Alberto Burri Retrospective: The Trauma of Painting

December 20, 2016

Alberto Burri’s (1915-1995) retrospective presented at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is his first American exhibition in over 35 years. Winding up the Frank Lloyd Wright building, Burri unveils a variety of his experiences through his works. The show is comprehensive and well curated. The viewer is exposed to a general understanding of the artist (exposing all ten of his various series’ made) as well as a tour-de-force of his masterpieces in one location. The Guggenheim is an ideal place to travel around the world of Alberto Burri.

The artist is best recognized for his Sacchi (sacks) series made of sown pieces of burlap bags, often with parts of old cloth added. However, it becomes quickly evident that his other series’ are just as strong and deserve equal recognition. Catrami (tars), Muffe (molds), Gobbi (hunchbacks), Bianchi (white), Legni (woods), Ferri (irons), Combustini Plastiche (plastic combustions) Cretti and Cellotex works all display tactile examples of the artist’s clear vision and recognizable style regardless of medium. The exhibition displays his earliest works from the postwar period made in the late 1940’s up until his latest ones from the 1990’s. Furthermore, on the top floor of this magnificent spiraling exhibition is a video installation of his architectural sculpture Cretto.

Burri began this project in the city of Gibellina in Sicily during the 1980’s in response to an earthquake that devastated the locale in 1968. Juxtaposing his Cretti work next to this video was quite appropriate. One can see the relation of these craquelure paintings with his memorial/land art Grande Cretto. The paintings were made by mixing resin with pigments and polyvinyl acetate to create an effect of destructing paint or dried up desert lake. For his project in Gibellina (invited by the mayor) “Burri instead envisioned an architectural sculpture that would cover the ruins and represent both the seismic disaster and the destroyed urban plan.” (exhibition notes). He transformed the city’s ruins into a monumental white cemented surface – Cretto. Burri refers to his Cretti paintings (1970’s) as “the energy of the surface” and his final work, Cretto is amomento mori (a dead moment). It maintains the energy of the destruction from the earthquake.

Although the show was curated chronologically, the viewer has the option early on to detour into a side room and get lost in a web of perpetual combustion. As Burri calls them, paintings combustion puts forth a magnificent experience for the viewer to absorb and reflect what is to come. In that first room three paintings from the Combustini Plastiche (plastic combustions) series are impressively displayed. His process of burning and melting plastic resembles colorless monochrome canvases. The distinction between front and back, inside and out, solid or empty space can be confused.

Through this exhibition one can clearly understand why Burri was seen as a father figure to Arte Povera – bridging the gap between art and life, nature and culture. This movement emerged in Italy in the 1960’s. The term Arte Povera was defined from curator and art critic Germano Celant in 1967. The use of commonplace, and “poor” materials are expressions of this movement. For Burri, wood, steel, plastic, and burlap sacks are all predominant mediums. Wood combustion is visible in Combustione Legno (1957), in Ferro SP iron is the material used (1961), Sacking in Red fuses sacking with vivid red pigment (1954) and red plastic in Rosso Plastca (1961). These examples reflect the nature of Arte Povera.

World War II had a devastating and momentous effect on the whole world during this time. Burri was clearly no different. A physician during the war, Burri resolved to painting as an outlet for past trauma. His work seemingly reflects these experiences. His art reveals a nuanced pattern of pieces creating a whole. Some of his work repairs while others seem to separate. All of his works are incredibly tactile. With his various techniques of burning, sowing, stitching, tearing, or layering, Burri questions and challenges the conventional notion of painting. One immediately notices his palette of colors; rust or red resembles the earth or blood from war, brown like the dirt or black as the tar on the streets. We live in a rough unforgiving world and his color, medium selections and processes reflect this reality.

The artist was named the “artist of wombs”. This label may have an initial reaction or feeling of repulsion towards his work. However, as one takes time observing and absorbing his pictures, one may feel drawn by the work and skills involved. In the pursuit of understanding through art, Burri contributes through bringing awareness and highlighting certain events or elements of importance that can speak to each individual in its own way. Perhaps revisiting the exhibition will reveal more depth to his work. There is a sense of realization and consciousness in his work.