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Zigzagging Between Public and Private: Tom Burr on Philip Johnson, Sexuality and Architecture

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Tom Burr talks about Philip Johnson, Sexuality and Architecture in his interview by Walker Art Center.

Tom Burr’s sculpture Zog (a series of setbacks), on view in the exhibition Question the Wall Itself, takes its name and inspiration from a feature of Minneapolis’s Philip Johnson–designed IDS Center, the building’s zigzagging glass profile. Burr’s aim: to examine dualities of inside and outside, playing the modernist architect’s hard-edged corporate facades against his softer domestic architecture and personal story—”a mid-century homosexual who lived in a glass house.”

Tom Burr:

Tom Burr is an American conceptual artist. Born in New Haven, CT Burr attended the Educational Center for the Arts high school, a multi-arts program taught in part by Yale University graduate students. It is here that Burr became aware of and developed an interest in Minimal and post-Minimalist artists, including Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, Eva Hesse and Gordon Matta Clark. Burr’s senior thesis work reflected these influences, by merging sculptural elements with brief poetic texts. Simultaneously, Burr’s collage based work began at this time. After graduating from high school, Burr attended figure drawing classes at the Art Students League in New York. In the following years, Burr attended the School of Visual Arts and the Whitney Independent Study Program, where he studied with Craig Owens, Benjamin Buchloh, Yvonne Rainer, and Barbara Kruger, and Ull Hohn. During this time Burr immersed himself in the theoretical writings and conceptual practices that would expand his own work and thinking. While at the Whitney Program in 1988 Burr met art dealer Colin de Land and began a friendship that would lead to Burr joining de Land’s seminal gallery, American Fine Arts, Co, in the early 90’s.

In 1993 Burr was invited to participate in several large scale exhibitions in Europe, including Sonsbeek ’93, curated by Valerie Smith, Unite in Firminy, France, curated by Yves Aupetaillot, and Kontext Kunst, curated by Peter Weibel. It was for the Sonsbeek exhibition that Burr created his highly regarded work “An American Garden,” a scale recreation of a section of Central Park’s Ramble, and a direct extension of Robert Smithson’s writings and the culmination of a body of work dealing with public parks, landscape, naturalism, and gay male identity. Later that year a document based extension of An American Garden, (what Burr has referred to as “an informational non-site”) was included in art historian James Meyer’s influential exhibition “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?,” at American Fine Arts, Co, in New York ( including works by Renee Green and other artists) In 1995, also at American Fine Arts, co, Burr created his exhibition “42nd Street Structures,” which fused the distant forms of Minimalism with present-day conditions in New York, specifically the war on public sexuality during the Aids crisis. Accompanying the sculptural elements were brief written “moments,” as Burr refers to them, which were then later expanded and published in October Journal (Spring 2007, No. 120, Pages 138-139). Later that year, Burr participated in a four-person exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zurich, where he created his second earthwork, Circa ’77. Like An American Garden, this work recreated a section of a park, this time the Platzspitz in Zurich, as it may have looked in a previous time, pointing to both the passage of time, and specific social and political moments that define landscape.

In the late 1990s Burr embarked on a body of work that remains ongoing; derived from the language and forms of both Tony Smith’s sculptures, on the one hand, and closed architectural spaces such as bars, cages and boxes. These works, often borrowing Smith’s matte black palette, evoke spaces of control and containment, as well as the “safe zones” of underground cultures.

Alongside these works, Burr developed his now iconic Bulletin Boards, originally created out of the excessive collecting of images and materials that are part of his working methods. Constructed through plays of juxtaposition, the boards are markers of place, often reflecting the situation of their exhibition.

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