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Joseph A. Burlini: Retrospective

by Aron Packer, Senior Specialist, Contemporary & Outsider Art


Joseph A. Burlini holds a special place in the public sphere, creating large-scale sculpture, and for me, specifically, creating complex and compelling intimate sculpture that can be enjoyed in one’s home. Burlini’s artistic identity exists in tandem with the strong work ethic of Chicago. Thoughtfully clever with his execution and composition in relation to materials, Burlini’s work has also remained accessible during the course of his diligent career in art and industrial design.

Biography of Joseph A. Burlini

Joseph A. Burlini Retrospective, Koehnline Museum of Art

Sculptor Joseph Burlini (left) talks with Ronald Laurent at the opening of the Burlini retrospective at Oakton Community College’s Koehnline Museum of Art on May 9, 2019. Photo courtesy of Sue Ellen Burlini via dailyherald.com

Born in 1937, Burlini spent his youth in Morton Grove, Illinois. He studied industrial design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1956 to 1960. To start his professional career, he worked for Sears Roebuck and Co. for six years designing toys, cameras, rifles, and other goods. In his spare time, Burlini began to experiment with drawing “Larger Than Life” celebrity portraits as well as welding sculptures from steel rods.

In 1965, Burlini entered a sculpture in The Chicago and Vicinity Show at the Art Institute of Chicago and won the John G. Curtis prize. Soon thereafter, Burlini told his new wife, Sue Ellen, that he planned to quit working in industrial design to become a full-time artist and she encouraged him to pursue his passion.

Throughout Burlini’s 50-plus years as an artist, his focus has evolved in multiple directions. During his gallery years, Burlini went through a 15-year machine phase and later a Man in the Box period. Burlini also produced his Satin and Smoke polished bronze series and 24-carat gold Butterfly People. Perhaps most notable was Burlini’s 15-year stretch creating kinetic do-nothing machines composed of metal rods, wheels, wings, rudders, etc.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago held an early retrospective of Burlini’s work in 1977 entitled Rockets to Rainbows. In subsequent decades, Burlini was commissioned to create bold public sculptures and innovative awards for various corporations and organizations. His clients have included McDonald’s, Standard Oil, Walt Disney Studios, the Pentagon, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and many other Chicago-area institutions.

Childhood Memories of Burlini

Growing up on the north side of Chicago, my parents moved in similar circles as Burlini since my father was also an industrial designer and my mother was a serious painter. We would go to galleries and annual outdoor events like the Old Town Art Fair and the 57th Street Art Fair in Hyde Park. At the time, it felt like my parents were dragging me along and I was not interested in much that I saw. However, the highlight was usually encountering Burlini’s booth with his kinetic do-nothing machines. Nothing else had as much magnetism as Burlini’s playfully ingenious work. To this day, I am still fascinated by his creations.

Joseph A. Burlini Retrospective, Koehnline Museum of Art

Pictured (left to right): [1] Sundial, 1987, Chicago Botanical Gardens, Glencoe, Illinois; [2] Aspire, 1995, Wellness Center, Arlington Heights, Illinois; [3] Flames, 1985, Temple Judea Mizpah, Skokie, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton Community College, Des Plaines, Illinois

Visiting the Burlini Retrospective

Today Joseph A. Burlini is a towering artistic figure in the Chicago art world and beyond. He recently finished a major retrospective (May 9 – June 14, 2019) curated by Nathan Harpaz, Ph.D. at the Koehnline Museum of Art at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. At 82 years of age, Burlini is still going strong. The retrospective showed examples of his first sculptures, his early style developing through welded steel Brutalist masses and shapes, oversized Sharpie portraits, medallions for various awards, plus maquettes and plans for large sculptures. Traveling around the greater Chicago area it is hard not to run into Burlini’s public art at places like the Aon Center, the Chicago Botanical Gardens, and Ravinia.

Just as during my youth, I was most attracted to the kinetic sculptures for which Burlini is best known at the Koehnline retrospective. Walking into the show, I was greeted with a six-foot high kinetic work that was “plugged in,” so to speak, but much of Burlini’s kinetic work is activated by a simple touch. There were at least 20 kinetic examples large and small. Whimsical stationary unicycles looked like they could ride right off their pedestals into the air. At first glance, some sculptures appeared as if they might have some kind of protruding weapon, but slowly they seemed more like futuristic scientific devices gathering information for humanity.

I would posit that the work of Burlini’s kinetic period offers examples of industrial design age folk or outsider art. With all the training that one might have, the best artists are self-taught to some degree. Burlini had this fanciful work in his soul and it needed to come out eventually. Presented here are various scenes from my trip to Joseph A. Burlini: Retrospective.

Joseph A. Burlini Retrospective, Koehnline Museum of Art

Joseph A. Burlini Retrospective, Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton Community College

Joseph A. Burlini Retrospective, Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton Community College

Joseph A. Burlini Retrospective, Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton Community College

Burlini Works Offered by Toomey & Co.


In recent years, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers has offered many Joseph A. Burlini lots. The Instagram post below includes a carousel slideshow of selected works.

Art & Design on September 15, 2019


Toomey & Co. offered the kinetic sculpture pictured below by Joseph Burlini in the Art & Design auction on Sunday, September 15, 2019. To visit the relevant lot detail page, simply click on the image.

Joseph A. Burlini, Kinetic Sculpture, 1978

Joseph A. Burlini
(American, b. 1937) 
Kinetic Sculpture, 1978 
metal, paint, white acrylic and walnut 
inscribed on base J. A. Burlini 1978 
36″h x 17″w x 13″d
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 3
September 15, 2019
Estimate $1,000-1,500
Sold for $1,170