No 39.

Tom Burr

in conversation with Blake Oetting

Tom Burr is an artist working primarily in sculpture and installation. From his first exhibitions in New York City in the late 1980s, Burr has placed a consistent emphasis on spatial issues both sociopolitical and formal. If early works like Construction of an American Garden (1993) and 42nd Street Structures (1995) concerned gentrification and queer misuses of city space they also revealed a critical approach to the boundaries of the museum or gallery, placing these institutions into a chain of relations that spanned public parks and city government. For these works and others, Burr was linked with a group of young artists including Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Mark Dion and Christian Philipp Müller, among others, who helped formulate a new rhetoric of institutional critique. Site-reflexivity has remained a constant feature of Burr's work ever since, and, with his newest work, Torrington Project, has been expanded to a new scale. After being in dialogue with Burr during the initial stages of Torrington Project, we both felt a formal conversation was needed to flesh out the work's conceptual framework. The interview was conducted in February 2022.

BO

One word that I think of regarding your work is brutal. It operates figuratively in relation to hard edges and blunt designs but also points towards certain biographic details: namely, New Haven, your hometown, and the brutalist architecture that you grew up around. What is the through line there?

TB

I'm trying to think of the first time that I might have thought about brutalism in relationship to my artwork. I grew up in the late 1960s and early ’70s when there was a lot of brutalist architecture built or being built. Specifically, in New Haven and New York, it was prevalent. What I found the most interesting about brutalism was the extreme controversy—it was the first moment I realized that not everybody aligned themselves with the same kind of architecture. I had a sense that there was an underlying politics involved.

Brutalism gave me a way to think a bit about what minimalism might have meant and might still mean into the 1980s and the ’90s and what these reverberations meant in relationship to constructions of power, issues of beauty, and configurations of masculinity. Brutalism, as a word, let me touch several things at once: appearance and surface, strength and power, the abject and the ugly. Those things allowed me to locate myself within architecture and minimalist work and the line between the two in an immediate and genuine way, but they also allowed me something of an edge on which I could turn and through which I could create some distance.

BO

Surface, beauty, abject. One word that didn’t come up, which clearly swims around words like architecture, is space. Spatial reasoning and spatial displacement were for you and your peer group coming up in the late ’80s and early ’90s a predominating theme to tinker with.

TB

I’ve always been interested in the space between things: the through ways, the passages, the portals, the ruptures, the cracks, etc. That may seem merely poetic but it’s my frame of mind, it’s how I’ve always approached things. How I responded to brutalism had less to do with any historic knowledge—it was more of a visceral reaction. It was about a kind of juxtaposition of surface and volume against the opening of the ruptures. You could argue that classical architectural or the colonial architecture in New England, for example, has all the same relationships, but they’ve been neutralized in our minds, or certainly were in my mind at the time I discovered brutalism.

The other aspect relative to architecture and space that has been a constant for me is the idea of occupying urban space, of traveling through spaces, not isolating particular buildings, particular objects, particular things, but having things exist on a continuum. It comes from the flâneur in me, where one thing leads to another, and where the spatial encounters and the spaces between start and finish are poignant, powerful. These gaps and the connections between things are more meaningful to me than any given building or object.

BO

This idea of the gap has a variety of operations in your work. With an earlier piece like Construction of an American Garden, 1993, you produce a series of gaps between its spatially displaced iterations. But on a more granular level, with your bulletin board works, for instance, you create Aby Warburg-like atlases where the gaps between various photographic elements define a charged field of syntactical relationships. Yet another way the gap operates is illuminated by your Body/Building project in 2017. I was in college and didn’t get to see it…

TB

That’s not a good excuse.

BO

It’s true. But my friends who did go remarked upon the process of getting to New Haven. They saw a lot of people they knew on the train going there and upon arriving at the building. There was this interesting displacement of New York’s art community into New Haven, one compelled by the work.

TB

I haven’t really talked about this much, but I think that was structurally interesting to me. Body/Building was part of an initiative by Bortolami Gallery called “Artist / City.” I think of that program of the gallery as a latter-day response to “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” and the ‘60s and ’70s notion of leaving the gallery, only through the market-saturated lens of the current moment where there is no tenable perch that could be called “outside.” It relates to Robert Smithson’s idea of site/non-site, which itself comes out of an American frontierism most obviously exemplified by Marfa or [Walter de Maria’s] The Lightning Field. For that reason, I was originally thinking of working somewhere out West, to play with this history, but then a friend of mine suggested to me, “What about New Haven?,” since it had periodically surfaced in my work before. I immediately rejected that idea because it felt too close to home, lacked glamour and any of the inflated mythology that I was thinking about relative to the Land Art artists, etc. But the more I thought about it the more I returned to the idea of New Haven and all its banality, and its closeness, and it seemed that was exactly why I should work with it.

One thing about growing up in New Haven was the fact that it was at the end of the commuter train line. Each stop was distinct, different groups of people getting on and off, forming a connective tissue between New Haven and New York City. That kind of psychological ride was important to me when I was young—the question of what I was when I was at one end versus what I was at the other end. I could transform from who I was at the time. And I liked the fact that this Marcel Breuer building that I chose for the project was firmly anchored and visually present at one end of that line. It allowed me to engage the line of my trajectory from New Haven to New York, and back again. Visitors to the project would take that same route. I enjoyed the gap between the site of the building and the gallery in New York being a part of the project.

BO

It amounts to a sort of social choreography.

TB

Yeah, there was this idea of a migration to the site, but migration doesn’t just happen. So, you have to lure people there, and that has a lot to do with forms of desire—and yes, that movement towards me and my work, and also away from it and from me, became a dynamic of it all. When we started the project, I didn’t expect to be physically present but, as it happened, I could get more people to come to see the space if they thought they were going to see me and hear me talk about it. There are certain kinds of artists—and maybe I wish I had become that kind of artist—that people don’t expect to be present when they see the work. And in fact, they like it better when you're not there because it creates a mute object, an object that can be talked about by others. But there is also the theater of seeing the artist. I’m sure there are people who do not feel this way about me at all but there are some who like to hear me ramble on about projects of this scale, or at least I think they do. I’m probably wrong. I started to end up there regularly, a few times a month. My tour of the project became kind of central to a lot of people’s understanding of it: me, walking through the space, talking. I think we were hoping that in retrospect it would have a certain kind of mythology where, just like you did, people would say a lot of people visited the space. Well, there were many days when it didn’t feel that way at all and it felt every bit as lonely as Morrissey’s, “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” It often felt desolate, which is how I remember New Haven!

BO

You’ve been traveling back and forth between Connecticut and New York more recently as well, but to a different city.

TB

For a long time, I had wanted to play with a space outside of New York City. I think this came out of the project in New Haven, but it existed in my mind before that too. I was always dissatisfied with the idea of a studio. I oscillated for decades between having a studio—or what one would call a classical studio—and giving that up, working more nomadically and making that more emphatic as a method. I come from a generation, or a part of a generation, that doesn’t think of the studio as a given. It's something that is part of your methodology or not. So, for me, tables alone in bars, hotel rooms, seats on trains, etc., have been just as generative workspaces as a room that is designated exclusively for making art. It’s not necessarily something an artist has to have in order to make work, of course. It’s a decision that has everything to do with real estate and finances and many other factors that get glossed over and neutralized. I was interested in engaging with space on my own terms, as a component of my work. A space that would be related to the idea of a studio—or a space that would encompass some of those reasons that people would have a studio—but that was also something else, something different. I was interested in something closer to a discursive space, where you enter a series of ideas.

BO

This space is what you’re calling the Torrington Project. What’s in there right now?

TB

Well, I’m in there right now. It’s located in Torrington, Connecticut, in the northwest part of the state. The space is quite large. I had looked at a lot of different kinds of spaces. Initially, I didn’t want the sort of romantic, repurposed nineteenth century industrial building typical of artist studios in cities. I felt that that was a cliché that wouldn’t help me. I looked at this space that I ultimately chose over and over again, even though it was exactly the repurposed nineteenth century factory I was trying to avoid. I came back to it because it reminded me of things. It reminded me of Dia Beacon. It reminded me of the spaces in Marfa, Texas. It reminded me of the history of SoHo’s transformations. And I started to think, instead of simply rejecting post-industrial space as something that’s already been completely exhausted and exploited, that maybe it could be appropriated and played with in much the same way that I’ve taken on other forms. I also loved the space. It inspired me and made me happy to be in it, which was important because I knew that one of the primary goals was to try to follow my site-specific impulses in a place that I didn’t have to travel to. I wanted to be able to do some of that work without continually scrambling, continually traveling, but rather be prompted by the space in front of me on a more daily basis.

I wanted the space to be a temporary one, impermanent, and decided on three years for its timeline. What I started to do for this first year, particularly the first six months, was a lot of research and archival digging. I collaborated with Christine Messineo, who I’d worked closely with on several projects in the past. We visited the American Fine Arts, Co. archives at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies and looked back at exhibitions where I couldn’t remember what I had shown, in various group shows for instance, finding images and correspondence that weren’t in my own archives and which helped to flesh out different moments. I’m not necessarily talking about the works that then found homes but those that I might have destroyed or dismantled because of issues of scale and the high cost of moving works of art by myself. Some of this work was made before I was working with commercial galleries, in the early ’90s, before I had any affiliations. Many things fall through the cracks.

That archival work was incredibly inspiring and seductive and led to me relocating and recreating certain works from the ’90s and early 2000s here in the space. I wanted those works to be situated alongside other, older works of mine that I kept to myself, that hadn’t been seen since they were made, or first exhibited, in some cases. I wanted to place these works together with new projects and have these works from disparate times share the same air and be looked at in connection with one another. There’s a kind of curatorial play that I’ve enjoyed when I’ve done large institutional shows that I’ve often had to leave in the hands of others, and here I’ve enjoyed taking over that role for myself so that I can continue to push things around, play with them, alter them in some cases, create instances of cross-pollination between works. To go back to that earlier discussion about spaces, I am curious by the gaps between these works, both physical and temporal.

BO

I want to talk about the title. The Torrington Project is a seductive way of framing the activity there. It is also tied to a certain art historical lineage that you're very much a part of—the development of “the project” as a paradigmatic art form and exhibition strategy that emerged in the early 1990s. Some examples include “Project Unité” in Firminy, France, for which you made a work called “The Storage Project,” Skulptur Projekte Münster and Sonsbeek ’93, all of which privileged “projects” over discrete and finished works. You showed in all of these.

TB

Originally, I had the title Untitled (The Torrington Project) in my head. I liked that it brought to mind both a specific work and a temporal process. But that was a little heavy handed as a name. Now it’s either Torrington Project, or just Torrington. I’ve embraced this slight slipping around.

There was a moment in the late ’80s when I became very interested in the idea of work that was expansive beyond the idea of an object. I was drawn to this even earlier on but hadn’t figured out ways to make it happen for myself. I became interested in works being read, and unfolding over time, and of consisting of layers and stages and parts. I think some of my earlier work quite clearly shows that. Then there’s another overlapping period, somewhat later, when I wanted to work in the idea of sculpture. It seemed radical to me at the moment that I was going to define my work as sculpture because that category seemed a little retrograde. This was something I think that I got from Dan Graham, this play with an almost classical notion of sculpture, but ultimately it was a way to tuck into something deeply. After several years I felt like that strategy was depleted. There was nowhere else to go. The idea of the object, the uncanny object, the elusive object, the object that has its own logic, became so prevalent again in work I would see in the world, but in a way that felt quite unexamined as to why that might have happened. So, I decided to recalibrate again, and bring these two tendencies of mine into closer dialogue.

For the last several years I’ve wanted to bring back more fully that aspect of my work that draws in the spaces in which it resides, in a much more dynamic way. I think that my work has always acknowledged its location to some degree, but I wanted to pull the frame into it even more emphatically and less in terms of the institutional frame in the most classical sense. There are certain frustrations, certain boredoms, certain angers that come with working for a long time in the art world, things that I was starting to feel were intolerable. One of those things was this passive idea of the studio, the model where people came into your space, got a privileged and private view of the work, and then extracted certain of those works, taking them out into a world where the artist really couldn’t or shouldn’t operate. It is infantilizing, of course, so I wanted to do something—and I’m still very much grappling with this—that engages all of that: the studio, the studio visit, the pilgrimage, the history and the romance of those things, the mechanisms that enable them and how I feature in those entanglements.

Another aspect of the Torrington Project that’s incredibly generative for me is being around older works of mine. That is something that doesn’t happen very often outside of virtual experiences unless I’m in an institutional setting or I’m going through my inventory at various galleries. Most of my work is not mine. I don't have access to it because of physical dimensions, or because of transactional relationships, etc. so it has been extraordinarily exciting for me to re-engage these older works that were only exhibited once, in some instances, and mount them again on my own terms and within this different space and time. That itself has automatically led to new strains of work.

BO

It brings to mind Caroline Jones’s book, Machine in the Studio, in which she traces the separation between the conception of the studio amongst Abstract Expressionists as a private, insular world and the studio in the 1960s where it suddenly becomes a site of reception or a transit point between the artist and the world. It seems to me that you’re pushing this a step further or at least becoming more self-conscious about acting as that transit point, taking ownership of it in a way, choreographing and ventriloquizing it.

TB

In addition to the idea of transit point model, I find myself considering this space and this project as a filter or screen, a space that things flow through. A particular work or group of works can arrive here and be seen differently, act differently, and then also leave here differently. There’s the physical environment, of course, the architecture, the setting, the work’s location. But beyond that is the intersection of forces and discrete investments that meet here and get framed in an unusual way, maybe. These are the things that do not appear so much as reverberate through the space. Works have their own trajectories. Not simply the official provenance of a work, though that plays a role, but the various threads of a backstory: its exhibition history, its disassembly or destruction history, its “falling through the cracks” history, the story of its remaking, its crating, its various financial disputes, its changing hands. And embedded within all this are the human transactional relationships that make up so much of how work is considered and consumed.

So, the project exaggerates and amplifies a lot of the normal processes and procedures in my work life, but casts them into more of a performative role. I think it’s theatrical here. And there are tensions too. For instance, in my interactions with my galleries and with collectors and curators, there are new issues of territory, new lines of communication created to negotiate this space. In certain ways this has made it a bit more complicated, for sure, but also made these conversations more enunciated in a way that they hadn’t been before, which I think leads in interesting directions where things are less taken for granted. It’s disruptive on that level, in that it changes the expected flow, somewhat.

And again, my bodily presence in the space—like in the New Haven project—does things, sort of turns in on the trappings of the studio visit routine, amps it up, and plays it out more self-consciously. I’m also hoping that pleasure is apparent, my own pleasure in working here in Torrington.

BO

That performative institutionality is already present in your work from the 1990s, like 42nd Street Structures. George Baker argues that you take on a museological gaze with your cruising installations from the 1990s. The project in Torrington seems like a more fleshed out, fuller, and more financed version of that. Instead of following the model of institutional critique that attacks from the outside in, you’ve now created an institution yourself, on some level, which seems to allow you to leverage all of those poetic and logistical aspects of an institution on your own terms.

TB

I think part of what you’re pointing to has to do with a sort of split consciousness that I lean towards, an inclination that I maybe always have had that I’ve learned to exploit to get at what interests me most. I like to be both inside and outside. I prefer a sort of construction where there is a deep investment, a deep closeness of feeling and emotional stake, but also a remove or reserve alongside of that. A pulling back and looking from the outside, like a shifting of consciousness. I think what that might do is break down the opposition between me, myself as the artist, and seemingly external institutional forces. So, while it’s true that I would like to see the project in Torrington as some sort of embodiment or spatialization of those institutional forces, where they all come together with me in the mix—almost as if we’ve been trapped here for a moment, arrested—I want again to stress again the pleasure I take from it. And I don’t know if that pleasure has to do with control, or something more like the opposite of control, of exposing and of being exposed, simultaneously.

You previously said something relative to this project in Torrington when I was talking to you about how I wanted to allow myself to do whatever I want with older works of mine, works that may or may not be in my control but are owned by me on some level. I might decide I want to change them. You talked about this idea amounting to something like a conceptual loading dock where things come and go but also pause. Within the frame of this space, defined by a series of juxtapositions and cross-fertilization, works that were shown in the 1990s, in the 2000s, or two years ago begin to shift.

For instance, there is a work called Container 1, 2 3, which was an approximation of or play with Donald Judd’s concrete works in Marfa. This is a work from 2000-2001 around the same time that I created Deep Purple, a work that went on to be exhibited several times and be written about. Container 1, 2, 3, however, didn’t enter discussions about my work largely because it was dismantled shortly after being exhibited at nGbK in Berlin. The three containers that compose the work were made out of plywood and rubber—they are large and somewhat cumbersome. The work was never remade until now. One of the original conditions of that three-part work was that it was made to be exhibited alongside the work of Ull Hohn. The containers were meant to frame Ull’s work and his paintings were meant to frame my work, creating an exchange, a relationship. When I remade the works here, however, Ull’s paintings weren’t available—I don't have his work here in the Torrington space. It’s not that same moment. So, this work may undergo some subtle change that will play the role of what Ull’s work did at that time, that will fill them out in this moment. I am thinking about a sound work, my voice maybe, that may not alter the works so much physically, or visually, but will fill in the space around and through them, both there and not there. And I may bring Ull back into it in another form, not through the material of his paintings, but evoked in another way. There are other examples like this.

This space is a form of limbo, where things can come in and I can look at them and they may or may not change, but they are allowed to. That will be something that is different than me simply going in and saying that the work needs a different frame or some other physical part. Ten years from now these will be the works that have passed through the Torrington lens, that screen, that filter.

BO

The limbo you're describing is an epistemological one. When works enter Torrington they are reshuffled and rearranged, they take on new significations in relationship to new objects. That transforms the space from one of solipsistic retrospection to one that's not about history but about historiography. You’re rescripting these works into new and varied trajectories of your own career. The work itself is now subject to analysis.

TB

These works are on the couch, to be rethought and rethink themselves. But in many instances that rethinking may have nothing to do with a work’s physicality or composition. It may simply be about how I think about it, and how I present it to others. It may be about the relationships that are stuck in the space between disparate works from different time periods. Things that have occurred after a work was conceived, like other work being made, other events, other thinking, etc. can shift the meaning and reception of a work, and I want to allow that to happen here, consciously. This is something that has excited me that I was surprised about. I didn’t realize how vibrant this act of analysis, this deep looking and looking back, would be for me. The whole process also comes with its anxieties, of considering a change to work that at best might be considered patina. Certain changes and damages that might be the natural aging process of plywood and other materials might just indicate the passage from then to now or might be the result of neglect or abuse. What to keep, what to change, repair, or restore. These issues of maintenance and care loom large here. We affectionately call one area of the space that houses several works from the late 1980s as, “the clinic.”

BO

Let’s go back to the idea of control, which seems important. Your control of the space brings up the question of who else is involved. For someone well-versed in institutional critique, these questions are presumably always at the forefront. Beyond yourself, who else is or will be involved with Torrington?

TB

I had the idea for the space, but I needed to finance it. I needed to have that taken care of for a period of time so that I would be able to slip into research and archival work, and the rethinking we’ve been discussing, without the constant tug to exhibit or send work into the world. I accomplished that reprieve through the sale of an early work of mine to a collector who has been a supporter and had expressed interest in something more project-based. His role will be larger than simply that acquisition that allowed the initial funding. I want to collaborate with him in other ways. We are going to mount a series of Alvin Baltrop photographs from his collection in the space, over the internal windows of my office, a sort of room within a room. And I mentioned Christine Messineo earlier, a person who has several different roles in the art world and knows my work very well. We developed a special rapport while she worked at Bortolami Gallery in New York, doing a couple of large-scale projects in Europe that were in-depth in terms of research and production. I knew that Christine was very keen on the idea of something that was project-based as well, something that had different components and layers to it. Something that wouldn't simply be the execution of a single work of art but that might touch the past, the future. She was involved in the research and conceptualization of how this might look, and how it might function. Christine is now the director of Frieze Art Fair in New York and Los Angeles, which happened midway during our working together. We both wanted to continue to work together on this project and her new role only created more layers and possibilities of what we might do. Now we’re working on a piece that will be an extension of both Frieze Art Fair in New York, and the space in Torrington, a reworking of a text-based project of mine from 1997 that uses renovation as a trope across sites in Manhattan.

I also work with commercial galleries, and they are all playing some sort of a role. We are trying to flesh that out. I think it's been very well-understood that Tom needed some space on all levels, and I did take a pause from exhibiting new work. I am trying to navigate and control more carefully where things go, how things go and when things come back to me as much as I possibly can.

I'd also like to have other artists and writers involved. I’m as cautious about that as I have been about the other aspects. It needs to be the right layers added. I think this will happen more fluidly once the initial stage is set, and I’m having a few conversations that seem to be moving in a good direction. I have also talked with a number of people who work more with writing and curating—like yourself—to have a dialogue about what this could be. This is where this conversation was generated, for instance, from our ongoing exchange.

I’ve had different people come to visit the space, particularly at the beginning when I was euphoric about having it. More recently, in the last couple of months, I’ve gone into a place of work with new projects, which requires me to be a little less available. So, I can’t play host quite as comfortably right now. But later in April and even more in May things will open up more, and that dynamic we talked about with the New Haven Body/Building project might set in. People will visit. I might have a party or two. I’m trying to hold on to the fluidity of it all as much as possible, which isn’t easy. People like to make plans.

BO

In a past conversation, you mentioned Freud’s “fort/da” as a way of describing that coming to and leaving, suggesting that there’s something gained and something lost in the movement between New York and Torrington. Part of that is you, the author. You’re at the center of the various channels through which Torrington enacts its institutional poetics. You engaging in this interview right now is part of the institution giving voice to itself. You’re also working in the space, which nobody sees until they do. All of these aspects of the project float around the idea of authorship.

TB

I have always been curious about degrees of revealing. I am in a profession that is about searching for clues, looking for the artist in the work, from the brush stroke to biographical data. So, with the idea of visitors to the space, and that ebb and flow of traffic, comes a degree of performance anxiety. I like to set things in motion, to stage my work, but not necessarily be present myself. That is real work for me regardless of how it appears. I’m well aware that there are many critics who don’t appreciate an artist who fills out their work with discourse because the work should speak for itself, something like that. Sometimes I feel the same way. I find the oscillation interesting. I have a deep ambivalence about that idea, and I’ve decided—I think out of necessity—to fold that into what I do. You mentioned the bulletin board works that I have done for a long time. They started as my response to the pared down form that I am interested in making. On the one hand, I want to be informational, and on the other hand, I want to be spatial and pared down. I then decided I will do both of those things at different points, sometimes in the same room, sometimes five years apart. It is a schizophrenic formal tendency, and on a different level that dynamic plays out in this space also, not just with the artworks themselves but the space itself in relation to me.

BO

Right. I’ve always taken issue with the idea of you as a “post-minimal” artist. On one hand, that term makes sense; however, it’s associated with the late-1960s moment of post-minimalism, one that was more about combining form and affect, creating “eccentric” sculptures that drew out the intrinsically corporeal or biomorphic properties of certain materials. What I think is evident in the bulletin board works, and in so much of your work, is that dynamics between speaking and not speaking, volume and silence, are put in a dialectical relationship with one another in the same object. They’re not actually combined.

TB

That relates to the space here too. In the bulletin boards, it’s all about this image-based or text-based material that comes together from different time periods and contexts. I can play with them there. Some of what is happening here has to do with that dialectical relationship between time frames, between forms, between levels of volume, between degrees of articulation and between artists.

In the New Haven project, I had strong ideas that I would bring in other artists from the beginning. But I like the idea of that sometimes more than I like the actual practice, which is complicated. It was a bit easier when I was younger and my affiliations with artists were more present and immediate. For the show I did with Jack Pierson—we always occupied parallel universes that were close—we could play with that affiliation. The exhibition with Ull is another example. Now it would be slightly more complicated because I would be inviting someone into the space. There is no third party putting us together, we are not being hosted. I am the host institution at the same time that I am a participating artist. I have to toss that one around a little more to work it out.

BO

Your affiliation with others is rather crucial because many of the artworks you are unearthing are from the 1990s, which is a moment when you became firmly associated with a particular group of artists including Renée Green, Andrea Fraser, and Christian Philipp Müller. This is a cast or a roster that we can list quite readily. A lot of these artists were shown by American Fine Arts, Co.

TB

I mentioned earlier that one of the things that I embarked on with the help of Christine was going back to the archives. Both American Fine Arts, Co. and Pat Hearn Gallery no longer exist. A lot of galleries have closed since the 1990s but what was fortunate about those spaces was that Bard accepted their artifacts, faxes, photographs, correspondences, etc. The archive is not that far from where I am here, really. We had four sessions there, going through materials. I have a lot of archives myself but, as I said, there were gaps; so, at Bard I was able to get deeply into all those relationships from American Fine Arts, Co. again.

One of the pieces that I wanted to recreate here was a piece that probably speaks most directly to that cast of artists, a work from “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?” curated by James Meyer in 1993 at American Fine Arts, Co. That was just when I was beginning to have conversations about showing with Colin [de Land]. I had been in group shows there since 1989 but I was the last of my group to be taken on by the gallery and I think it was the hardest decision for him. So that show galvanized my relationship to the gallery and also my peers. I had gone to school with some of those artists: Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Gregg Bordowitz. I had met Zoe Leonard. I had met Renée. Christian Philipp Müller was a big part of my life through Ull Hohn, who was my partner at the time. So, this group was coming together around the gallery but also around James Meyer and George Baker.

“What Happened to the Institutional Critique?” was essentially a large non-site—to use Robert Smithson’s logic—of projects that had existed elsewhere, recent projects that then got presented in some form of documentation, or fragment, in the gallery. In my case, I had just participated in Sonsbeek ’93, a large group exhibition in Arnhem, Holland, where I did a work called An American Garden. This was the culmination of my explorations into New York City parkscapes relative to different publics, queer cruising, surveillance, control, and landscape. It was very much coming out of Robert Smithson’s writings and my own lived experience in New York. My piece for the show at American Fine Arts, Co. was a planter, something like a crate, dropped outside the gallery on Wooster St. It was planted with things from Frederick Law Olmsted’s list of native plants from The Ramble in Central Park. That piece was written about after that, but never shown again, never recreated. It seemed to me at the time to be a piece that was more discursive than it was physical because it was only up for the duration of the exhibition. I never considered its future.

It felt like the perfect time to re-stage it here. Similar to the idea that Container 1, 2, 3 no longer had Ull’s work as a reference point or exhibition companion, however, the physical gallery of American Fine Arts, Co. is no longer here, and that architecture and that identity was a part of the work, you took them in together at the same time. So, I decided to slightly alter the re-created piece here at Torrington by creating a stamp out of the gallery’s logo, using the original typeface. This is a sort of branding device that drags American Fine Arts, Co. into a moment well beyond its dissolution.

BO

The stamp is a branding device in two senses: you can brand—almost burn—this affiliation directly onto the plywood; but also, you are branded as an American Fine Arts artist and have been ever since that show. It conjures a set of associations, biographical histories, friends, colleagues that encompass part of your own professional profile.

TB

That exhibition, “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?,” encapsulated all of the activities I was involved in at the time. It was a sort of summation. Even though we all went on to different things at that gallery, this was a moment we were crystallized. It was the moment that anchored us all together at the same time.

BO

Which is interesting for such an un-anchored work. You could create a logical chain of titles from An American Garden to Construction of An American Garden to Re-Construction of Construction of An American Garden that all meld into one another.

TB

Which I love. This is a work—had I made it for another context—that wouldn’t quite reverberate the way it does here. Now that it has gone through this filter of the Torrington space it can go back out into the world in a different way than if it had gone directly to a collection from that exhibition on Wooster St. There is something about it coming in here and being re-calibrated. Now it is a fully formed work.

BO

It has convalesced. It’s important to say that American Fine Arts, Co. might warrant a branding more than other galleries. Not to say it is qualitatively better but, especially right now, there is an almost libidinal relationship with Colin de Land, with American Fine Arts, Co., and the glamour of Wooster St. in the early 1990s. Its historical profile is rather different than other galleries that existed around it, probably because it no longer exists and because Colin de Land is no longer alive.

TB

One of the things that distinguished that scene was that we were thinking that way at the time. There was a desire to make work that would have a type of historical conversation to it and create an historical mythology that might resonate beyond the moment. The idea of lineage mattered, and of taking up certain positions. A lot of that came from Colin but not all of it. I think we all gravitated towards this junction both out of a desire to be part of that particular place but also out of a lack we felt elsewhere. Many people called the back gallery office “home,” a sort of quirky safe space. I think it is also worth noting that the people involved at American Fine Arts, Co. were more diverse than just the group in “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?” We were one facet of the gallery. That is what made it so complicated and interesting. Colin was quite good at navigating the different groups. It was very clear to me that Art Club 2000 was a foil to my slightly older generation. And not all of the artists in that exhibition were gallery artists. The context was larger, and that had to do with James Meyer as well.

BO

That prospect of forecasting an historical mythology might also define the trip to Torrington. It’s important that the work from the early 1990s wasn’t exhibited as much as it might have been and that your career has been very much attached to that work. Going to Torrington becomes a way of engaging or re-engaging that mythology by seeing the work for the first time, or the first time in a long while.

TB

I’m not so sure we were forecasting this mythology as much as desiring it. We thought it was very sexy that American Fine Arts, Co. was somewhat under the radar. There were attempts to make it even more so: the ad structures, the dissemination of information. I think the fact that Colin desired to curate a space that was essentially about the conflation of ideas has given it a certain endurance that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Certainly, James’s show was a major moment. I always find it a bit humorous because many of the actual things in the show referenced other works in other sites that weren’t necessarily in front of you. There was a frustration or tension there that I respond to. It wasn’t blowing you away with form or physicality—which American Fine Arts, Co. had been known for to a certain degree with Jessica Stockholder, Jessica Diamond, and Cady Noland.

BO

It wasn’t blowing you away with form, it was blowing you off. You might say the most totemic thing in that show was actually James Meyer’s catalogue.

TB

That beautiful spiral bound thing with the typewriter typeface.

BO

Are you still thinking about legacy?

TB

I’m interested in continuity right now. One of the most important elements of the space in Torrington is that it prompts me to move forward. We’ve spent time talking about the retrospective perspective that forms one part of this project, but that’s only important to me in so far as it also propels me forward to connect those moments and those works with present and future ideas. The space itself generates not only reconfigurations of things that have happened already, but also a sense of exploration and possibility. There are new projects developing here that were all generated out of this space, whether it be in relation to other work that is assembled here, a sort of response or continuation, or prompted by the physical space and its conditions: the floors, the open areas, the framing of the architecture, even the light. All of these projects wouldn’t have happened somewhere else. That’s a simple idea but it resonates with me. You see how I got around that question?

Next from this Volume

38.

Susan Schuppli

in conversation with Ricky Ruihong Li

“The ecological is a sensibility.”