Alberto Burri (1915–1995) had an extremely successful career almost from the get go, and his work was widely exhibited during most of it. However, if over the past thirty or so years one wished to see work by Burri in the flesh, one needed to make strenuous efforts to do so, for example by going to the artist’s native Città di Castello in Italy where Burri established the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri in 1978, and subsequently placed late work on permanent display in the Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco. Otherwise, this artist’s work is difficult to find in museum and gallery displays outside of Italy. The last leg of Burri’s previous retrospective in the United States was featured at the Guggenheim Museum in 1978, which found in its second director, James Johnson Sweeney, an early champion of the artist’s work.
Burri, a self-taught painter, worked in series, and these were arranged in chronological order along the famous ramp designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, starting at the bottom. Opposite the entrance to the museum, a short black-and-white film clip was projected onto a wall of the atrium showing the amount of destruction wrought in Italy by bombardments during World War II. I had not thought of the effects that witnessing such destruction may have had upon the genesis of Burri’s abstract works rich with gashes, sutures, scars, cracks, and/or fragments; then again, I never had the opportunity to think at any length about Burri’s work, given its relative geographic isolation.
Burri’s paintings, with their emphasis on process, exhibit the impact actions and time have upon matter—the wear and tear of burlap sacks, further stressed in areas by the artist and conspicuously repaired, integrated into the plane in one series of pictures, while in others there is an accelerated craquelure of paint. Burri embraces the reality—or materiality—of matter, out of which he builds up a painting. This seems to be a particular Italian predilection, as witnessed in the creamy still-life constructions in oil by the Bolognese classicist Giorgio Morandi, a generation older than Burri, and thus a father figure who needed to be toppled symbolically. Morandi’s figurative pictures show things that are not there. Burri’s do not, except metaphorically. The interest in breakdown—with its intimations of passage, and thus of decline and fall—as embodied in the ruin is likewise an Italian predilection, as seen in the Renaissance’s infatuation with the antique.
Although the exhibition catalogue authored by Emily Braun does not delve sufficiently into the later biography of the artist, it contains quite a bit about Burri’s early years. After volunteering in the war launched in Ethiopia by Benito Mussolini, Burri completed his training in medicine and surgery, and then went on to command an infantry platoon during the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. In December 1942, he joined the medical corps, and in May of the following year Burri was captured in Tunisia. He was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas, where both he and his fellow officers obtained supplies and began producing art. When supplies dwindled, Burri began stretching recycled burlap sacks to use as supports for the genre scenes he was then painting. Burri would later use cut-out sections of burlap for their formal and evocative qualities in one of his most celebrated series of paintings.
Upon his release and return to Italy in February 1946, Burri abandoned medicine and pursued the practice of art. The absence of training freed Burri from conventional drawing, modeling, brushwork, compositional strategies, materials, and processes, and he soon began producing abstract pictures with unorthodox materials in the Catrami series (Tars; 1948–1952), in which tar, oil, enamel, ground pumice, and/or corrugated cardboard were incorporated. The three medium-sized Catrami displayed at the bottom of the ramp immediately drew one in, with the oldest painting in the exhibition, Catrame 2 (1949), reminding one strongly of the imagery of the contemporary American abstract painter Thomas Nozkowski.
Burri would famously continue to work with substances foreign to traditional Western pictorial practice, such as burlap, plastic, metal and wood veneer—each medium deployed in distinct bodies of work. Expressive brushwork, which would play such a key role in postwar American Abstract Expressionism and European peinture informelle, were cast aside. Simulacra of brushstrokes were incorporated by way of cloths onto which pigment was once wiped merged into the painting, or with gashes.
Nero catrame (1950) highlights characteristics encountered in later works, including an interest in pronounced textural differentiation, archaism, break-down, flatness (and when not, approximations of low relief), chance occurrences, and the monochrome. The rawness of this painting ties it to the street (graffiti, worn—horizontal—tarmacs, thickly overpainted—vertical—walls, weathering), and thus to the contemporary work of Jean Dubuffet and Aaron Siskind (two artists listed by Braun), and consequently to Surrealism and Dadaism.
I touch upon a select number of paintings in the order in which one encountered these going up the Guggenheim’s ramp, which famously allows for splendid long-distance views of works belonging to different periods on the opposite side of the atrium, while infamously keeping certain works that are nearby beyond arm’s reach, thereby preventing more intimate viewing. With the Gobbi series (Hunchbacks; 1950–55), an arbitrary warp is introduced by placing an unseen object behind the canvas, pressing the taut skin forward—somewhat as a broken bone would, which takes viewers back to Burri’s wartime experiences. I join those who believe that the amount of destruction witnessed during and after World War II informs Burri’s aesthetic, but something that is overlooked is the quota of black humor that goes into disrupting the traditions of painting. The object hidden behind the canvas brings Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture With Hidden Noise (1916) to mind. In the horizontal Rosso gobbo (1953), circular stains, spills, and two rectilinear pieces of beige fabric with paint marks, glued onto the surface, are activated by a curve pressing the otherwise immaculate fiery red canvas ground outward.
The Bianchi (Whites; 1949–56) includes the lyrical Bianco (1952), with its flat white and black painted fragments and biomorphic stains organized along the lines of a grid and playing off of the beige canvas. Rarely before has raw canvas become such an integral part in the composition of an easel painting—Joan Miró’s extraordinary work of the 1920s constitutes the exception. With the Bianchi, Burri finds his voice. The very title of this series, its exploration of monochromaticity, and the experimentation with materials seem to have inspired Piero Manzoni’s remarkable set of white achromes.
Works with a preponderance of black, red, and white respectively bring Robert Rauschenberg’s series of mostly monochrome paintings to mind, as does Burri’s inclusion of collage in his pictures. Braun tells us that the American artist was deeply interested in his Italian colleague’s work, which he saw both in Rome and New York in 1953. (Megan Fontanella devotes an essay in the exhibition catalogue to “Alberto Burri’s Early Career in America”). She is correct in implying that Rauschenberg, one of the giants of postwar American art, thrust Burri out of standard English-language accounts of twentieth-century art, as there is some overlap between these artists’ unorthodox approaches to the task of making a painting, while Rauschenberg seems in retrospect the wilder artist, blazing his way, often successfully, through a mind-boggling number of images, ideas, processes, and media.
The Sacchi (Sacks; 1950–56), in which dissected pieces of burlap bags are sewn together and integrated into the plane, with wounds left gaping, constitutes a milestone in abstract painting. This is arte povera avant la lettre, and Burri will be correctly recognized as a precursor of the late 1960s Italian Arte Povera movement. Canvas became the preferred support for painting in the sixteenth century, and with a work like Composizione (1953), the heavily patched-up burlap, somewhat reminiscent of a war-ravaged landscape, finally jumps to the fore. Or one could imagine that one is looking at the backside of a heavily repaired canvas: what is not meant to be seen is fully exposed, and what was to be displayed is hidden from view. The nature of painting as an object in space subject to manipulation is thereby emphasized.
In the classic Combustioni plastiche (Plastic combustions; 1960–70), Burri ravages the artificial, tautly stretched plastic surface—with few artistic antecedents (detailed by Braun)—with the aid of a blowtorch. The scorching heat opens a void. In Rosso plastica (1961), with affinities to Nouveau Réalisme, the melting and puckering and rending sheets of red plastic evoke a monochrome in oil thick with impasto. A purely illusory purity is here corrupted, as is true of the other works in this series with their fragile skins.
Not all of Burri’s series are equally compelling. The Ferri (Irons; 1958–61) pale in comparison to other artists’ (later) paintings incorporating sheets of metal. The works from the Cellotex series (1969–94) featured at the Guggenheim Museum appeared lifeless, as in the black Cellotex (1980–89) that plays rectilinear and curvilinear areas of divergent reflectivity off of each other. For this viewer, it comes closer to interior design than to autonomous painting. The Cretti (Cracks; circa 1970–1979), on the other hand, with their pronounced and deliberately induced craquelure, include works of the first magnitude, such as Cretto B 2 (1973), a white monochrome fraught with pictorial incident.
Burri was fearless. Working by himself—when many artists felt the need to join one or other group—and not prone to pronouncements, he let his work speak for itself. At its best, it does so, with extraordinary eloquence.
Professor, School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology
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