However, inside they’re not promoting Armstrong Rubber, which commissioned the building in 1968, or Pirelli Tires, or the sofas of IKEA, which still owns the building. Instead, an art show is on display. In the show, New Haven native, ECA graduate, and now distinguished conceptual artist Tom Burr offers art with evocations to New Haven’s recent past, including the 1970 May Day on the Green, Jean Genet’s defense of the Black Panthers, an era of borders and border crossings, and the arrest of Jim Morrison at the New Haven Arena in 1969.
Burr’s show in the Pirelli building on Sargeant Drive, “Tom Burr/New Haven Body/Building: Pre-Existing Conditions,” has been in the making since last November, when Burr and his gallery, Bortolami Gallery in New York City, brokered a contract with IKEA.
The idea was for Burr to use the full length of the building’s first floor to explore borders and boundaries, catching and concealing, expression and repression — in short, the kinds of subjects and works he’s been showing across the country and most recently in Berlin and Munster, Germany. He’s back in New Haven as part of one of his gallery’s programs that seeks to link an unusual space with one of their artists and to mount a show in an unusual space.
An artist’s autobiography usually doesn’t help determine the location of a show, said the show’s coordinator Emma Fernberger. However, for Burr — whose 95-year-old dad still lives in Hamden, where Burr grew up — the Pirelli building adds an extra level of meaning, said the artist.
Born in 1963, Burr was only a kid when Armstrong Rubber built the building, a paean to a hoped-for Modernist version of city life that was directly undercut by the deep disruptions of urban renewal and the 1970 May Day rally on the Green, an apocalyptic moment, potentially, in New Haven history.
“I was born a handful of years before the Pirelli Building was built, so it was always in my mind while I was growing up,” Burr wrote in material accompanying the show.
In Burr’s conception, the building on its west wall is lined by a large white ribbon. It’s a kind of bandage that evokes the wounds sustained by many in that era, Burr said. It also marks the building’s own kind of wound, from the dismantling of the two-level extension that was torn down in 2000 to make way for the IKEA parking lot when that company bought the building
“A trauma to the body” of the building as well as the social body is how Burr, in an interview this week put it.
The show, which also features sculptural installations and photographs focusing on Jim Morrison’s arrest and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover’s managing of the Black Panther crisis, will be there through November.
The contract with IKEA calls for the gallery to be restricted to about 30 people at a time, which means you have to arrange for a visit by appointment. At least for now.
The first thing you notice when you walk into what is an utterly gutted space, with the steel ceiling and concrete columns exposed, is a shining brand new railing. Burr built it because IKEA and the city of New Haven’s building code required the artist and gallery to do so before inviting the public in. But Burr turned code compliance into art. Not only did he fashion the sturdy railing out of stainless steel, he engraved on it the complete text of famous French playwright and gay activist Jean Genet’s speech in defense of the Black Panthers.
Then there are two installations in front of the site of what had been the first-floor bathrooms on the north and south ends of the building. Here code required Burr either to remove the loose tiles or install railing. He chose the latter approach. Genet hovers over one, appearing in an old and young portrait. J. Edgar Hoover guards the other, shooting a Tommy gun.
It’s a kind of face-off redux that never specifically happened, but could have — and thanks to art, now does. That’s the way this show works, gradually growing on you as you circumambulate the raw space.
Burr said that he’s long been interested in coming back to New Haven, his native ground. But doing so at the Pirelli Building wasn’t a given, or even the first target.
He and his gallery explored an office tower in another part of town as well as the Paul Rudolph-designed parking garage on Temple Street.
Architect friends told him IKEA would never let him use the Pirelli Building. “Everyone told me you won’t get access,” he said.
But they were wrong. Gallery coordinator Fernberger made a cold call, and they lucked out. A contract was struck to run from last November through this November. “I don’t think they [IKEA} were necessarily interested in art. I think they liked the idea of activating the building,” Burr said.
Yet much renovation had to be undertaken by artist and gallery before the public would be allowed in. That work consisted not only of the new railings mentioned above, but also boarding up an open elevator shaft. Burr also turned that into an installation, using see-through plastic and large-face security mirrors, which certainly makes you think about the surveillance in your life, whether you are ascending or descending.
From Long Wharf Usher To Artist
Burr’s first specific recollection of the Pirelli building was connected to one of his first jobs.
“I was an usher at the Long Wharf Theater,” he recalled. “I wore a burgundy vest.”
Still without a license, he couldn’t drive himself home yet after work. When his parents came to pick him up, he noticed, night after night, the Pirelli Building.
The show inside the building is only the first phase of the project. Phase two is both online and physically at Bortolami gallery in Tribeca. Phase three will be what Burr calls “another layer” — probably a performance in the Pirelli building space, among and referring to the installations.
Those activities will take place in the fall. To find out more specifics or to make an appointment to visit now, contact Emma Fernberger at firstname.lastname@example.org.