January 15, 2008

Alberto Burri: surgeon turned artist after WWII

"Alberto Burri," Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, NY. Through January 19.

Alberto Burri (1915 – 1995) was born in Città di Castello, Italy. He earned a medical degree in 1940, before serving as a surgeon during World War II in North Africa where he was captured in 1943 by Allied troops and sent to the United States, to a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas. Burri began to paint during his internment using empty burlap and mail sacks for canvases, and continued to use mail sacks throughout his career. Following his release in 1945, Burri returned to Italy, settled in Rome, and dedicated his self full-time to painting. In 1947, he had his first solo exhibition at Galleria La Margherita in Rome. From that point on, Burri’s work was exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe in numerous group and solo exhibitions, at venues that include the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Burri was awarded Third Prize at the 1958 Carnegie International (Pittsburgh), the UNESCO Prize at the 1959 Sao Paulo Biennale and granted a solo exhibition at the 30th Venice Biennale in 1960. More recently, Burri’s work was prominently featured in Germano Celant’s Italian Metamorphosis exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1994, a year before Burri died in Nice, France.

This exhibition covers almost five decades and highlights Burri's experiments with unorthodox materials such as burlap, sack cloth, pumice, tar, plastic, Cellotex , ceramic and glue, and processes such as burning, cutting, collage and other manipulations of materials. In Time Out New York, Anne Doran reports that Burri's work was indeed influential. "Along with those of Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, these works foreshadowed the arte povera movement of the late 1960s, as well as the assemblage art of Bruce Conner. But while Fontana and Manzoni reveled in the anarchic joys of scatology and spectacle, the elegance of Burri’s work marked him as a formalist. Nevertheless, the power of his early period remains undiminished, resonating not only with Beat and Process art, but also with the work of women artists such as Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta and Sophie Ristelhueber, which likewise conjures a phantasmagorical body by conflating inanimate material with living flesh." Read more.

In the NYTimes, Ken Johnson reports that some works in the show are still repugnantly raw. "Small pieces in which he melted sheets of transparent plastic attached to white panels can queasily evoke burned skin. But what is more impressive is the sensuous appeal of most works. The red plastic film wrapped around a small panel in 'Rosso Plastica L.A.' (1966) may have been blowtorched, but the violence is outweighed by visual and tactile voluptuousness." Read more.

In The NY Sun, David Cohen suggests that Burri's art "exalted in a kind of existential urgency — brutal textures and robust techniques were at the service of immediacy and realness." Read more.

At Current Art Pics' post # 71, Burri's use of materials is contexualized. "
Earlier use of novel materials focussed on recycling and surprising juxtaposition, particularly of printed matter: striking three-dimensional elements (as in the work of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1949), for example). But by mid-century the kind of materials adopted emphasize the imposition of two-dimensional reference upon them. They provide an unconventional base or support that draws attention to the effort or resistance to ascribed pattern, picture or notation. This aspect of painting is often called materiality, the particular phase considered is here termed Traction." Read more.

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