Tom Burr

Born 1963, New Haven, Connecticut

Silver Plant Platform, by Tom Burr, 1997
Tom Burr, Silver Plant Platform, 1997  

Tom Burr's sculptures and installations function both as deep investigations of form, site, and material and as figures of a sort, each with its own temperament and history. Burr's explora­tions of formal inquiry, character development, and site-specificity are deliberately entwined. For him, nothing—no form—is autonomous or free from reference, and everything has a politics. Objects, in their very structure, openly admit to their historical, discursive, and contextual baggage. In this vein Burr often takes as his starting point a recognizable form or reference—whether it be the furnishings of a contained architectural space (such as a bathroom, bed­room, or movie theater) or the geometries and materials of minimalist sculpture (the work of Tony Smith or Richard Serra, for example).1

Rarely have bathrooms or minimalist works been celebrated for their attitude, their flamboy­ance, or their anxiety. Yet such (taboo) anthropo­morphized experience is emphasized in Burr's work.2 His sculptures pose, they vamp, they slouch. They wear feather boas and recline with magazines, as in Propped Perfume (2008), and often feel more like stage sets than func­tional spaces (or are meant to suggest that functional spaces are always also performative in nature). His 1997 exhibition at American Fine Arts gallery in New York, Stainless, explored the particularities, and various alternative modalities, of public bathrooms through works such as Single Partition Platform (1997), them­selves often shown adjacent to Warhol-inspired monochrome silver plant forms like Silver Plant Platform (1997). Never is Burr's humor or theatricality wielded as an end in itself or as a cynical response to the solemnity or "neutrality" of earlier modalities of artistic production. Rather, these efforts are deployed as barometers for cultural signification and desire: to measure the effects of certain formal choices and to provide a ready platform for our own projections and mores. Indeed, far from so many careless jabs, Burr's works serve as a careful redress to an official history, recalling the marginalized, unsanctioned, or repressed narratives contained in an object or form. He is especially interested in the sorts of confined public spaces adopted by "underground" subcultures: sites for cruising or other socially and often legally restricted behav­ior (including bathrooms, movie theaters, and hedgerows).

Center, on floor: Tom Burr, "Propped Perfume," 2008; left wall, from left to right:  Martha Rosler, "The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems," 1974–75, two works by Allan McCollum titled "Perpetual Photo," 1982; rear wall, from left to right: Silvia Kolbowski, "Model Pleasure III," 1983, and Allan McCollum, "Collection of Five Plaster Surrogates," 1982/1990; right wall: Louise Lawler, "Bulbs," 2005–6. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Center, on floor: Tom Burr, Propped Perfume, 2008; left wall, from left to right: Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974–75, two works by Allan McCollum titled Perpetual Photo, 1982; rear wall, from left to right: Silvia Kolbowski, Model Pleasure III, 1983, and Allan McCollum, Collection of Five Plaster Surrogates, 1982/1990; right wall: Louise Lawler, Bulbs, 2005–6. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

A primary example of Burr's play with history, theatricality, and public space is Deep Purple (2000), for which he remade Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (1981). More precisely, the younger artist made a piece that was meant to, in his words, "act a bit like" Tilted Arc. There are obvious differences: of scale (Burr's is smaller), hue (Serra's got its color from rust, Burr's is painted a vibrant purple), and material (Serra's steel, Burr's mostly wood).3 Burr's riff produces transformation on a number of levels: Deep Purple's bold color, diminutive scale, and more fragile material seem to undo, or at least provide a counterpoint to, the overbearing masculinity of Serra's work. Burr's sculpture is less like a copy and more like a younger sibling who has read his or her share of queer theory. And yet an oedipal impulse also seems to drive the work, a desire to challenge (and undermine) defining characteristics of Tilted Arc and to offer an alternative. Though the overt theatricality of Burr's sculpture (it looks like a protracted theater backdrop) does not stand fully at odds with Tilted Arc, it works to playfully undercut any presumed neutrality of its abstract form, underscoring instead the ways in which it perpetually performs its identity, aesthetics, and politics.

Serra's Tilted Arc has a checkered and by now infamous history. Commissioned as a public sculpture for Federal Plaza in Manhattan, at 120 feet long and 12 feet high it was immedi­ately the source of controversy—for rerouting pedestrians, dividing passable space, and obstructing vision. The sculpture was accused of being physically dangerous (because of its precarious angle) and for promoting criminal behavior (allowing people to conceal themselves behind it). But Burr picks up on another angle, that this sculpture could ostensibly provide a "safe zone" for cruising—for gay men seeking a place to meet anonymously and free from discrimination. Remaking the work amounts to an unexpected offering: wherever Deep Purple is installed, people are afforded semiprivacy in public space. Stability too is at play in both works: Serra's piece is engineered by weight and curvature to stand on its own and was designed for a single site. (He famously declared that its precise site-specificity meant that to move the piece was to destroy it, and indeed, after pro­tracted public hearings, Tilted Arc was perma­nently removed from Federal Plaza and dismantled.) Burr's work, by contrast, requires steel supports in order to stand and is designed to be transported and resituated. Deep Purple is then, impossibly, a site-specific work that is intended for multiple sites and carries with it the history of its various placements. It thus pro­poses an allegorical notion of "site-specificity" that expands beyond the geographic—its site exists within the cultural consciousness and the historical imaginary.

—Leora Morinis


  • See Bruce Hainley, "Black Box Recorder: Tom Burr," Frieze, no. 65 (March 2002): 64–67.
  • In a sense, these works, by embracing anthropomor­phic and performative tendencies, seem to respond to Michael Fried, who famously argued against mini­malism for its theatricality. See Michael Fried, "Art and Objecthood," Artforum 5 (June 1967): 12–23.
  • The title Deep Purple functions as a nod to the eponymous heavy-metal band, thereby winkingly lending Burr's piece the "metal" it lacks.
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See Bruce Hainley, "Black Box Recorder: Tom Burr," Frieze, no. 65 (March 2002): 64–67.

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In a sense, these works, by embracing anthropomor­phic and performative tendencies, seem to respond to Michael Fried, who famously argued against mini­malism for its theatricality. See Michael Fried, "Art and Objecthood," Artforum 5 (June 1967): 12–23.

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The title Deep Purple functions as a nod to the eponymous heavy-metal band, thereby winkingly lending Burr's piece the "metal" it lacks.

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"Tom Burr." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​artists/​tom-burr/​.