One gathers it was no small thrill for Tom Burr to stage an exhibition in the building Marcel Breuer designed for the Armstrong Rubber Company in the late 1960s. As previous works like Brutalist Bulletin Board (2001) attest, Burr has long been fascinated with Brutalist architecture, numerous iconic examples of which—including this building—were constructed in his hometown of New Haven when he was a child. For a short time starting in 1988, Armstrong Rubber’s successor, Pirelli Tire, occupied Breuer’s concrete edifice, after which the building languished abandoned; its only practical use in recent years has been to display the billboards of its current owner, Ikea. Installed on the ground floor, Burr’s exhibition—the third project in Bortolami Gallery’s “Artist/City” program, which has previously brought artists to sites in St. Louis and Miami—comprises sculptures and installations (all 2017) made in dialogue with the derelict site, whose safety restrictions serve as one of the show’s organizing principles. The first piece visitors encounter doubles as a guardrail the artist was required to install at the edge of the space’s sunken entryway. Engraved along the railing is the text of a speech Jean Genet delivered at Yale University on May Day of 1970 in support of then-imprisoned Black Panther cofounder Bobby Seale, in which the writer called on the intellectual class to go beyond symbolic gestures and engage alongside the Panthers in revolutionary struggle. The piece is one of numerous works on view that together comprise an alternative history of the Elm City.
Genet, the consummate queer antihero, figures prominently throughout the show. Bae Genet/Grey Genet, for instance, consists of a pair of aluminum prints depicting the author—in his youth and in his twilight—on opposite sides of a urinal divider found in one of the building’s former restrooms. Another figure Burr spotlights is Anni Albers, the Bauhaus textile designer who moved to New Haven in 1950 when her husband, Josef, became head of the design department at Yale. In Cubicle, aluminum prints showing the designer and one of her textile patterns lie kitty-corner to each other amid rectilinear traces of tiling on the building’s floor.
Burr was just a preschooler when the Doors’ Jim Morrison was arrested onstage at the New Haven Arena and charged with obscenity and inciting a riot, but the noteworthy event in the history of male sexuality as a threat to the establishment has found a recurring place in his work. Two aluminum print installations, People Are Strange (Touch Me) and Love Me Two Times, depict Morrison at the moment of his detainment. In a separate work, an image of a tommy gun-toting J. Edgar Hoover—who closely monitored the May Day events at Yale—offers a variation on the themes of authority and (over)performed masculinity.
Three sculptures in which articles of clothing hang on metal racks allude to less public histories. One incorporates a seersucker blazer and trench coat that belonged to the artist’s father, a former Yale dean. The other two feature a pair of blue work shirts (an allusion to the workers who once toiled for Armstrong Rubber and Pirelli) and a white shirt formerly worn by Burr (a candid acknowledgment of his white-collar background). The works recall previous “portrait” sculptures by Burr, in which clothing serves as an index of personhood. Given, however, the overt reference to class division and the proximity of the sculpture displaying Genet’s Yale May Day speech, they read as an enjoinder to the white and well-off to denude themselves of class affiliations, or, in Genet’s exhortatory words, “to behave in ways that would tend to erase their privileges.”