Ma­te­ri­als of re­con­struc­tion

Neue Luxury - - News - By John Mcdon­ald

Is it pos­si­ble to make works of art that thwart in­ter­pre­ta­tion? The ca­reer of Al­berto Burri (1915-1995) sug­gests oth­er­wise. From 1951, when he par­tic­i­pated in a land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion of ab­stract art in Rome, Burri re­sisted all forms of lit­er­ary or con­tex­tual anal­y­sis. Not only did he refuse to pro­vide ti­tles for his works, he de­clined to call them ‘un­ti­tled’ ( Senza titolo). All he al­lowed was a de­scrip­tion based on medium: ‘oil on can­vas’. Many of the ti­tles by which we know Burri’s works to­day have been con­ferred by art deal­ers, eager to make them more ac­ces­si­ble to po­ten­tial clients.

Over more than three decades, Burri would work in se­ries, em­ploy­ing the sim­plest of ti­tles based on ma­te­rial or colour. They range from the Ca­trami (“tar”) pic­tures of the early 1950s, to the Cel­lotex paint­ings made dur­ing the last two decades of his life. Celo­tex was the com­mer­cial name of a type of man­u­fac­tured fi­bre board, but Burri added an ‘l’ to avoid copy­right is­sues. Other ma­te­ri­als used were sack­ing, wood, sheet metal and plas­tic. One con­stant ma­te­rial was polyvinyl ac­etate, or PVA— a syn­thetic resin used as an ad­he­sive, that once dry took on a thick, con­crete-like skin.

Known for ‘paint­ing with­out paint’, Burri would tear, stitch, burn and bat­ter his cre­ations into sub­mis­sion. In the words of the Ital­ian critic, Emilio Vila, Burri’s works were “nour­ished by mat­ter that con­serves only a tragic rem­i­nis­cence of paint­ing, al­most as if it were as­phyx­i­ated; a ma­te­rial that is de­vi­talised, im­pov­er­ished, rot­ted, con­sumed and al­ready wasted away” 1. These paint­ings were so ab­ject in ap­pear­ance that a 1961 ex­hi­bi­tion in Rome at­tracted an in­quiry by the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health. Yet, his works could also be the height of chic. In 1955 one of Burri’s New York deal­ers col­lab­o­rated with a Harper’s Bazaar fash­ion shoot that fea­tured a model dressed in tweed and jersey, pos­ing in front of a se­ries of ragged, bru­talised paint­ings.

It was in­evitable that Burri’s ‘cre­ation story’ as an artist would fig­ure promi­nently in the pro­mo­tion of his work in Amer­ica. A for­mer doc­tor in the Ital­ian army, he be­gun paint­ing while in­terned in a POW camp in Here­ford, Texas, to­wards the end of World War II. His grisly ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the war, and the mis­treat­ment of Ital­ian pris­on­ers starved by their cap­tors in Texas, were touted as im­por­tant in­flu­ences on Burri’s later work.

Per­haps the most re­mark­able as­pect of the story came with Burri’s repa­tri­a­tion to Italy, where­upon he in­stantly an­nounced his in­ten­tion to stop prac­tis­ing medicine and be­come an artist— much to the de­spair of his fam­ily. Nei­ther did he be­gin timidly and work his way up. Al­most from the be­gin­ning, Burri was a rad­i­cal avant-gardist with a tough sin­gu­lar vi­sion. The bi­tu­mi­nous ab­strac­tions of the Ca­trami se­ries pre­oc­cu­pied him from 1948-52. At the same time he was de­vel­op­ing a range of other works: Gobbi (hunch­backs, 1950-55); Muffe (moulds, 1951-53); Bianchi (white, 1949-56); and Sac­chi (sacks, 1950-56). Other se­ries would follow, but it is these works that es­tab­lished Burri as an emerg­ing force in Ital­ian art.

The dis­tressed sur­faces of Burri’s paint­ings, and his use of ‘poor’, un­con­ven­tional ma­te­ri­als gave rise to some ob­vi­ous lines of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. In re­sponse, the artist would staunchly deny that his work had any­thing to do with com­bat fa­tigue, post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (as we un­der­stand now), or any other form of psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age. He let it be known that his “un­con­scious pro­cesses” were not a mat­ter for spec­u­la­tion. Nei­ther would he per­mit as­so­ci­a­tions with ex­is­ten­tial­ist philosophis­ing, or the rav­aged state of post-war Italy. He was es­pe­cially quick to deny as­so­ci­a­tions with L’art In­formel, the vague but pop­u­lar ti­tle de­vised by French critic, Michel Tapié, for di­verse ten­den­cies in Euro­pean art of the 1950s, from Dubuf­fet’s Art Brut to var­i­ous forms of ab­strac­tion. As al­most any­thing could be clas­si­fied as In­formel, Burri had no de­sire to be a mem­ber of this de­based club.

“Words are no help to me when I try to speak about my paint­ing,” wrote Burri in a state­ment for a 1955 Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art cat­a­logue. “It is an ir­re­duc­ible pres­ence that re­fuses to be con­verted into any other form of ex­pres­sion.” How dif­fer­ent this is to the way Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ists such as Mark

2 Rothko, Bar­nett New­man or Clyf­ford Still, wanted their paint­ings to be re­ceived: as records of deep, tragic feel­ing. Burri re­jected such pre­ten­tions and in­sised on the brute fac­tic­ity of the work it­self.

This in­tran­si­gent stance had lit­tle im­pact on the way the artist’s out­put was re­ceived by crit­ics and the pub­lic. Look up Art In­formel to­day and Burri’s name fea­tures promi­nently. Read any es­say or re­view, and the same lines of in­ter­pre­ta­tion keep re­cur­ring. Never gre­gar­i­ous by na­ture, Burri gave only a hand­ful of in­ter­views and re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the pub­lic re­la­tions ex­er­cises that were be­com­ing a reg­u­lar part of the art scene. Com­pared to a mas­ter­ful self-pro­moter such as Yves Klein, Burri re­sem­bled a her­mit re­luc­tant to leave his cave.

Ul­ti­mately Burri’s un­will­ing­ness to play the game may have dam­aged his his­tor­i­cal stand­ing, al­low­ing other artists to take credit for his most dar­ing in­no­va­tions. This is the opin­ion of Emily Braun, guest cu­ra­tor of Al­berto Burri: The Trauma of Paint­ing, a ret­ro­spec­tive held at the Solomon R. Guggen­heim Mu­seum, New York, in 2015. This sur­vey, de­scribed as “im­por­tant, metic­u­lous, and ex­haus­tive” by Bruno Corà, Pres­i­dent of the foun­da­tion that looks af­ter

3 Burri’s work in Italy, has in­jected new life into a rep­u­ta­tion that had grown mori­bund since the artist’s death in 1995. In what was the most com­pre­hen­sive ex­hi­bi­tion of Burri’s work in the United States since 1963, Braun ar­gued that Burri had a pro­found in­flu­ence on Amer­i­can artists such as Robert Rauschen­berg, Cy Twombly, Robert Ry­man, Lee Bon­te­cou and Eva Hesse. In Europe he in­spired a small army of ad­mir­ers, in­clud­ing Yves Klein and Piero Man­zoni.

So when Frank Stella and Don­ald Judd, two Amer­i­can icons, dis­missed the rel­e­vance of Euro­pean art, in a no­to­ri­ous 1966 in­ter­view, Braun sug­gests they were be­ing naive or disin­gen­u­ous. The ma­nia for be­ing first with any new in­no­va­tion was so pro­found at the time that artists were quick to trum­pet their own achieve­ments and be­lit­tle the com­pe­ti­tion. The late Pa­trick Heron, known as both painter and critic, would tire­lessly claim that Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism was a Bri­tish in­ven­tion, although his ar­gu­ments never en­joyed much trac­tion in Amer­ica or Bri­tain.

In the new glob­alised world of art we are more will­ing to ac­cept that Amer­i­can artists may not have been the trail­blaz­ers they claimed to be. As the idea of progress in art seems to have burned it­self out, it has be­come less im­por­tant to find out who did some­thing first than to con­sider the na­ture and qual­ity of an artist’s work. In this sense, Burri, who was in­cluded in more than 70 ex­hi­bi­tions in the United States from 1953- 63, is long over­due for a re­assess­ment.

It’s ap­pro­pri­ate that Burri’s res­ur­rec­tion should be­gin at the Guggen­heim, be­cause James John­son Sweeney, who served as sec­ond di­rec­tor of the mu­seum from 1952- 60, was one of his staunch­est ad­mir­ers. On a visit to Italy in 1953, Sweeney was taken to Burri’s Ro­man stu­dio, and chose two Sac­chi (sacks) for a forth­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, Younger Euro­pean Painters: A Selec­tion. He also ar­ranged pur­chase of the works for the col­lec­tion. One of these pieces was Com­po­sizione (Com­po­si­tion) (1953), which fea­tured rough burlap sacks stitched to­gether, high­lighted with touches of paint and a smear of gold leaf. Later, in his role as di­rec­tor of the Hous­ton Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Sweeney would or­gan­ise Burri’s first Amer­i­can ret­ro­spec­tive in 1963. The Guggen­heim would host an­other trav­el­ling Burri ret­ro­spec­tive in 1978, but from that point his pop­u­lar­ity seems to have waned with the chang­ing pat­terns of in­sti­tu­tional taste.

To­day the wheel has turned and Burri is back in favour. His ex­plo­rations range over a vast ter­ri­tory, tak­ing in var­i­ous forms of ab­strac­tion, process art, min­i­mal­ism, assem­blage, Neo-dada and mono­chrome paint­ing. The dis­tinc­tive Ital­ian move­ment of Arte Povera is unimag­in­able with­out his ex­am­ple. His Grande Cretto (1984-89), in Gi­bel­lina, Sicily, is one of the world’s largest ex­am­ples of land art, a 6.5 hectare memo­rial for the vic­tims of a 1968 earth­quake that left ap­prox­i­mately 500 peo­ple dead and 90,000 home­less. The rub­ble of the vil­lage has been com­pacted and cov­ered in white con­crete, cre­at­ing a gi­gan­tic fac­sim­ile of one of Burri’s own Cretti (af­ter the French, craque­lure)— a se­ries of works re­sem­bling dried earth, pro­duced be­tween 1970-79.

In 1955, draw­ing an anal­ogy with the Ital­ian’s med­i­cal back­ground, James John­son Sweeney por­trayed Burri as an “artist of the wound”. “Burri trans­mutes rub­bish into a metaphor for hu­man, bleed­ing flesh,” he wrote. “He vi­talises the dead ma­te­ri­als in which he works, makes them live and bleed; then sews up the wounds evoca­tively and as sen­su­ously as he made them.” This idea of the ‘artist-as-sur­geon’ would per­sist for many years, even

4 though Burri dis­ap­proved of the anal­ogy. It al­lowed Sweeney to sug­gest the work had heal­ing qual­i­ties, re­pair­ing the dam­age done to the Euro­pean soul by the war. It is a role that Joseph Beuys would em­brace, but not Burri, who had no wish to be seen as a shaman. He had given up medicine at the end of hos­til­i­ties and ap­plied him­self to the task of tak­ing paint­ing to places it had never been be­fore.

In one of the few recorded state­ments he made about his work, Burri an­nounced: “I can only say this: paint­ing for me is a free­dom at­tained, con­stantly con­sol­i­dated, vig­i­lantly guarded.” Such words seem to put him firmly

5 in the camp of post-war ex­is­ten­tial­ism, but he en­vis­aged this free­dom in ma­te­rial rather than spir­i­tual terms. He claimed the free­dom to ex­per­i­ment with the means of paint­ing while dis­card­ing tra­di­tional con­tent. So while he may have been in­flu­enced by the craque­lure of the Re­nais­sance paint­ings he saw in his home town of Città di Castello, or by the le­gend of Saint Fran­cis he knew from nearby As­sisi, it is a large claim to say that his works em­body the same spir­i­tual val­ues.

The ‘sack­cloth and ashes’ in Burri’s paint­ings were most prob­a­bly favoured for their for­mal qual­i­ties rather than their re­li­gious as­so­ci­a­tions. When crit­ics such as Ce­sare Brandi de­scribed the work in terms of an “ir­re­duc­ible dia­lec­tic” or an “un­bal­anced equlib­rium” 6, they were strain­ing af­ter a vo­cab­u­lary by which to make sense of the op­er­a­tions Burri would prac­tise on the ways and means of paint­ing. To­day we would prob­a­bly say that he set out to de­con­struct paint­ing; to pare it back to its most ba­sic ma­te­ri­als and pro­cesses; to ques­tion ev­ery qual­ity we take for granted— not just the idea of a paint­ing as a win­dow onto the world, but even the flat­ness of the pic­ture plane. Burri’s paint­ings might also be de­scribed as sculp­tures, es­pe­cially the Ferri (irons, 1958- 61), which use welded sheets of iron.

One may watch the artist on archival film, ap­ply­ing the blow­torch to slabs of plas­tic, mak­ing a piece from the se­ries, Com­bus­tioni plas­tiche (plas­tic com­bus­tions, 1960-70). Here he seems less like a sur­geon and more like a fac­tory worker, searing great holes in the plas­tic as fumes bil­low around him. We may find such ma­te­ri­als in­her­ently unattrac­tive, but noth­ing was too poor, too cheap, too ugly, to es­cape Burri’s at­ten­tions. He em­braced the use of mod­ern ma­te­ri­als— PVA, plas­tic, thin sheets of fi­bre­board—with as much fer­vour as he brought to his ma­nip­u­la­tion of more con­ven­tional ones. He was ruth­less in his ef­forts to wring works of art from the most un­promis­ing mat­ter. Emily Braun de­scribes his work in terms of an “aes­thet­ics of poverty”, but it could also be seen as anti-aes­thet­ics: a de­nial of the sim­ple dig­nity of base ma­te­ri­als such as wood or iron.

The ori­gins of the anti-aes­thetic im­pulse in mod­ern art may be traced back to Gus­tave Courbet, who re­belled against the ide­alised forms favoured by the artists of his time, and main­tained that the only fit sub­ject for art was the artist’s own ex­pe­ri­ence. Courbet fa­mously claimed he could not paint an an­gel be­cause he had never seen one.

De­spite its ab­stract ap­pear­ance, and the artist’s own dis­avowal of con­tent, Burri’s work has affini­ties with Courbet’s Re­al­ist ap­proach. Emily Braun even com­pares it to the films of the Ne­o­re­al­ist di­rec­tors—roberto Ros­sellini, Luchino Vis­conti and Vit­to­rio De Sica— as a re­sponse to the poverty and dis­en­chant­ment of post-war Italy. Hav­ing lived through the im­pe­rial fan­tasy of Fas­cism the na­tion had to suf­fer the con­se­quences in the form of eco­nomic and moral degra­da­tion.

Like Courbet, Burri chose re­al­ity over fan­tasy. Like the Ne­o­re­al­ists, he re­sponded to the con­di­tions of every­day life, which left lit­tle room for aes­thetic plea­sures. Many of the coun­try’s his­toric build­ings lay in ru­ins, and the sacks that Burri used in his paint­ings were ubiq­ui­tous. You could say he evoked an em­pathic re­sponse to the post-war en­vi­ron­ment, cap­tur­ing the im­pov­er­ished feel of the times in a vivid, un­sen­ti­men­tal man­ner.

One may spec­u­late as to why Burri is cur­rently en­joy­ing a resur­gence of in­ter­est, with his works auc­tioned at high prices. It may be that we are en­ter­ing an­other phase of eco­nomic and moral squalor, as lib­eral democ­ra­cies strug­gle to con­trol ris­ing lev­els of debt while the gap be­tween rich and poor widens ev­ery day. On the other hand, it could be be­cause we have fi­nally suc­ceeded in aes­theti­cis­ing these re­cal­ci­trant ob­jects, find­ing a per­verse beauty in the spec­ta­cle of PVA and sack­ing against the bare white walls of a gallery. In a post-avant­garde era, the artist’s rad­i­cal­ity has evap­o­rated, leav­ing only a fris­son of dan­ger.

If it is hard to con­vey the im­pact of Burri’s work it is be­cause his ‘paint­ings’ have to be ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand. They rely heav­ily on the tac­til­ity of their sur­faces, the sense of weight and vol­ume they pro­ject into a room. View­ers may

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