Mitchell-Innes & Nash November 29, 2007 –January 19, 2008
The exhibit at Mitchell-Innes & Nash is an overview of the lifelong work of the late Italian avant-gardist Alberto Burri, a mini-retrospective of one of the most mysterious members of the Arte Povera movement. Burri’s collage-paintings have an immediate 3-D effect, as they are made from patched and stitched brown burlap, mailbag canvases, cracked mud, burned plastic, discarded wood and other found materials mounted on stretcher frames that extend the work into the rarefied realm of assemblage-sculpture.
Burri was an army doctor in the Fascist Italian army of the 1940s; after being taken captive in Tunisia by U.S. troops, he was brought to a prisoner-of-war facility in Hereford, Texas. While in Camp Howze, several Italian detainee-artists were taken from the camp on a detail to repaint the local church. One of those POWs was Burri, a happenstance that began the five-decade-long career of this prodigious yet secretive artist.
He became an abstract painter and sculptor, experimenting with Arte-Povera materials (as in “Abstraction with Brown Burlap”) and collages. By perceiving the creative potential of mundane objects, which he sought to combine with the new language of expressive abstraction, Burri built on the achievements of his Italian predecessors such as Enrico Prampolini, who also had experimented with unusual materials. He was also influenced by Kurt Schwitters, whose collages were made from throwaway scraps of papers and textiles. A later inspiration: While visiting France in 1949, Burri saw and absorbed the inconoclastic Art Brut paintings of Jean Dubuffet.
Burri took what these artists had done in a new direction, working on a larger scale than Schwitters and employing substances, like plastic, untried by Prampolini. His early works were rags splashed in red paint, fashioned to simulate the blood-soaked bandages of wounded Italian soldiers. Milton Gendel, an American critic living in Rome, visited Burri’s studio in 1954 and described the atmosphere: “The studio is thick-walled, whitewashed, neat and ascetic; his work is ‘blood and flesh,’ reddened torn fabric that seems to parallel the staunching of wounds that Burri experienced in wartime.”
He was in fact a formalist in his abstractions, troubled by memories of the war, and his materials were often made to appear destroyed or wounded, slashed—suffering as if living flesh. For example, Burri burned paper, burlap and wood planks (“Sacco 2,” 1954) using a handheld blowtorch, a technique he used consistently till the late ‘60s, to create a black hole in the middle of the work or on its side, suggesting scars or wounds (“Rosso Plastica L.A.,” 1966). He considered fire a “quick change, ultra-living element,” intimate and universal. By rending the veils of his materials, Burri appeared to open a glimpse into the void, made all the more apocalyptic through the manipulation of fire. Still later he used metal that he had maltreated with a soldering iron to raise blisters and nodules at points of juncture, for a tragic effect.
When Burri discovered a new industrial isolation material, celotex, he painted over it with oils (“Celotex,” 1983-1984). His work on such surfaces was elegant and esthetically balanced, abstractions in red and black or black and white. When the French Post Office commissioned a design for a series of postal stamps in 1991, Burri recreated a red and black composition that harked back to his earlier Celotex series.
Subsequently he discovered acrovinilico, a plastic with a texture like cracked mud, creating “chance-operational” lines and crevices, as in the wall-sized masterpiece “Cretto Grande Bianco” (c.1971-73), its cracked face “accidentally” resembling a desert landscape. Those labyrinthine zigzags of dry mud were later reused in smaller, square objects, “Nero Cretto” (c.1993) and “Gold Cretto” (1993), both in black or gold glazed ceramic. These and so many other works have a crust that cracks and sheds, revealing layers underneath.
“Words are no help to me,” Burri once said in trying to explain his art. “It is irreducible presence, which refuses to be converted into any other form of expression. It is a presence both imminent and active. This is what it stands for: to exist so as to signify, and to exist so as to paint. My painting is a reality; which is part of myself, a reality that I cannot reveal in words. It will be easier for me to say what does not need to be painted, what does not pertain to painting, what I exclude from my work sometimes with deliberate violence, sometimes with satisfaction.”
Alberto Burri is a rare visual-arts phenomenon, an “artistic bridge” that connects futurists and surrealists to post-surrealist esthetics and the post-war generation in a logical narrative. Overall, this brilliant exhibit brings to the fore a necessary dialogue about textures and materials, about three-dimensionality in painting and sculpture, a technique that Burri so brilliantly began to employ more than a half century ago.