A naively enthusiastic member of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party as a young doctor, Alberto Burri (1915–1995) served as a medic in World War II, ending up in a POW camp in Texas, where he began drawing and painting. He returned to Italy after the war in 1946, and found much of his country devastated, many of the buildings reduced to rubble and the community torn apart. His political and philosophical views had changed. Burri left medicine to pursue art, and he began using cast-off supplies and materials to make many of the heart-rending “non-paintings” that are on display at the Guggenheim through January 6.
[Image at top: Alberto Burri, Rosso gobbo (Red Hunchback), 1953. Acrylic, fabric, and resin on canvas; metal rod on verso, 56.5 x 85 cm. Private collection, Rome. With the Gobbi series, Burri put metal forms behind the canvas to make awkward, bump-like protrusions. He said he was thinking about invasive space.]
As a battlefield doctor, Burri was presumably charged with patching up wounded soldiers, and many of the techniques he would have used–especially sewing and mending–found their way into his work. Without representationally depicting the traumatic scenes (caught on black and white film and projected in the Guggenheim lobby), Burri uses a dark palette highlighted with slashes of red to evoke the indelible feelings of human vulnerability and ruin he experienced in wartime.
In the early work, Burri employs unconventional materials like burlap sacks, tar, and ground pumice stone. As the economy improved, he was able to get wood veneer, shingles, steel, and plastic sheeting from factories, and they started appearing in the work. For Burri, the process–which included burning, welding, sewing, pasting–was as important as the abstract images he was creating. He was keenly aware that he was developing a new realism–a sculpture-painting hybrid. But while he treated the work like sculpture, his work remained decisively wall-oriented and essentially two-dimensional throughout his career.
This superb exhibition, one of my favorites in 2015, is Burri’s first retrospective in the United States in nearly forty years, and curator Emily Braun (with Megan Fontanella and Ylinka Barotto) has organized his artistic story chronologically, dividing it into sections titled by a predominating material, procedure, or color. As the years passed, and as Italy recovered from the war, Burri’s work became less abject and angst-ridden, replaced by a calmer and more harmonious vision. According to the press release for the show, Burri never spoke about the subject of his art, claiming it had an “irreducible presence” that could not be articulated.
Burri’s work was influential in its day–apparently Rauschenberg visited his Rome studio in 1953 and reworked some of his own paintings as a result–and now, with painters increasingly combining sculptural approaches with painting, it is arguably even more relevant. Certainly for any contemporary abstract painter using alternative materials and processes, this exhibition is required viewing. For Burri’s work is not simply a formal arrangement of textures and materials; it is an urgent examination. Unlike many contemporary artists, Burri’s psychic need to make the abstract objects that he did, particularly in the early years, is palpable. As his wartime experience faded, it was perhaps inevitable that his exploration of materials and process became more complacent and domesticated, the paintings less experimental, more tidy and organized. He deserved some peace, and it looks as though he found it.
Alberto Burri, Nero M 1 (Black M 1), 1988. Acrylic, pumice, and Vinavil on Celotex, 152 x 202 cm. Private collection, courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.
“Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting,” organized by Emily Braun with Megan Fontanella and Ylinka Barotto. Guggenheim Museum, UES, New York, NY. Through January 6, 2016. Check out the comprehensive website dedicated exclusively this exhibition.On December 11, 12pm, curator Emily Braun will be giving a tour of the exhibition.
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