Tom Burr / New Haven

450 Sargent Drive, New Haven, Connecticut

Open by appointment only Bortolami is pleased to announce the opening of Tom Burr/New Haven, alternatively titled BODY / BUILDING, the third project of the gallery’s Artist/City programming initiative. Over the next six months, Burr will occupy and activate the first floor of the Marcel Breuer-designed office building previously occupied by the Armstrong Rubber Company and the Pirelli Tire Company, now owned by IKEA. Open by appointment only, this Brutalist masterpiece will serve as the site of an evolving exhibition, the first phase of which Burr has titled Pre-Existing Conditions. Through a consideration of the building as a body, and conversely, thinking of bodies (including his own) as a building or construction, Burr is collapsing one into the other. Located in the artist’s hometown, the Breuerdesigned building constitutes a cipher for the various social and political concerns central to Burr’s work, not to mention the artist’s own autobiography. As he explains, “I was born there a handful of years before the Pirelli Building was built, so it was always in my mind while I was growing up.” Armstrong Rubber commissioned the building in 1968 for its factory and executive offices and it became an iconic emblem as the entrance to the city off Interstate 95, particularly at a time when the city was gaining attention for its urban renewal and restructuring. The building was envisioned and constructed as a symbol of utopian urban strategy but, like many examples of Brutalism, became a representation of the failure of Modernism’s idealistic aspirations.

IKEA purchased the building in the early 2000s, at which time the two-level extension that contained the warehouse and Armstrong’s research and development departments was removed to make way for IKEA’s use. Since IKEA initially granted Burr the opportunity to use the building, “complications of access and how to adhere to local codes—fire codes, capacity issues—became problematic and therefore a real part of the project and part of how I think about what I’m creating there,” Burr explains. The resulting works that comprise Pre-Existing Conditions serve as elements of code-compliance, while at the same time grappling with issues of the body, identity, and site-specificity. After extensive demolition and remediation to the lobby’s original interiors, local codes required new railings. Burr produced and engraved new stainless steel railings with the complete text of Jean Genet’s May Day Speech delivered at Yale on the occasion of the 1970 May Day Rally (shortly after the construction of the building) in support of the Black Panthers, and their recently imprisoned founder, Bobby Seale.

Local code also deemed that several sections of remaining floor tile—footprints of former restrooms—were tripping hazards, and required that they be enclosed with additional railings. In Burr’s imagination, these zones form Brechtian stages, rooms without walls, spaces for the construction of identity as well as privacy. They also form a rejoinder to his 1994 photographic series and text, “Unearthing The Public Restroom,” a group of eight images that documented public restrooms in Manhattan at the time of their imminent destruction surrounding the AIDS crisis. Burr has made new sculptural compositions inside these railings that reference cultural figures strongly associated with New Haven in popular culture and his own personal history: Anni Albers, Jean Genet, J. Edgar Hoover, and Jim Morrison. 

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