Tom Burr

Sam Korman on the American artist’s attempt to revive New Haven’s Pirelli Building

By Sam Korman

Bae Genet / Grey Genet, 2017, powder-coated steel guardrails, urinal, partition from Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli Building, direct-to-substrate print on aluminium, 122 × 419 × 305 cm. Photo: Jessica Smolinski. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York Pirelli Building, New Haven. Photo: Jessica Smolinski. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York Brutalist Bathroom, 2017, powder-coated steel guardrails, bathroom doors from Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli Building, direct-to-substrate print on aluminium, 207 × 633 × 305 cm. Photo: Jessica Smolinski. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York People Are Strange (touch me), 2017, powder-coated steel guard rails, direct-to-substrate, print on aluminium, 91 × 184 × 164 cm. Photo: Jessica Smolinski. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York The Railings (May, 1970), 2017, blackened steel, polished steel etched with Jean Genet’s 1970 ‘May Day Speech’, tempered glass, 107 × 1372 × 762 cm. Photo: Jessica Smolinski. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York Body/Building (local layers), 2017, trench coat, seersucker blazer and coat hangers belonging to the artist’s father, metal, clothing rack, wooden pedestal, 175 × 91 × 91 cm. Photo: Jessica Smolinski. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York Untitled ( from 42nd Street Structures), 1995, Polaroid photographs, 8 × 8 cm (each). Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York Untitled ( from 42nd Street Structures), 1995, Polaroid photographs, 8 × 8 cm (each). Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York Untitled ( from 42nd Street Structures), 1995, Polaroid photographs, 8 × 8 cm (each). Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York

On 14 May 2017, Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli Building was revived. Electricity had been restored to the long empty tower, safety measures put back in place and permission to use the space granted by the various powers overseeing the Brutalist landmark in New Haven, Connecticut. The opening of Tom Burr/New Haven (2017), alternatively titled Body/Building, also marked the eponymous artist’s prodigal return: the building stands in Burr’s hometown.

Work on this site-specific, ‘evolving exhibition’ had begun six months prior, when the artist and his team sought initial approval from the gods of state and local government, the building’s superintendents under the State Register of Historic Places; IKEA, which owned it; and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose signature was required because the building stands on a floodplain. In the end, Burr dedicated Phase I: Pre-existing Conditions of the yearlong undertaking to this odyssey, through the bureaucratic underworld and the months of paperwork required to bring the corporate headquarters of first the Armstrong Rubber Company and then Pirelli back to life.

With the transferal of responsibility for Breuer’s edifice to Burr (and Bortolami, the gallery that represents him in New York and which sponsored the project), there was also a transferal of energy: the building became a surrogate for the artist. Burr used the space to examine his life and career through a sparse installation that, though limited to the former showroom on the ground floor, recuperated many of the artist’s themes in a grand self-portrait.

Central to this project was a consideration of the time and place in which the artist was raised. Brutalist Bathroom (2017) paired a bathroom door with a portrait printed on aluminium of J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI and a closeted crossdresser, holding a Tommy gun. Nearby, the artist had inscribed a set of railings with a 1970 speech delivered by Jean Genet in New Haven (The Railings (May 1970), 2017) that took as its theme violence against African Americans in light of Black Panther-cofounder Bobby Seale’s recent arrest by the city’s police, part of a determined effort by Hoover to destroy the group. An image from Jim Morrison’s arrest on obscenity charges while performing at New Haven Arena in 1967 is reproduced in People Are Strange (touch me) (2017), another aluminium-printed panel leaned against one of the storefront’s signature elongated windows. Laid on the ground beside a dusty section of floor tile is Cubicle (2017), a portrait of Anni Albers, who lived in New Haven when her husband, Josef, was employed by Yale University, next to an aluminium sheet printed with a textile pattern of her design. All of these historic characters could be read as heroes, bad boys, villains, role models, idols and crushes, and Body/Building had something of the secretive air of a teenager’s bedroom. 

New Haven at the end of the 1960s and start of the 1970s encapsulated a turbulent period in American history, and Burr’s representations of that time imbue the show with a poignant sense of loss

The Pirelli was completed in 1969, when Burr was six, and it seems fair to assume that this local boy witnessed how the building’s modular approach, and its aspirations to create a better corporate labour structure through design, failed to arrest the slow decline of the companies it hosted and the entire regional economy. New Haven at the end of the 1960s and start of the 1970s encapsulated an inflammatory period in American history, and Burr’s representations of that time and period imbue it with a poignant sense of loss.

This loss is figured in intimate as well as macroeconomic terms. Genet, a key figure in the exhibition, appears in the prime of his youth and as an old man in the diptych Bae Genet / Grey Genet (2017), two portraits separated by a urinal divider. The khaki trenchcoat, seersucker blazer and loafers displayed on a wooden pedestal in Body/Building (local layers) (2017) would have been a familiar sight on the upper floors of the Pirelli Building. Plain and neat, they defined the tight-lipped academic chic in this university town. The garments were gleaned from Burr’s nonagenarian father’s wardrobes, which begs the question: what was he saving them for?

There are no people, and the photographs are tightly cropped. That one shows nothing but a sign for 25-cent peepshows is enough to understand the selling point of these establishments. That’s not a lot to pay for privacy

Burr moved to New York during the 1980s, so it made sense to meet for dinner in Times Square, which the artist described to me as ‘the eternal New York’. During the early 1990s he’d spent a lot of time here, a neighbourhood whose nightlife was being threatened by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s ‘quality of life’ policies. A series of Polaroids, 42nd Street Structures, catalogues the area’s porn and burlesque theatres and exhibits Burr’s preoccupation with the symbols of entertainment and the simple economy of signage. Other images, such as a murky, untitled, desaturated photograph from 1995, depict crude, bent-metal forms that reinforce makeshift security measures. There are no people, and the images are tightly cropped. That one image shows nothing but a sign for 25-cent peepshows is enough to understand the selling point of these establishments. That’s not a lot to pay for privacy.

Borrowing from predecessors including Robert Smithson and Dan Graham, Burr adopted a wry, documentary approach that sought to unearth the banal ways that power was enacted through the city’s built environment. ‘Sometimes, it would be about the emptiness of time,’ Burr said about his afternoons and evenings in Times Square, and particularly about his growing interest with the rituals of cruising at the Gaiety, an all-male burlesque formerly located at 42nd and Broadway. His street-view Polaroids suggest that Times Square was a nonsite par excellence: he revelled in the mirrored window treatments, shabby lobbies and video-booths retrofit to the historic theatres, and the luxury of anonymity that they afforded him. Between the immense losses the area suffered from the AIDS crisis, and Giuliani’s raid on its character, disappearance was the defining characteristic of Times Square. It stood as a living ruin.

Many artists shared Burr’s documentary impulse to record what he describes, in his essay ‘Sleazy City: 42nd Street Structures and Some Qualities of Life’ (1998), as public spaces, in that ‘they constitute the locations for the practice of public sexualities, and publicly accessible sexual culture’. Alvin Baltrop turned his camera on the Chelsea piers during the 1970s, and his archive presents a shared interest in dilapidated buildings and the gay-sex scene that developed around them (Baltrop even recorded a nude man standing near the aperture cut at the end of a warehouse by Gordon Matta-Clark for his work Day’s End, 1975). What industrial buildings and stock infrastructure were to Robert Smithson’s Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967) and his formulation of the nonsite, the civic architecture of New York was to Burr’s understanding of the same (the series Unearthing the Public Restroom, 1994, for example, documented the stout, neoclassical buildings that had become gay hookup sites around the city). Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (2012) argues that the AIDS crisis paved the way for New York’s eventual gentrification, not only in terms of newly available real estate, but also because it decimated the culture that might have countered the real estate market’s deleterious effects. Burr’s documents are pervaded by absence, and he developed a language to reevaluate whatever remaining monuments there were in the course of grappling with this loss.

Whenever my friend Jake sees a crane or scaffolding, he’ll ask, ‘Haven’t they finished this place yet?’ New York is defined by rampant change, and a consideration of places like Times Square reveals the city to be exemplary of prevailing attitudes to public space over the last 30 years. Burr admitted to me that he had not visited the area, except as a passenger in a crosstown cab, in more than a decade. Our conversation, too, confirmed Burr’s nomadic appreciation for New York. His essay ‘Eight Renovations: A constellation of sites across Manhattan’ (1997) mapped the disappearing clubs, hookup sites and galleries, and observed the slow migration from the East Village to Chelsea, a neighbourhood that today boasts some of the world’s highest real estate prices. Many of his sculptures could be considered tracking devices, tracing (among other things) the sexual politics of public space. For Circa ’77 (1995), the artist recreated a section of Platzspitz Park in Zürich, a once-popular cruising ground, while Deep Purple (2000) reenvisions Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc (1981) for the gardens at Kunstverein Braunschweig. Burr shrunk the design of Serra’s original sculpture and painted it a sleazy purple. Its seductive surface offers museumgoers a typical minimalist sculpture but, standing barely as high as the hedgerows, it also conceals a potential site for furtive sexual encounters.

Our dinner in Times Square came perilously close to happening at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, a restaurant franchise spun off from the 1994 feature film Forrest Gump. The ‘Warhol’s Factory’ room at Bowlmor Lanes offered another option, given that Burr dressed up the former artist’s legacy of kitsch with pleather-clad daisies in Bitch, Immediately After Vinyl (2004). But it had closed. By the time we visited, the Times Square that Burr knew had been replaced several times over: even Señor Frogs, a franchised party-restaurant beloved of tropical resorts, and Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, a restaurant founded by Jersey-bro celebrity chef Guy Fieri, which catered to the same Parrothead clientele, had recently shuttered. They were as much a part of Times Square’s post-Bloomberg, pro-development agenda as Snøhetta’s recent redesign of the area, which magically opened two-and-half acres of Broadway into a public plaza. The most visible intervention is a series of benches that ‘provide a clear orientation device for tourists and locals alike’.

Burr’s engagement with public spaces has always been counterbalanced by autobiography, and much of his work possesses an inscrutable interiority. The mirrored surfaces of Folding Screen (Yellow) (2003) and Folding Screen (Pink) (2004) reflect disorienting images of the gallery environment in which they are exhibited; either sickening or euphoric, doubling upon themselves, the coloured partitions also speak to costuming and the interplay of surfaces. His enduring crushes and their importance to his practice are explored in the autobiographical essay ‘Make-Up’ (2002), which recounts the object of his affections at high school, James, as well as discussing more famous models of the creative life, such as Jim Morrison. Dedicated to Truman Capote, the 2005 works Worn (For Mr. Capote), Unhinged and Worn Out were each a set of hinged panels arranged to resemble a reclining body, dressed with props similar to those worn by the author late in life: a straw hat, a tie, a linen towel. Young, attractive and wearing a piercing expression, Capote had been pictured on the cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) leaning against a wall. Burr, though, was aware of the hardship and isolation endured by this gay icon in middle and old age. ‘And as for Truman,’ Burr wrote, ‘I still retain some romantic musings about him, specifically the fragility of his character coupled with his pointed insightfulness.’ It’s indicative of Burr’s relationship to certain iconic cultural figures that the passage refers to Capote personally, by his first name. 

During the run of Body/Building, from May to November of last year, Burr made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to New Haven nearly every week to give tours of the exhibition. I visited on the last day of the project and found the Pirelli Building inundated with people, many of whom had, like me, trekked from New York. Burr’s relations offered recommendations to visitors of local pizza restaurants, and the exhibition even managed to draw the attention of James, Burr’s high school crush. His presence infused the installation with a verité realism; it suddenly felt like each artwork knew where it belonged.

From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview