Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, a large-scale solo exhibition of paintings currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York provides a fertile stomping ground: Catrami, Gobbi, Muffi, Bianchi, Sacchi, Combustioni and Legini, Ferri, Combustioni Plastiche, Cretti. Tars, Hunchbacks, Molds, Whites, Sacks, Combustions and Woods, Irons, Plastic Combustions, Cracks. Ground pumice stone, tar, discarded linens, burlap sacks, wood veneer, cold-rolled steel, plastic sheeting off factory rolls, Celotex and blowtorch.
Per the (excellent) exhibition website, Burri “made his ‘unpainted paintings’ by tearing, stitching, welding, melting, and burning,” and his “materials- and process-based art anticipated currents of the 1960s such as Arte Povera and Post-Minimalism.” Like the art of those movements, there is a physical immediacy and palpable joy (once you get past the initial harshness) in the look and feel of the artworks. And where the Guggenheim’s On Kawara exhibit brilliantly brought forth the human warmth lurking in otherwise cold conceptual works, this show works the reverse: it brings forth the art, as it were, behind the person.
Alberto Burri studied medicine in Italy before enlisting in Mussolini’s military and, after being captured by the British in Tunisia in 1943, wound his way through POW camps for the remaining war years, ultimately ending up at one in Hereford, Texas.
“In August 1945, a local U.S. Army chaplain assisted the Hereford prisoners in organizing ‘Mostra d’arte dei prigionieri di Hereford’ (Art exhibition of the Hereford prisoners) in the empty officers’ barracks. More than 200 works were displayed, from original compositions to impressive copies of old masters. Burri submitted only one work, a chess set, which he carved from wood with a razor blade and presented in the craft section.” Upon his repatriation to Italy he set up an art studio and never practiced medicine again.
Despite being in contact with with the post-war artistic avant grade one gets the sense that Burri was more interested in the physicality of art as much as (or opposed to) its conceptual content. He traveled extensively throughout Italy “on an artistic pilgrimage, viewing masterpieces of Renaissance and baroque art. In these works… the splendid detail with which the old master artists rendered garments, drapery folds, and sartorial details such as ruching and lacing also deeply influenced Burri, as seen in his burlap Sac chi (sacks). The intonaco or white ground of peeling frescoes, and the cracked surfaces of oil and panel painting, weathered by the years, would be elaborated in his series, such as the Bianchi (whites) and Cretti, which explored the processes of time and decay.”
The processes of time and decay. That phrase could easily serve as an alternate tile to this show. The exhibited works — in addition to their harsh appearance — look as if they should smell. Polyvinyl acetate, when put to a oxyacetylene flame, has to got to smell something fierce. Same goes with old linens and burlap sacks, however elegantly restitched and stretched, and the “used bits of paint-swiped rags and soiled household linens” of the Bianchi (whites). The sutured iron works even seem as if they would leave a metallic tang on your tongue if you lingered before them too long.
Though this is not to say the body of work is focussed on the grotesque. In fact, the complete opposite effect obtains, and the works are beautifully installed and present themselves as formal and refined. This aspect of the show is refreshing: you almost do not need to know anything about Burri’s bio to enjoy and appreciate the work and the gallery wall texts are perfectly calibrated in giving you the what, when, where and — most importantly — how of each artwork.
The further one gets up the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramp, the pace of Burri’s restless innovation slows and one sees him focusing in the last decades of his life (Burri died in 1995) primarily on two series, the Cretti, which explore craquelure (cracks in paint) deployed with scientific precision “by a fast-drying mixture of zinc white, PVA, and water; the ratio of pigment to binder ensured the surface would form thin or deep fissures, over hours or days, depending on the thickness of the paste.”
The other series that received rapt attention by Burri are the Cellotex works in which the surface of Celotex (Burri used two l’s apparently to avoid infringing on the trade name) fiber insulation boards were delicately marked and incised to provide varying feathery, velvety, matte and shiny black monochrome effects depending on the play of light over their surfaces.
When you get to the top of the ramp at a Guggenheim show, you’re done.
But in this case, instead of taking the elevator down, retrace your steps and wind back down. Take care midway down if you didn’t on the way up to stop and view the overall installation — it is beautifully done. And, at the bottom, take a moment to step back into the tiny first gallery which is hung with several, white plastic combustion pieces from the mid 1960s for they serve as much as a poignant summation as they do astounding introduction to the work of Alberto Burri. One that will linger under your skin long after you pass out through the revolving door.
Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting at the Guggenheim, New York through January 6, 2016.
All images courtesy of the Guggenheim.