Dimensions of Blackness: Alberto Burri’s “Cellotex Nero” at Luxembourg & Dayan
Alberto Burri: Black Cellotex at Luxembourg & Dayan
March 8 to April 20, 2013
64 East 77th Street, between Madison and Park avenues
New York City, 212 452 4646
All ten works from Alberto Burri’s 1986-87 series, on view at Luxenburg & Dayan and exhibited in the United States for the first time are titled, “Nero Cellotex” (Black Cellotex.) Celotex (with one “L”, at least in the US), was developed primarily as an insulating ceiling cover, and does not – as it happens – come in black. From the 1950s until 1975 Burri had used various commercial materials, including Celotex panels, as a support for his relief pieces, but in this late series his attention was diverted to Celotex itself. He discovered new dimensions of blackness through excavating, chiseling and layering textured Celotex and another industrial material, the plastic Vinavil.
These works engage us with their human scale, their surfaces tempting to the touch, and while minimal in depth compared to his earlier work, they operate on sensory subtleties of texture and blackness. Deep gloss black is worked against a dry frosted grey-black, the knifed-on scumble of one area of surface facture contrasting with the butter-smooth flatness of another. The organic abstraction sometimes veers towards curvaceous, erotic (thigh/buttock-like) shapes. In others, the forms remain formally dressed in their black, kimono-like vestments. In some, an array of stark block or boulder-like forms resemble crop circles seen from a height.
A solitary and assiduous artist, Burri is best known for his Sacchi series from 1949 to 1960. In these he used found and discarded burlap sacks, combining them with plastic sheeting, cements and an array of non-art materials, he burned and stitched, retaining the palette of discovered colors in the altered materials. Burri shared with Lucio Fontana a concern with spatial development, except where Fontana pierced or slashed behind the picture surface, creating incidental relief texture, Burri built outward in his wide-ranging choice of anti-conventional and new industrial materials, towards the viewer. The pieces – swelling, stitched and extruded – were melted, glued, surgically cut and mended using burlap sacks, cements, pumice stones, tar and plastic sheeting over wood and Celotex substructures.
In his later series, the Cretti (“Cracks”), Burri simplified the visceral, sculptural objects and textures that had been the hallmark of his earlier work. The surfaces start to resemble volcanic and desert craquelure. His monochrome impulse culminated in a vast earthwork from the 1980s, Grande Cretto, in which an entire ruined town – Gibellina, Sicily, which had been abandoned following the earthquake of 1968 – was buried by the artist in white concrete.
Italian artists of the Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s and ‘70s found in Burri a predecessor, responding in particular to the older artist’s commitment to truth to materials, to allowing the materials to speak for themselves. But Burri was committed to an ideal of formal purity, eschewing metaphoric or personal associations in his choice of non-art materials. A young doctor in the Italian army during the Second World War, Burri was captured by American soldiers in 1944 and interned for two years in the desert of Gainsville, Texas, where he began to paint. When the war ended Burri returned to Rome and joined with artists of the Gruppo Origine, staging his first oneman show at Galleria La Margherita in 1947. Despite maintaining a singular and philosophic distance, Burri is associated by historians with art informel, the European counterpart to abstract expressionism, while Jean Dubuffet’s art brut and the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters are also cited as influences. Interestingly, Richard Artschwager, 8 years younger than Burri but with striking similarities in background – he too served in the Second World War and completed a degree in physics before turning to art – was also drawn to Celotex as a material, although with aesthetically opposite results. The Burri Foundation, located in a restored palazzo in the artist’s Perugia, Italy hometown of Città di Castello, may well b e as worthy of pilgrimage as the Grand Cretto in Sicily.