criticismExhibitions
Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Alberto Burri at Mitchell-Innes & Nash


This article was first published in The New York Sun, January 10, 2008

Alberto Burri, Rosso Plastica L.A.,1966. Plastic, acrylic, combustione on Celotex, 11-3/8 x 14-1/2 inches  Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Alberto Burri, Rosso Plastica L.A.,1966. Plastic, acrylic, combustione on Celotex, 11-3/8 x 14-1/2 inches Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Alberto Burri (1915-1995) was one of the seminal figures of 20th Century Italian art, yet his work is rarely seen in New York. In fact, an overview of his career in the downtown space of Mitchell-Innes & Nash is, the gallery claims, the first in more than 20 years. It shows a daring master capable of brazen beauty.

Burri is famous for the poverty of his means and the richness of his results. He was a pioneer, in the postwar period, of a sensibility for un-arty materials that had roots in early modernism and branches in many directions. The 1960s Italian countercultural movement, Arte Povera, for instance, owed a significant debt to his rough and ready use of sacking and plastics. Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly were visitors to his studio in 1953. It is argued — though contested, albeit passively, by the American artist himself — that Burri’s example propelled Mr. Rauschenberg towards his famous Combines.

In Burri’s preference for lowly materials, minimal intervention of the hand, and literalism about what things are and how they have been put together, the Italian artist was a precursor of minimal art, Pop, and much that followed. But his sensibility belongs with an earlier generation. His aesthetic ambitions were a complex of expressionism and a striving for beauty, both of which were disdained by radical artists of the 1960s. He belonged to an international trend in the 1950s known in Europe as art informel, and as Abstract Expressionism in America. His art exalted in a kind of existential urgency — brutal textures and robust techniques were at the service of immediacy and realness.

And yet, however raw and rude his torn, scorched and crudely sewn-together burlaps, molten plastics, or randomly cracked ceramics might have been, he was a consummate aesthete, incapable — seemingly — of inelegance. In the case of Italian artists, the national stereotype happens to be true — they have a Midas touch with beauty, even when they are attempting to convey poverty, trauma or angst.

“Sacco 2” (1954), which stretches oil-stained burlap sacking over canvas, has a large, scorched lesion at its center, and a thinner, neater tear to the left. The threads give tension to these apertures as they half-heartedly attempt to lace them back to recovery. And yet, for all the sense of desperation and decay, the work seems composed, and the rough browns and blacks have a dignified, calming aura (think Franciscan friars) as much as they convey poverty and decay.

“Rosso Plastica LA” (1966), betrays the color and materials of the later decade in which it was made: A lurid sculptural surface, it has molten vermillion plastics stretched over a black canvas. A gaping hole, seemingly burnt into the material, and a general evidence of distress, give the work, with it fiery color, an apocalyptic feel. But equally, the reds and folds have baroque connotations of luxury and voluptuousness.

A more historically responsive, and less formal, subjective interpretation would stress that Burri’s elegance has only come to the fore now that the historic sense of unease, with defeat in the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, has receded. {del] Indeed, Burri’s use of burlap can be seen as related not just in period feel to martial browns and a scorched earth, but also to the artist’s personal history.

He had been a medic in the Italian army, then, after being captured by the British in Tangiers, he was interned in Hereford, Texas, where he first took up painting, using old sacks as his support. This kind of existential relationship with materials, at once personally and collectively symbolic, prefigures the later, fetishistic use of fat and felt by another Axis serviceman, Joseph Beuys, who claimed to have been wrapped in those materials by Tartars when his Luftwaffe plane was shot down over Russia.

Burri was much enamored of chance effects in a way that put him ahead of his time, although the element of chance was crucial to an Abstract Expressionist/ Informel aesthetic in its use of the random drips of a fast brush. In Burri’s case, however, it was the effects of materials abraded in the processes of drying or burning — away from even the unconscious control of the hand — that gave his experiments an impersonal audacity. “Cretto” (circa 1971-73), a cracked surface in synthetic materials on cellotex, one of his favored supports in the later work, an industrial particle board made of sawdust and glue, has the arbitrary feel of a random segment of dried-out, cracking ground — and yet, typically for Burri, such literalism is countered by a sense of perfect composition. It is at once, in other words, arbitrary and artful.

The subject of the Cretto series relates to the monumental earthworks piece he made in that title for the Sicilian town on Gibellina destroyed by earthquake in 1968. The fact that the work is largescale and in the environment relates him to Robert Smithson and the American earthworks artists, but that it is a memorial with social relevance distances him from that more conceptually oriented movement.

Burri, to his credit, did not make burlap into a lifelong, trademark material, but experimented and grew according to his own sensibility. He did continue to play with cracks and fissures, such as those in an elegant late work, “Gold Cretto” (1993), in gold glazed ceramic. This piece might put the viewer in mind of earlier work by Luciano Fontana, his older and better-known peer in the Italian informel movement, with whom he also shared the penchant for puncturing surfaces.

Some of Burri’s most exquisite works, however, achieve a purist yet non-geometric abstraction free equally of literalism or symbolism. His Cellotex series, named from the industrial material, and generally rendered in two colors, play with robust yet highly precise interlocking shapes, and are coolly compelling.

Until January 19 (534 West 26th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-744-7400).


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