Alberto Burri at the Guggenheim

By Seph Rodney

Kirk Varnedoe once said, alluding to the well-worn analogy of the museum as mausoleum, that walking certain museum galleries the visitor gets a whiff of the stench of death. Wandering in and among Alberto Burri’s work at the Guggenheim’s retrospective, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, one finds quite conflicting aromas: that of the art historical armature communicated through wall text, which competes with that of the works themselves. Burri’s assemblages are so rigorously contextualized by the museum as work belonging to the past, that although Burri’s works themselves suggest an insightfully forward-looking practitioner, within the framing didactics of the museum he becomes a precious anachronism. The distillate of the wall texts and catalog materials is wishful, nostalgic recollection, rather than a more useful development of the idea that Burri’s methods address contemporary art practice.

Around each bend in the Guggenheim rotunda, Burri’s works themselves give off the scent of free-form experimentation, as when a child might place a branch or a plastic toy in the fire just to see what happens, and then assesses whether the material could be manipulated to different effect, worked by both the elements and the will. It’s what I imagine the young chemist or proto-physicist doing in private, selecting a substance, exerting particular pressures on it, jotting notes, changing distances, force, frequency, or duration, and more note taking. Burri aestheticizes this curiosity. It is the fundamental component of his practice. He applied heat, flame, pressure to disparate mediums; he ripped and tore fabrics, allowed substances to dry, crack and fissure, all the time attentive to the process as well as to what could happen if something in the formula were changed.

It seems counterintuitive that being so careful and particular, so watchful, would be tantamount to liberty for Burri. But his independence conspicuously reveals itself here, in sharp contrast to our current system of production, distribution, display, and promotion of art that is overly manipulated by capital, and its handmaiden, the public relations machine, to make art a marketable product. In contrast to this commercialism, Burri’s work indeed can appear to belong to another era—the high modernist, post-war era of the solitary, intrepid adventurer exploring the realm of his imagined heuristic: What if I just tried this? However, separate from the nostalgia for that era and its ethos, one sees in this exhibition the vitality of such a method.

Grande Bianco Plastica (1)
Alberto Burri, Grande bianco plastica (Large White Plastic), 1964.


Each series reveals a new exploration. The “Catrami” (tars) series, which one encounters at the start of the spiraling course, contains 30 works made between 1948 and 1952 that consist of heated oil paint, black enamel and ground pumice stone. They mixture allows Burri to make agglutinations so languorously powerful that you immediately intuit his attraction to the material: it is the viscous plasma that flows through the veins of the earth. The works Burri produces with this “tar” renders works that are lushly bituminous, so relentlessly black you can lose yourself in visually tracing the surface of each piece, following the crevices, crannies, interstices and rifts. One becomes an explorer with the artist.

The deliberately chronological path through Burri’s discoveries laid down by curators Emily Braun, Megan Fontanella, and Ylinka Barotto is conventional and follows the museum’s linear upward spiral track. You see all the major bodies of work Burri produced from the late 1940’s onward. These include: “Gobbi” (hunchbacks), “Bianchi” (whites), “Muffe” (molds), “Cretti” (craquelure), and “Cellotex” (Celotex insulation board). Among my favorite are the “Catrami”; the “Sacchi” (sacks), cast-off gunnysacks of burlap; the “Legni” (woods), birch or oak veneers subjected to torch fire; the “Ferri” (irons), sheets of cold-rolled steel welded together by a welding rod and torch; and the “Combustioni Plastiche” (plastic combustion), industrial plastic sheeting melted and sculpted by torches and lamps.


Legno e bianco I 1956
Alberto Burri, Legno e bianco I (Wood and White I), 1956

When the viewer breaks the bounds of the didactic chronological formulation, the works operate in several emotional registers. A good deal of Burri’s work deals with the abject. For example, in Grande bianco plastica (1964) the film of plastic has several holes burnt into it, with one cavity still holding a bit of blackened and ravaged remnant. It is near impossible to look at this and not think of human skin ravaged by fierce heat. You know the work will not heal itself, so it cries out for sympathy. On the other hand, Legno e bianco I (1956), though similarly exposed to flame, reads as a kind of calm, triumphalist discovery of a method for constructing pictorial surface. Here, Burri used the cracks and holes along with the darker shading of soot to create an image made harmonic by the color scheme of honey-toned wood—balanced between a stark white acrylic substrate—and the dark brown scorch marks, and the charred scraps of wood devoured by flame.

Burri also makes work that is brutalist and fearsome, such as Ferro SP (1961). Formed of welded iron sheet metal that is roughly worn and dented, this work is a body confronting the viewer, challenging one, asserting that it has braved forces that flesh could not stand. Moreover, the two separate sheets that comprise the work are fused horizontally at a lipped joint, under which is a splash of bright red oil paint that suggests a forbidding interior held in check by its iron shell. In contrast, the artist also created serenely meditative assemblages like Grande nero cretto (1977). In this piece the lower portion of the work is plain, painted insulation board that gradually gives way to a skein of cracked acrylic as serenely desolate as a piece of our moon.

Grande cretto nero
Alberto Burri, Grande cretto nero (Large Black Cretto), 1977.


Ferro SP 1961
Alberto Burri, Ferro SP (Iron SP), 1961.


Despite the power of the work, aspects of the Burri retrospective leach away the richness of its potential experience due to their display. All fine art from the height of European modernism presented in museums tends to be sternly protected from the public, but Burri’s pieces seem especially to rile the protective instincts of the Guggenheim guards. One’s distance to the objects is carefully policed, as are the taking of photographs. While this level of anxiety for protecting the art is typical for this genre of work, and typical for this museum, it does generate a feeling of overweening preciousness, a sense that the museum cannot in any way risk the objects that should signpost what non-commercial art is. While visiting the exhibition, I saw a guard vehemently object to a fellow visitor being within what seemed like a distance of a foot to a vitrine containing the miniatures Burri created for former Guggenheim director James Johnson Sweeney. To be fair, these are so winningly adorable that you want to get as near to them as you can. These miniatures are in essence gifts from the artist to a friend and early supporter, sent to Sweeney on successive holiday seasons over several years and therefore are precious in regard to their standing in for mutual loyalty, affection, and pride. Seen this way, the miniatures bring to light the distinction between fetishizing objects for their status within a narrative of modernism, versus valuing objects because they represent a cherished relation.

The curators, via the press release and wall texts, engage in the typical art historical valorization of the modernist hero—a hackneyed strategy. Burri is made a transitional figure, between collage and assemblage, purportedly anticipating Post-minimalist and feminist art of the 1960s, and directly influencing Neo-Dada, Process art, and Arte Povera. He is made further heroic by the disclosing of the ways in which he changes the painting game, to wit: altering the nature of the artist’s expected interaction with the “canvas,” and blurring the distinction between painting and sculptural relief. While this seems like important scholarly information, it does not convey or clarify the energy one feels in the work itself.

The most pernicious valence of Burri’s valorization lies in the attempt to make him a tragic figure. The informational texts link his choice of mediums and processes to the circumstance of Burri being trained as a doctor, serving as a medic in the Italian army in North Africa, and being interned at a prisoner-of-war camp in Texas, where he started painting. The release states, “Burri devoted himself to art—a decision prompted by his firsthand experiences of war, deprivation, and Italy’s calamitous defeat … He then traumatized the very structure of painting by puncturing, exposing, and reconstituting the support.” The artist is made representative of the hoary modernist post-war narrative: the abandonment of traditional means of representation was the result of observing or participating in a horrific armed conflict that challenged the capacity of then current art and poetry forms to articulate the depths of despair felt in response to senseless mass murder, or to provide adequate catharsis for it. The museum suggests that Burri’s rough, contentious use of the medium is coextensive with his redemption of himself.

Gladly, the work does much more than the curators bargain. Burri’s discoveries enlarged the lexicon of modernist practice, but more importantly, his approach enlivened the notion of practice, which speaks to what art making can and should mean to us now. He modeled the idea that artists watch and listen to their materials, absorbing all the hidden ways in which they respond to duress. The material interaction teaches us that if one is willing to renounce control, and to learn from the work of practice, then the elemental world will disclose unlimited vistas to explore. What Burri is profoundly demonstrating is that commitment to this type of work can indeed make you free.


Full captions and credits:

Ferro SP (Iron SP), 1961. Welded iron sheet metal, oil, and tacks on wood framework, 130 x 200 cm. Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna e contemporanea, Rome. © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Antonio Idini, Soprintendenza alla Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna e contemporanea, courtesy Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e del Turismo.

Grande bianco plastica (Large White Plastic), 1964. Plastic (PVC) and combustion on aluminum framework, 191.8 x 292.1 cm. Glenstone © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART, courtesy Glenstone.

Grande cretto nero (Large Black Cretto), 1977. Acrylic and PVA on Celotex, 149.5 x 249.5 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Gift of the artist, 1978. © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York.

Legno e bianco I (Wood and White I), 1956. Wood veneer, combustion, acrylic, and Vinavil on canvas, 87.7 x 159 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 57.1463. © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.