Tom Burrows: In Conversation

Foster/White Gallery: You’ve been casting polymer resin fields for over four decades. Why that medium?

Tom Burrows: It’s the medium that tends to keep me interested enough to keep doing it. It’s basically because for over four decades, I’ve never been able to master it. The fact that it’s still a struggle keeps me going.

F/WG: There’s a certain level of accident and mystery to what you do, and of course the struggle you just mentioned. How much of what you’re doing is controllable? Can you control opacity and luminosity, for instance?

TB: There’s such a variance in all those things. The new surface is quite flat, which affects the luminosity and penetration in a different way than what I was working with before. For one thing, I’ve become more reductive in my color fields and if there’s any kind of pattern that appears it’s usually through the medium rather than myself. It’s thrown me off balance but I’m enjoying it. There’s kind of a democratic voice between me and the medium. I don’t think I would have ever got to where I am unless I allowed that. I’m forced into a democracy. I did a similar thing with the porcelain work but eventually it took more control and I backed away for a while.

F/WG: You’ve said you are not mystical or spiritual, but many people  find your work incredibly meditative. Contemplative in what feels like a spiritual way. Do you see any spirituality in your process as a creator?

TB: If I’m anything, I’m an agnostic. I believe there’s something out there but I don’t think anyone can name it, and yes, I do think the work falls in that realm. I don’t want to say vibe because that’s too hippy. I am dealing in the realm of beauty, but even that’s a cheesy word.

F/WG: I recently read an article about beauty as a driving, almost spiritual force in Japanese fairy tales and literature. So the goal is not a happy ending, but an experience of beauty. It was really enlightening for me.

TB: I’ve been very influenced by Japanese thought, probably because of my demographic and the geographies I’ve lived in. It really permeated West Coast thinking.

F/WG: Who are the thinkers who have most influenced your artistic practice?

TB: I guess Agnes Martin, in her work and what I see. I don’t always agree with what she said. And Ad Reinhardt, both painters. They were both somewhat influenced by Orientalism, and in fact Reinhardt was an Oriental scholar. So if I had to relate to any artists, it would be them. But there’s no one philosophy that truly has a huge influence on me.




Tom Burrows, Mimas Tiliae, polymer resin, 24 x 24 in.


F/WG: I read somewhere that you’re suspicious of art for art’s sake. Is that still the case? Can you elaborate on what you see as the sake of your art.

TB: I’m not sure. If you look at Russian Suprematism compared to Constructivism — Constructivism had a purpose and Suprematism voided it, but I think they’re both completely valid. I’m not against art for art’s sake unless it’s completely self-indulgent. I don’t think everything has to have a political statement, but I do feel obliged to write about my work after it’s done. I’m not thinking that way when I’m doing the work, but I feel everyone who’s given any kind of a stage—well, for instance, my work gives me a bit of a stage and I can try to say something in a very indirect way. Secondarily, it has political content but that’s not why I did it in the first place.

F/WG: My colleagues and I were talking about the sculptural origins of the resin pieces and wondering if your early videos from the 1960s—of, for example, light on driftwood—are related to your resin works. Do you see a line between the video and the sculpture? And another question along the same lines. In 1975 you were commissioned by the UN to document squatter communities worldwide. Do you see a through line between that project and the resin pieces in their mutual preoccupation with space?

TB: I feel a union between it all but it’s tenuous. At the time I did the squatting piece, it wasn’t totally on its own. There were people working in terms of social sculpture, like Joseph Beuys, and I was in the realm of that type of thought. I thought about much of what I was doing then as sculpture and I think about what I’m doing now as sculpture, and what the light had to do with it—well, I was using a camera and using light. I started drifting away from that because it was too hot and I had to make a choice of stepping into that form of social anthropology or taking another path. I couldn’t fit them together. I would have spent my life going to conferences at Hilton Hotels in third world cities. I didn’t want to do that.

F/WG: So the polymer resin gives you more space.

TB: I was working in polymer resin simultaneously and before the squatting project. It was a nice thing to retreat to because I do like working alone and it allowed me to produce art singularly. I could never be a film maker, for instance. It takes too much collaboration. I enjoy being alone.


Tom Burrows making a piece in his studio on Hornsby Island, BC. Film produced  by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia.


To learn more about Tom Burrows and to see available works please visit

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