It's an intimate supper for Pittsburgh's art elite. At the home of a local art patron besuited men and bejeweled women have gathered to meet Chris Burden, a soft-spoken conceptual artist wearing a plaid shirt and khakis. After a few drinks someone dares to pop the big question: "Didn't it hurt when you had yourself crucified on a Volkswagen?"

Burden holds up his hands. "Not really. See? I don't have scars."

"What about when you had a friend shoot a bullet into your arm?"

"Nah," Burden confides. "It was worse when I was sewn into a bag and hung on a gallery wall between two paintings. Now that hurt"

One glance at Burden's 20-year retrospective—which ended a Pittsburgh run in July and is now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston—makes it clear why people keep asking him such strange questions. Glass cases at the exhibition hold relics from his notorious "action art" events: the wires that nearly electrocuted him in 1973, the glass shards he crawled over with his hands tied behind his back that same year, the nails that crucified him in 1974. Displayed nearby are other objects rarely found in an art museum: the crude TV and car Burden designed and assembled from scratch, the paper airplane that qualifies as one of the world's fastest vehicles because he flew it from the back to the front of the Concorde in flight.

Phew! It's no wonder reasonable people start raging like lunatics about the meaning of art when faced with Burden's work. Critics have condescendingly called him the Evel Knievel of Art, museums have backed out on commissions, and a Maryland psychologist once went on TV to question his sanity. Yet he has also garnered some of art's highest laurels, including a tenured professorship at UCLA, four National Endowment for the Arts grants and inclusion of his works in the collections of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and top museums. "One way to describe him is the B word: brilliant," says Boston ICA director David A. Ross. "He makes a powerful and subtle comment about the mores of our time and often shocks people in doing so."

A slightly pudgy guy with a gee-whiz, Beaver Cleaver accent, Burden, 43, still struggles to understand the fuss he generates. "It surprises me that people care so much," he says. "They think I'm taking advantage of them. I'm not. I just want to give concrete answers to questions that might not otherwise get answered. My works are tools to make people think."

Burden, who names each of his art events, triggered his highest peak of controversy in 1971 with Shoot. Standing in a bare gallery, he instructed a friend positioned 15 feet away to shoot him in the left arm with a .22 rifle. "I had an intuitive sense that being shot is as American as apple pie," he says. "We see people being shot on TV, we read about it in the news-paper. Everybody has wondered what it's like. So I did it."

Burden's most famous works, which date back to the 1970s, projected a shocking aura of violence and danger. He believed that an intense moment—a shooting, a crucifixion, a crawl across shattered glass—could make viewers seriously ponder the nature of brutality. "I also set up those unexpected, dreaded situations as an attempt to control fate," he says. "Instead of letting things happen to me, I made them happen."

Yet Burden insists he is not a masochist and says his art has never endangered his life. He intentionally created an appearance of danger that far exceeded the actual risk. When he had himself nailed to a Volkswagen for Trans-Fixed, for example, he used tiny, sterile, sharpened nails that pierced the skin of his palms without hurting. Before Shoot he had the friend who was going to shoot him practice by missing entirely, so that when the real shot came, Burden felt confident it wouldn't be fatal. (His small flesh wound did require emergency-room treatment.) "A high school football star gets more abuse than I did," he says. "I'm not into pain at all. I'm a total chicken. I wear my seat belt."

Not all of his works have called for physical bravery. In 1975 he bought 10-and 30-second spots of network time to flash the phrases TIME KILLS, SCIENCE HAS FAILED and HEAT IS LIFE (graffiti he had admired on the street) across millions of Los Angeles TV screens. That same year, without announcing his exact intentions, he brought a piece of plate glass into Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and lay motionless beneath it as a protest against spectators who expect art to be an exciting show. Not knowing how to react, curators kept the museum open around the clock and left Burden there for 45 hours without food or use of the bathroom. Impatient viewers pelted him with coins, fruit and even bras. Burden, who had decided he wouldn't budge until someone offered help, finally emerged after a museum employee proffered a container of water. "The museum didn't want a short work," he says, "so the piece was about them having to take the initiative to stop it."

Though Burden usually limited the audiences for his events to a few close friends, word-of-mouth accounts made him both a hero of the 1970s avant-garde and the bane of some critics who accused him of being an exhibitionist. Burden denies the latter charge, pointing out that he never performed for the press. It was the media hoopla, in fact, that finally persuaded him to curtail his wild events in 1983. "By doing the same stuff over and over, you become a performer, like a nightclub act," he says. "You do what's expected of you. So I started to make things instead. It seemed stronger than just presenting ideas."

Those things—an eclectic jumble of photos, trinkets and gizmos—are what make his current retrospective resemble a half-baked yard sale. Yet closer inspection shows that almost every item has a punch as provocative as Burden's performances once did. A display of tax forms, bank statements and every check he wrote in 1976 is intended as a parody of financial scandals that require politicians to reveal all. Eight-inch models of 625 subs launched by the U.S. defense department are meant to bring dry military statistics to life. "Just seeing all those subs tells you something," Burden says. "You think, 'Gee, is this all we have? It's not very many.' "

Tiny subs and other childhood toys help Burden illustrate many of his adult concepts. His own childhood, however, doesn't sound eventful enough to have laid the groundwork for his grown-up art. The eldest of three children, Burden grew up in Europe and Massachusetts with his mother, a housewife, and his father, a now-retired Harvard engineering professor. At 13, Chris became an avid photographer, and in high school he took up wrestling and ceramics. He entered Pomona College as an architecture student but switched to sculpture because "when I design something, I can't wait to see it." While building a 200-foot outdoor sculpture as a graduate student at the University of California at Irvine, he had a revelation. "I noticed that every time I wanted to move something, I had to walk 200 feet," he says. "It seemed that sculpture was about physical activity."

So Burden started making interactive sculptures that required viewers to move. His master's thesis took an even bigger leap, involving movement and no sculpture. He had himself locked in a two-by two-by three-foot locker for five days with five gallons of drinking water. "Rather than sculpting a box and getting into it," he says, "I didn't make anything. I made the action into art."

After his 1971 graduation Burden lived for nine years in a tiny $80-a-month former hot-dog stand in Venice, Calif., where what little he earned financed his performances. Still far from wealthy, he now makes a steady income; he netted $33,000 when his submarines were sold to the Dallas Museum of Art recently. Divorced from his first wife, Barbara, an accountant, he lives with his second wife, sculptor Nancy Rubins, in a secluded one-bedroom home in the mountains near Los Angeles. For four years, while the house was being built, they had no electricity, telephone or running water and were frequently visited by coyotes and foxes. Burden adamantly preserves the privacy of his home, where he hikes and gardens when he isn't planning new works. "Most people who become public have a need for privacy," he explains. "Some things I do are my personal life and some are a work of art. They're separate."

The next year will provide less time for the personal side, for Burden will be presenting three shows at New York galleries. Among the new works he is preparing is Spinning Dervish, an electric maypole hung with 400-pound steel plates that rise as the pole spins. "Believe me," Burden says, "it'll be scary. I'm going to test it in my backyard so if it falls apart, it will only hit the hill."

Still trying to scare the wits into us, Burden hasn't changed all that much over the years. "I want to be remembered as a good artist," he says. "But I'm willing to wait. In a way my art is like advanced-level physics. Most people don't understand it. But someday, I think they will."