NF: Hello, today I am interviewing Tom Burr from Bortolami gallery for an upcoming exhibit that he is curating. The exhibition is titled “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again and interesting and modern.”
Tom, I’m interested in something you said in an interview with Spike Magazine. You talk about how you use the past to rupture and fracture a stabilized notion of the present but you also concede, and this something that I really enjoy, that you have a soft spot and admiration for things that are stubbornly now and that might be opaque to future generations. What is interesting to you about now, specifically New York now? A lot of your works speaks to New York then and its relationship to the now. I'm wondering if there issomething that is absolutely of the now that you find interesting.
Tom Burr, deep wood drive, 2012, Installation View. Courtesy of Bortolami Gallery
TB: Well, I’m not exactly sure. I think for me New York is quite wonderful because it always seems to have a kind of perfect connection between the past and present. There’s simultaneity of those tenses. So it’s always being rebuilt and destroyed, in a constant flux that I suppose every place has, but it is so much more visibly apparent because of the built environment and generational changes that occur. In a way, that was what I was thinking about with this exhibition, how someone looks at the present through certain coordinates. Some of which are from the past, some of which are contemporary, and arriving at a constellation. But what I’m specifically interested in that’s explicitly contemporary, I don’t really know.
NF: You wrote something for Artforum about your house in Norfolk, and you’ve talked about Chick Austin and his relationship to Connecticut, I was wondering if you could talk about Tom Burr’s Connecticut, growing up there, living there presently, and your relationship to New York shuffling between these sites.
TB: I moved to New York in the early 80s to come to art school here and I did grow up in New Haven, which was far away in a sense, and New York was the place that I had always thought about. The work that I started making coming out of art school here had a lot to do with site specificity, and thinking about where I was lodged, where I was standing, what was my immediate context. Then at a certain point, in my life I had time to restore this old farmhouse in northern Connecticut near the Massachusetts border, and I began splitting my time between there and New York City. I started to inscribe that into my work a little bit. Some of this is conscious and some if it is unconscious. Some of it is simply second nature to me. I think of it as a kind of yo-yo process, I get excited going both directions. I’m very attracted to the notion of the 20th century artistic retreat. Trying to find a solution to that New York problem, that flux that I was talking about before, the excitement that New York provides for me where things are always changing, things are always crumbling. There’s something about this other world that has a kind of constant sameness.
NF: One of the things that have been briefly mentioned in some of your past interviews is that there’s this desire, with the tacks and the placement of the objects, of fandom. Placing things up, these are the things I love, these are things I enjoy. What does it mean for you to be a fan?
TB: To me I’ve always had a kind of struggle with how to justify what I do. I think I’ve always had a tendency towards a certain cerebal way of working, that I needed to have a to do list. At the same time, I have a lot of adolescent tendencies of collage based work that has to do with the fandom thing, but often the figures I’m attracted to that end up getting deposited into my work are people that I’m interested in, that I like first and foremost, something about them intrigues me. Often times there’s a kink in the armor, there’s a visible decay in that particular person. I am sort of a fan of that process. A strange thing, I grew up in New Haven, I decided in 1998-1999 when I had a show in Berlin, that a lot of my work was very rigorously coming out of a site specific tradition that I was getting frustrated with. I was trying to think about my own coordinates and how to map myself into my work and my work into myself, and I thought a lot about the architecture of my hometown, through the brutalism of 1960s architects like Paul Rudolph and Kevin Roche. But also Jim Morrison, having been a childhood sweetheart of mine, someone that I was very enamored of, that had a coincidental relationship to New Haven. He had been arrested here. I became very interested in those moments of coincidence. Where something in my work, or something I am interested in, might be over determined. There are five or six different reasons why it is located there. One of them is that I’m always attracted to that person, that figure, that legacy. Another might be that it makes conceptual sense in the work. Another might be formal. I like the notion of it being over determined. Which is to answer none of the reasons at the same time. It just becomes a given.
NF: Bouncing off fandom, my mind takes to collecting and the archive. Do you have any collections?
TB: I would call it accumulation. Money’s not often involved. I like lamps a lot. I have some really nice lamps. I like electrical lamps from the 20th century. I have a fantastic Prouve lamp. I have a Josef Frank, who was an extraordinary Viennese designer from the mid 20th century who immigrated to Sweden. He had this strange style that I like that that’s some kind of a negotiation between the 19th century and very modern things. It rides this line that I like, for the same reason that I like houses with gables that are stripped down. I have a lot of lamps.
NF: You’ve worked extensively in the past both with your own clothing and the closet as a form and as a site. I was wondering if you would discuss your closet situation and your process of what to keep and discard.
Tom Burr, languidly lingering a little too long, 2009
Plywood, black paint, steel poles, assorted hangers, men's overcoat 72 1/5 x 155 1/2 x 36 inches 191.8 x 393.7 x 91.4 cm. Courtesy of Borotolami Gallery
TB: There’s a certain point at which I started to notice certain things about other figures that interested me that I was working on. I was interested in this notion of flux that I talked about. Some of my earlier work would deal with architectural spaces that would change, change again, and get repurposed. I started to think about clothing that way. Started to think about myself. And less from a very personal perspective, I was holding on to my own clothes, but more from this instinct that this might be smart. These skins that I was shedding might make sense in my work down the line. This wasn’t an incredible foresight or anything, it was starting to be a tendency. And then I started to hoard these things. And also, what intrigues me about that, is that things I wore in the 90s seem very interesting, things I’ve worn recently less so. I think that’s the way fashion and decay work all the time. Dan Graham’s notion of the just recent past. These things that seem slightly out of vogue start to become, that moment of becoming historicized, that moment of slipping away, that moment of remove. I’m careful to not throw away things in disgust that seem too new, because given the patina of another five to ten years, they’ll look like a period of time, something that describes a certain point on the map.
Tom Burr Gravity Moves Me, 2011, Installation view, FRAC Champagne-Ardenne
NF: To return to the Connecticut thing, I’m interested in what impact you feel growing up in the academic/institutionalized environment of New Haven had on your practice.
TB: I grew up on the edges of that academy; a lot of my family was involved at Yale. I didn’t go to Yale though. That was always a thing I had to come to terms with on some level. It was so omnipresent there. What has really lingered with me is this line of inside and out. New Haven has a very complicated relationship to the University. This is something I’ve always been interested in, spaces of preciousness, privilege, security, and how that slips in and becomes claustrophobia and suffocation. I’ve always been interested in that, and maybe that comes from being close to that kind of a situation. Something on the one hand that probably represents on a certain level and guarantees a certain kind of freedom, and on the other hand the prisons that go along with that scenario. I’ve always been acutely aware of that.
NF: I’m curious about your teaching experiences. Some artists like Michael Asher or John Baldessari define their practices and careers through their teaching over a long period. You’ve only taught for very short sessions. I was wondering what you’ve gotten out of working with younger artists and how you feel about the role of the artist as a teacher.
TB: It’s a funny thing; I think about this a lot. I’m wondering if this doesn’t have to do with something about my upbringing. I love the notion of teaching. In other people’s biographies, it is something that I’m attracted to, but I find it extraordinarily draining. I find that I give it the same amount of attention that I give my work. And I don’t know how to divide the two. More, particularly on the East Coast, I have this fantasy that it might be different in Southern California. Here, I don’t think it is easy to integrate an artist’s practice and life with this notion of campus, administration, and all these other kinds of bureaucracies that come along with teaching. Of which there are a lot. I like the fantasies of someone like Martin Kippenberger coming to Yale, which he did, and going to Anchor Bar, which is a bar where I used to hang out when I was a teenager. That’s the classroom. This kind of education that was very much in the air even when I was a student in high school. It seems harder and harder to enact I guess. The rigidity of the whole situation is something I’m attracted to when I have a distance from it. I find it very comforting. It is sometimes legitimizing. When I get closer to it, it kind of burns up in my face. I run in the other direction. My teaching stints tend to be brief and sporadic as a result.
NF: I love the statement for the group show that you are curating here, and how you relate yourself to what you’ve included. There are some lines in the statement that I want to quote, from the end of the second paragraph,
…and there’s a genealogy created out of manifestos, practice and love-poems, out of close encounters with our immediate surroundings and out of a trans-historical crush. What I mean by that is only partially clear to myself. I’m concerned less with the structure of generational groups of gangs, schools, cults and families, and much more by the conscious and specific connections made across decades and by the drive to construct ourselves and our working methods through proximities both physical and intellectual. In this sense, I remain steadfastly loyal to the notion that artworks complete other art works. That artworks extend and expand other artworks, and that singular gestures, individual artworks, are fictions at best.
TB: The idea that you could work through curating through artists and artworks and less in terms of some overarching structure, and maybe the structure would be generated from within the works and the connections between the works and less from a specific school of artists. Something that isn’t trying to look back and crystallize a period of time. I was interested here in doing something that might just bubble and break those seams. At the same time, I’m not trying to do something that’s about sensation. I’m not adding figures for surprise or sensation. Instead, I’m trying to create constellations of artists and art that are about lived experience on the one hand and fantasized experience on the other. I think it goes back to what you were saying about fandom, so that one can have a real relationship and feel that you are in the right company with an artist from a hundred and fifty years ago as you might be from someone you went to school with. That whole notion is becoming more and more interesting to me, and I’m quite earnest when I say I don’t entirely understand it myself. This is something that I feel like is right there and on the level of the unconscious in a certain way. But it has a lot of rigor to it in terms of how I see it and how there might be something that is generated by artists' association with other artists, particularly, when it is spoken from my ambiguous role of standing in both roles, being both the curator and an artist.
NF: Could you speak directly to some of the juxtapositions going on in the show, there are a few artists in the show who you know on a personal level, but you also have someone like Gordon Matta-Clark in there as well. It seems to exemplify these personal, lived, relationships and the kind of fantasized relationships that you were discussing earlier.
TB: When I started, it was much a larger list of possibilities in a certain way. There were some geographical proximities. I started with the notion of the studio wall, the studio where I’m working now shares a wall with Charline von Heyl, who I've known for year. I can hear her painting on the other side of that wall. It triggered a memory for me of another artist in the exhibition, Ull Hohn, who I met when I was in the Whitney Independent program, our studios were abutted. There are relationships that came out of there that are much more interesting than simply sharing a wall, but there’s something nice to me about locating that relationship in this kind of strange floorplan. There’s this structural, architectural thing there. And then certain things sprung out from there, and got me interested in this artist who I’ve always worked in the shadow of, and that is Gordon Matta-Clark (and Dan Graham in a certain way). Dealing with those geographic proximities led me to think about them quite a bit, and led to me think about broken spaces and cut spaces as a kind of working motif for relationships and these reaches. Someone like Dash Snow, who I only met a few times, but my gallerist Stefania Bortolami knew quite well, and I’ve seen his work quite a bit at her backroom and in her apartment. It is a tool to pull it in another direction, someone who isn’t an artist that you’d associate with me. That’s part of it too, to pull myself in a few different directions. To see Gordon Matta-Clark with Dash Snow does something for both of those artists that wasn’t there before. When I was talking to Dan Graham about what he was going to contribute, there were a million possibilities and he was bubbling over with excitement about it and he pulled out of one of his flat files these strange photographs that he had taken of Robert Smithson which were only matted not framed yet but matted in this strange almost adolescent way the two together which I love. He had, which I won’t repeat, endless stories about Robert Smithson and the various facets of his personality. That became very nice, that these strange connections spun out of control and went beyond me. And that I wasn’t the center point anymore.
NF: I want to end the interview with the WFMU question. You’ve included a lot of record sleeves, turntables, and Kate Bush paraphernalia in some of your past work. What is your relationship with music?
Tom Burr, Exhibition view , 2007. Secession, Wien
TB: One of the things that interests me about the relationship between music and art, with Kate Bush in particular, is that there's a kind of muddiness that goes on between the two practices that I find very rich. There are an awful lot of artists who perform music, and I’m not one of them at all. I like to refer to music as this thing that exceeds the possibilities of the physical space that exceeds its sound its aura, all these things that exceed the bulk and the mess and the stuff of sculpture and painting. And that to me seems very interesting, as a nod and a point.
“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again and interesting and modern.” is currently on view at Bortolami Gallery in New York City. For more information click here.
For further reading and examples of Tom Burr's work, click here.
Art in Conversation is an interview series conducted by Nick Faust with artists, curators, gallerists, theorists, critics and anyone else associated with the art world both in the greater New York/New Jersey area and the global scene.