmel, then chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Schimmel’s son Max, 11, came running over, excited about a vendor selling vintage street lamps, which were disassembled and strewn across the ground.
Check them out, Max urged.
And that’s how Burden found the first street lamps that would form his “Urban Light” installation, now at the entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The artwork, one of the city’s most popular landmarks, turns 10 this month. To mark its first decade, the museum has switched from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, a birthday gift from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
It’s something that the late Burden’s wife, Nancy Rubins, said would have pleased the artist.
“Chris was a super proponent of the environment and that LEDs can be found, now, to the exact same light and intensity and color and tone that the initial light bulbs gave off, I think it would be marvelous for him,” she said. “Because that’s what drew him to the piece. It was light.”
Environmental concerns aren’t the only reasons behind the switch to LEDs. For that and other surprising facts behind the design and operation of “Urban Light” — Did you know that the lamps are set by an astronomical timer? — we’ve pulled together some fun facts about LACMA’s most popular artwork.
Just how many lights are there?
“Urban Light” has 202 street lamps. The total number of bulbs is 309 because some lampposts have two globes.
Who decides when the lights go on and off?
“Urban Light” goes on every day at dusk and blinks off every day at dawn, guided by an astronomical timer that automatically adjusts to local sunrise and sunset. It hasn’t missed a single night since it was installed on Feb. 8, 2008.
Are the lamps authentic or replicas?
Burden collected authentic, cast-iron lamps, all from the 1920s and ’30s. He sandblasted, powder-coated, rewired and otherwise repaired them in his Topanga Canyon studio.
Are all the lights the same?
There are 16 different lamppost designs in the installation. The globes atop each lamppost vary in shape and size — round, acorn and cone. The acorn-shaped globes are not made anymore, so LACMA scours the city and stockpiles them in case one needs to be replaced.
The lights come from neighborhoods mostly in Southern California. In 2008, in a public conversation with Burden, LACMA Director Michael Govan talked about how the lampposts were distinctively of Los Angeles:
“I remember being incredibly amazed by them and knowing that they had to be in Los Angeles,” he said. “Because, in so many ways, they were the representation of the whole county, with each city responsible for designing its own lamps. Each lamp, then, was an expression of that city’s design; they were public art. And of course they’ve now created this image through their density.”