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Returns to Burn — a review of Ian Burn: Collected Writings 1966-1993


In April, the late-Guzzler launched a catalogue, Intoxication in a New Skill: Ian Burn at Guzzler in Melbourne; a brief encore after moving out of their Rosanna gallery and home just over one year ago.

‘The Estate of Ian Burn is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane’ was plastered in bold ten-times across the launch event's press release. Noted. Guzzler’s publication is the result of two exhibitions of Burn’s early work that were held at the gallery in 2022 – 2023. The first show saw Burn’s entry into the 1962 Travelling Scholarship Prize for the National Gallery School rehung for the first time since its original display. It had for the last twenty-five years resided in the shed of the artist’s brother, Robert Burn, at his property in Newtown, Geelong. The second exhibition featured in the catalogue was a selection of early paintings, drawings and juvenilia; offerings from Burn’s salad days also found in his brother’s collection. The gallery’s contextualisation of this otherwise understudied period of Burn’s oeuvre is accompanied in the catalogue by an essay written by Guzzler gallerist and art historian David Homewood on the scholarship painting and its coordinates in Australian art history. The third instalment of an extended project, the publication is a belated physical record of both exhibitions. It signifies their consecration into a broader art historical narrative surrounding one of Australia’s most important conceptual artists – Ian Burn. 

Front cover of Intoxication in a New Skill: Ian Burn at Guzzler, Guzzler: Berlin, 2024. Design: Alexandra Margetic. Photo: Camille Orel
Centrefold of of Intoxication in a New Skill: Ian Burn at Guzzler, Guzzler: Berlin, 2024. Photo: Camille Orel

In the eighteen months between the Guzzler shows and the deferred publication of Intoxication, a string of events focused on Burn have taken place both locally and internationally. Leading the charge for this recent surge in attention (as she has been for over twenty years now) is Burn’s biographer, collaborator and friend, Dr. Ann Stephen who, with the support of Milani Gallery, curated the artist’s first international solo exhibition at MAMCO Genève early last year. She has since published chapters on Burn in two separate publications: Elize Mazadiego’s anthology Charting Space: Cartographies of Conceptual Art and Paul Wood’s recently launched Biting the Hand: Traces of Resistance in the Art & Language Diaspora. And now, Stephen’s tireless scholarly and curatorial efforts have culminated in the publication of her long-awaited volume, Ian Burn: COLLECTED WRITINGS 1966 – 1993. 

Published in collaboration with Sydney’s Power Publications, the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin, and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, the collection’s publishing credits attest to Burn’s growing reputation throughout Europe. However, this book is just the latest in a series of ‘returns to Burn’ that have punctuated the artist’s historical reception since his untimely passing in 1993. Homewood and Stephen represent two nodes in an intergenerational network of artists, scholars and enthusiasts who have found themselves pulled into Burn’s orbit. 

The following is a review of Stephen’s almost 800-page collection of Burn’s writing. It also sketches out the critical nimbus that hovers above it, just out of sight. This is the intellectual history which has defined Burn’s critical reception and indeed his canonisation as ‘the only Australian ever to be central to an internationally significant movement.’1 Thirty years on, Stephen’s collection returns us to the question: why does Burn remain a tragic point of identification for artists and art historians in Australia? And what bearing does this have on his steadily growing international audience?


Front cover of Ann Stephen, Ian Burn: COLLECTED WRITINGS 1966 – 1993, Power Publications: Sydney, 2024. Photo: Camille Orel

‘An anecdote creates its own necessity, truth notwithstanding’ wrote Burn in his seminal essay ‘Is Art History Any Use to Artists?’2 Published in Stephen’s collection for the third time since it was written in 1985, the essay argues in favour of the anecdote as a powerful mode of historical transmission and an alternative to institutional and academised histories of art. The anecdote, he suggests, is able to generate familiarity while remaining rooted in traditional art teaching practices (i.e., to learn from example), without binding itself to any objective of factual truths. 

As someone who worked closely with the artist during the latter part of his life, Stephen’s portrayal of Burn has always borrowed heavily from personal history. It has also remained relatively close to the artist's own self-image. During her acclaimed 2006 monograph, On Looking at Looking: The art and politics of Ian Burn – which she has described as the ‘companion text’ to her recent volume – Stephen acknowledges the difficulties of reconstructing the history of a close friend. Still, her lack of critical distance has been, for some, a downfall in her scholarship on Burn in the past.3 As such, during the ‘Introduction’ to COLLECTED WRITINGS, Stephen makes the point to separate herself (editor) from Burn (subject). She does so by essentially vowing to ‘stick to the facts’. 

From here, Stephen carefully plots out her editorial direction for the collection, staying close to the primary material at hand. The book, which was designed by Robert Milne, even remains faithful to the various typefaces in which Burn’s texts were originally published. The collection is structured into three parts: ‘I. INTRODUCTION’, ‘II. TEXTS 1966 – 1993,’ and ‘III. IAN BURN MEMORIAL LECTURES’. The second section, made up of Burn’s own writing, is then divided into eight smaller subsections. Each text is accompanied by a brief synopsis and publication history – hard evidence. The first four are ordered chronologically; the second half is collected according to four key themes that underscored Burn’s thinking. These are labour culture, Aboriginal art and landscape, the history of the avant-garde, and the role of perception in art. After her meticulous rundown of the collection’s structure, Stephen’s subsequent ‘Introduction’ moves into a schematic overview of Burn’s life.  It is written with the effortless clarity of a true expert and is, for those both familiar with or new to the artist’s work, a welcomed frame to map the developments made throughout his practice and the texts which are to follow. 

Contents page of Ann Stephen, Ian Burn: COLLECTED WRITINGS 1966 – 1993, Power Publications: Sydney, 2024. Photo: Camille Orel

Over his thirty-year career Burn wrote prolifically, circulating his texts across innumerable publications worldwide. Stephen’s thorough and descriptive approach to Burn’s collection therefore makes for a functional and genuinely valuable resource for those interested. The editorial tone of her ‘Introduction’ can at times, however, read as slightly too careful, too self-conscious of its position within an official history; especially measured against its subject, whose methodological preferences are inherently defiant to this kind of historicization. Her reliance on objective truths in COLLECTED WRITINGS paradoxically undermines Burn’s own anecdotal approach to historical production. ‘Memory plays tricks,’ she warns. It ‘can make writing a history a hazardous enterprise.’ 4 How then, can we reconcile Stephen’s disclaimer with Burn’s inclination toward a history made up of personal recollection and retransmission? 


Perhaps Stephen’s editorial approach to COLLECTED WRITINGS is best understood within a broader discursive context. For followers of Burn, and of his ex-collaborators Art & Language (A&L) – a group of English conceptual artists from the late 1960s – it is known that historicity and questions of authenticity have always been central to the debates surrounding them. There are multiple, interrelated reasons for this. These include: 

  1. A general suspicion of institutionalised and inflexible models of historical production. 
  1. The desire to establish a viable alternative through artistic collaboration and collectivity.
  1. The heterogeneous and often incompatible perspectives and positions (artistic, critical, historical) which subsequently emerge out of these collaborative processes. 

With the above in mind, historical uncertainty and critical discord appear to be constituent features of A&L’s conceptual program. Indeed, since the collective’s inception in the late-1960s their history – which has been largely documented by A&L members themselves – is one marked by a series of internal conflicts and communication breakdowns. But the question of historical authenticity was officially opened to the court of public opinion after the publication of Benjamin Buchloh’s acclaimed 1990 essay ‘Conceptual Art: 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’. In a now-famous footnote, Buchloh accused American artist and A&L member Joseph Kosuth of backdating his early conceptual work. There has since been an outpour of accusations thrown at all those involved, including Kosuth’s own claims of backdating rallied at Burn himself.5

In the mid-2000s, the Brisbane attorney, collector and gallerist David Pestorius threw his hat in the ring, launching an unrepentant campaign against remaining A&L members Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden. He argued that the two deliberately ‘cooked the (history) books’ in order to downplay Burn’s role and influence throughout their decade-long collaboration for the sake of commercial benefit. This conflict went on for years and resulted in several public skirmishes that took the form of conference papers, exhibitions, letters to the editor, and leaked emails. Baldwin and Ramsden even released a diss-track, ‘A Pest,’ which appeared on the 2007 Red Krayola record, Sighs Trapped By Liars.6 

Pestorius’ involvement in Burn’s legacy left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Pitting friends against friends is, after all, a nasty business. Despite the melodrama that surrounded this chapter of Burn studies, Pestorius – along with several local academics, including Rex Butler and Stephen herself – did organise several notable events that helped to extend Burn’s reach. Pestorius even brought prominent Viennese artist Heimo Zobernig into the fold who had, in the early-2000s, begun his own research into Burn’s pre-conceptual grid paintings. Zobernig has since been another important intermediary in the increased recognition of Burn’s solo work throughout Europe over the past two decades. 

By the mid-2010s, this saga appeared to be dying down finally (only after Pestorius delivered a paper chronicling his disputes with A&L at the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand [AAANZ] conference in 2012). It was around this time that several exhibitions reflecting on the legacy of minimalism and conceptualism in Australia were being held across the country, many of which included his work. Notably, a number of these shows happened to occur at university galleries. For example, in 2013 Stephen restaged an exhibition at the University of Sydney that was first held at Melbourne’s Pinacotheca Gallery in 1969 by Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden and Roger Cutforth, and recounted as ‘the first conceptual art exhibition in Australia.’7 Stephen’s exhibition, titled 1969: The Black Box of Conceptual Art later travelled to QUT Museum in 2015 and then to The University of Melbourne’s Margaret Lawrence Gallery in 2016. That year at the annual AAANZ conference, a symposium was held at the Victorian College of the Arts' auditorium to coincide with the exhibition Turning on Burn: A Reflective Conversation. Along with a number of noted Australian academics (Stephen included), several young art historians and writers – Paris Lettau, Victoria Perin, Nicholas Tammens, Amelia Winata, David Wlazlo and the previously mentioned David Homewood – all delivered papers at the event. It was here that a new generation of Burn scholars emerged. 

Having very roughly mapped out some directions in which Burn’s influence precipitated over the three decades after his passing, it is evident that Stephen has remained a central, binding figure within this web. Stephen has facilitated his introduction to not only a wider public audience, but also a circle of younger artists and academics who have continued to expand on Burn’s legacy. Crucial to that legacy, however, is a continued destabilisation and obfuscation of assumed historical orthodoxies. Thus, as Burn’s artistic and critical contributions are solidified within an international history of late-twentieth century art, Stephen’s very position as the critical authority (and unofficial arbiter over his archival material) has become an increasingly precarious one. Burn once confronted A&L member art historian Charles Harrison with a question ‘are you really suggesting that art history today has some objective force, immune to manipulation, vested interest etc, in which I can place my trust?’8 Thanks largely to her own efforts, Stephen has inadvertently become subject to the critiques of her own subject. Here is the tension that underpins Stephen’s COLLECTED WRITINGS the need to preserve Burn’s legacy without eventually undoing it.

Back cover of Ann Stephen, Ian Burn: COLLECTED WRITINGS 1966 – 1993, Power Publications: Sydney, 2024. Photo: Camille Orel

In July 1976, only one year before Ian Burn would begin teaching there, preeminent art historian Bernard Smith delivered the annual Power Lecture at The University of Sydney’s Power Institute. Titled ‘The Death of the Artist as Hero,’ he begins:

Scholars have long concerned themselves with the hidden symbolic meanings and structures of heroic myths. For Levi-Strauss, myths embody not only the social and environmental situations of a community, but also the unresolved human contradictions of that community. Myth admits such contradictions, if not in manifest then in symbolic form. 9

It would surely betray his artistic legacy to consecrate Burn as some kind of ‘hero’ of conceptual art. Throughout his thirty-years of practice he took every opportunity to directly confront the notion of individual authorship and subvert the artistic monoliths that came to underscore an entire modernist history. Only a quick glance at his COLLECTED WRITINGS is evidence enough of Burn’s longstanding suspicion against the artist’s venerated status as ‘hero’. 

And yet, from the late-1980s Burn’s active commitment toward his own self-mythology, toward the ‘processes of trying to make up a story which [he could] live with as a history’ introduces a strange contradiction to that very history.10 On the one hand, this trajectory directly corresponds with Burn’s distrust in institutional and professionalised modes of knowledge production (think of the question he posed to Harrison). On the other, Burn’s desire to be remembered and shape his own legacy appears at odds with his conceptualist scepticism toward the heroic artist.

Burn’s sudden passing complicates things further as this legacy was left in the hands of those around him. The final section of COLLECTED WRITINGS brings together for the first time the four papers that made up the Ian Burn Memorial Lecture series that ran between 1996 – 2004, delivered by Adrian Piper, Paul Wood, Allen Sekula and Mel Ramsden. Their inclusion in Burn’s collection is testament to a life and oeuvre cut short. Burn’s history remains, much like the story of conceptual art, and in the words of Mel Ramsden and Michael Baldwin, ‘radically incomplete.’11   

Burn’s active role in the construction of his own history might be best thought of as his recognition of the particularly capacious ability that Smith detected in his lecture: heroic myths withstand contradiction. In this sense, by sowing the seeds for his own contradiction-ridden myth, Burn assured himself a reception of splits, hostilities, intellectual outpourings. In other words, Burn arranged his own history of anecdotes. Or rather an anecdotal future.  

Camille Orel is a writer based in Berlin.

Supported by Creative Victoria, City of Melbourne and City of Yarra.
This piece is commissioned by one of our 2024 un Extended editor-in-residents: Ella Howells.

1 Ann Stephen, On Looking at Looking: The art and politics of Ian Burn, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006.

2 Ian Burn, “Is Art History and Use to Artists?” in Ann Stephen (ed.) Ian Burn: COLLECTED WRITINGS 1966 –
1993, Power Publications, Sydney, 2024, p. 402.

3 In his review of Stephen’s On Looking, Rex Butler pointed out that the book possessed “no wide-ranging interrogation of Burn and what he stood for.” See Rex Butler, “Ann Stephen: On Looking at Looking: The art and politics of Ian Burn,” Art Monthly 188, April 2006, p. 39.

4  Ann Stephen, “Introduction,” in Ann Stephen (ed.) Ian Burn: COLLECTED WRITINGS 1966 – 1993, Power Publications, Sydney, 2024, p. 12.  

5 Terry Smith, “One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art,” e-flux Journal 29,
November 2011,
/ (accessed May 11, 2024).

6 Ann Stephen, 1969: The Black Box of Conceptual Art, The University of Sydney, Sydney, 2013, p. 6.

7 Letter from Ian Burn to Charles Harrison, 9th September 1988, Papers of Charles Harrison.

8 Bernard Smith, “The Death of the Artist as Hero,” Meanjin 36, May 1977, p. 25.

9 Letter from Ian Burn to Charles Harrison, 22nd April 1988, Papers of Charles Harrison.

10 Mel Ramsden & Michael Baldwin, “We Aimed to be Amateurs,” in Alexander Alberro & Blake Stimson (eds.)
Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1999, 444.