Tom Burr

Tom Burr and Francesco Vezzoli in Conversation


The practice of Tom Burr, American artist born in 1963, represents one of the most interesting reflections upon the nature of sculpture in the contemporary art debate. His works—both minimal and upset installations, rigorous and yet shaken by a human too human feeling—is based on the bios of extra-ordinary men like Jim Morrison, Truman Capote, Frank O’Hara, and Chick Austin, approached in both an analytical and fetishist way. On the occasion of his solo show titled Addict-Love recently closed at the Sculpture Center in New York, and of a current one at the Galerie Almine Rech in Paris (until April 19), we invited an exceptional fan, Francesco Vezzoli, to conduct an interview with him. The result is the cover story of this issue of Mousse.


FRANCESCO VEZZOLI: I want to start with a quote from a text you wrote for Artforum: “My work indicates the way in which it is possible to inhabit one’s own history, through the vicarious inhabitations of others’ languages, styles, and identities.”

TOM BURR: Yes, that sounds like me.

FV: I really like what this sentence means. In the past I read a lot about your work, and looked at it a lot, and I was so struck by the people you referenced. I’m a big fan of Truman Capote, Frank O’Hara, Chick Austin, and so on. Let’s start with Chick Austin, who for most readers is likely an almost unknown figure. I wanted to ask why you have chosen him. If I’m not wrong, he is one of the references of your last exhibition.

TB: That’s correct. You know, I did this exhibition at SculptureCenter in New York right after I did an exhibition in Vienna, at the Secession. When I was in Vienna, I thought a lot about some European figures, from Kurt Weill to Helmut Lang, and so when I came to SculptureCenter a few months ago I became very interested in how European Modernism had been filtered and received at the beginning of the twentieth century. Chick Austin was a charismatic figure; he was the director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, from 1928 or something until the early 1940s. He was pivotal in bringing many modern figures to America, and it was experimental in Hartford, Connecticut, which was and is a conservative town. It was radical to bring these people and these ideas there, creating a link with New York and what was happening there. But beyond that, he was an incredibly stylish and charismatic figure. He was a museum director, he was an actor, and that kind of multiple or schizophrenic personality interested me.

FV: Herbert Muschamp wrote a fantastic review of the new biography of Chick Austin, Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America. Do you know this book?

TB: I must confess I never read the full book, but since I was close to Herbert I remember the review he wrote for Artforum, and a certain stage of the review in particular, when Herbert is valuing the aspects that you just described, the fact that Austin was acting as a sort of cultural bridge. He says that Austin had it too easy: “All he had to do was take a few nice trips to Paris, look around the galleries, and put together a show or two together over a delicious dinner. (How simple it was then to astonish Americans with the new.) Then it occurred to me that in this regard he was pioneering the use of contemporary art, for better or worse, as a medium of international exchange.” I was fascinated by this aspect because, as you said, there are these two different aspects of him. On the one hand I’m fascinated by Chick Austin’s personality—how to define him?—he was very social, very gregarious.

FV: Yes, very social, very gregarious. At the same time, his social qualities seem to obscure the fact that he was acting as a bridge, acting culturally. Do you agree with that?

TB: I certainly agree with you, and I think that the cocktail or dinner parties and contemporary music concerts that he put together were just as important as the exhibitions, in terms of galvanizing a crowd and creating a social scene. He built an extraordinary house in 1929 that Philip Johnson called “the first postmodern house in America.” The house was made of wood and modeled after an Italian Palladian villa, and the first floor was decorated entirely in Baroque furnishings. The upstairs, however, was completely Bauhaus, with Marcel Breuer furniture and white rubber floors. The connection between the Modern and the Baroque was very much his sensibility.

FV: In a way you can say: Baroque plus Modern equals Surrealism.

TB: Yes, I think so.

FV: I think that if I look at the art world today, maybe he anticipated in his attitudes the degree of social relations that now surround the fields of our practice.

TB: I think you are probably right. He was out of place and out of time.

FV: Yes, but luckily there are people like you who bring back his spirit. It is interesting to see somebody, within the debate of contemporary art, who decides to focus on this type of person. I refer equally to Capote, because these two characters share a dynamic of being singular misfits, somehow, despite all the social connections.

TB: Well, certainly it is similar, and I think it is about figures who perhaps pushed too hard sometimes. I started to think about Capote again a few years ago (but before the film came out!). I thought about my early exposure to him through TV, seeing him on talk shows, drunk and in a downward spiral. He had published excerpts from Answered Prayers, which was based on the secrets of all the people around him in New York society, and everyone had turned their backs on him, and he self-destructed in a certain way. These kinds of figures who are a little tragic become interesting, because yes, it is about biography in my work, but it is also about the time period in which they function. So it is about Chick Austin, for instance, on one level, but it is also a way to get at a time period, which as you said is similar to where we are now. It mirrors our present situation.

FV: I’m working on something on Salvador Dalí right now, and I was talking to a Spanish museum curator whom I really respect. I told her I was fascinated by Dalí. It was such an interesting confrontation because I was, in a naive way, praising the media coverage of Dalí, because he went on TV a lot too, and the kind of visual memories that you have of Capote I may have of Dalí. But since she was Spanish, she remembered that situation in a more complex way, because for her it embodied a certain attachment to the political situation, the regime, et cetera. But what is so interesting is to see people with great sensitivity and creativity getting compromised at the late stages of their career. This is what I like about what you just said—that for you, that moment in their history fascinates you the most.

TB: Absolutely. And also, in a different way, it was what I was thinking about with my references to Kurt Weill. You know, all these people had concerns with the stage, and with reception, and with popular art forms. With Weill, he started off with Bertolt Brecht in Berlin, where this notion of the popular was radical at the time. And then it all shifted with World War II, and Weill’s move to the United States and the creation of many extremely popular Broadway musicals. His life and work marks a passage of time, a social passage of the twentieth century in terms of a particular direction, a particular trajectory.

FV: Can you tell me more about your fascination about Frank O’Hara?

TB: First of all, the exhibition is pretty much about the twentieth century, the one we just exited a few years ago. Whereas Chick Austin was the 1930s, during the 1940s and 1950s Frank O’Hara was a central figure for the New York School who was equally concerned with poetry and with painting. O’Hara was both a museum director, or curator, and a writer, and that kind of fragmented sensibility and the fact that he was always shifting his focus became very important to me. Addict-Love, the title of my exhibition, is the title of a Frank O’Hara poem, and three pieces in the exhibition are taken from O’Hara’s poem titles, too. But more than the content of his particular poems, it’s his style and his gestures and his persona that interest me, and that I wanted to invoke.

FV: I did a little research in magazines and found this interesting piece of writing, which is the Marcel Proust questionnaire done by Vanity Fair with Jasper Johns. I would like to finish this interview asking you some of these Proust questions, is that fine?

TB: Yes. Jasper Johns lives near me, actually.

FV: I didn’t know that, but this should be included in the interview so people can see I have extrasensorial powers. So, let’s start. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

TB: Perfect happiness has to do with not being unhappy, but that’s elusive.

FV: What is your greatest extravagance?

TB: I would say laziness, and maybe shoes.

FV: What is your current state of mind?

TB: Peaceful.

FV: What is your favorite occupation?

TB: My own, making art.

FV: That’s what Johns said. When and where were you the happiest?

TB: I have to say right now. And “where,” I guess I would say in my house.

FV: Very good. Which living person do you most despise?

TB: Hmmm. Too many come to mind.

FV: On what occasion do you lie?

TB: When I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

FV: What is your most treasured possession?

TB: I would say my dog, Dalí, if it wouldn’t sound too brutal to call her a possession. Yes, I would say my dog.

FV: Well Jasper was more brutal than you and said “my refrigerator.”

TB: He must have a nice one!

FV: Yes, I think so. Who are your favorite writers?

TB: Frank O’Hara, Ned Rorem, Virginia Wolff.

FV: Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

TB: Winnie the Pooh.

FV: What is your greatest regret?

TB: Wasting time.

FV: Who are your heroes in real life?

TB: I would imagine people who are closest to me, my closest friends.

FV: Here it comes, the last one: What is your motto?

TB: May I pour you a drink?


Originally published on Mousse 13 (March 2008)

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