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Friday, December 30, 2016

Alberto Burri

The 2015, retrospective, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting,
presented by the Guggenheim Museum, the first time Burri's work
had been exhibited in the United States for over thirty-five years.
I've often written before as to how art and war are practically antithetical. War frequently destroys art and architecture quite literally. But it also has a devastating effect on those who make art as well; not to mention the art they make, which often reflects the horrors they've seen and endured. Yet I recently stumbled upon one young man who, during the mid-1940s became an artist as the result of a war. That's not to say he didn't suffer, that his art didn't sometimes reflect the brutal power of wartime conflict, or that his turning to art, becoming a world-renown painter was necessarily a positive result of his involvement in WW II. In fact, being a doctor, specializing in tropical medicine, he might well have become more famous and have served the needs of mankind more profoundly had he not taken up painting near the end of the war. I mean, how can you compare a man who makes totally abstract wall decorations with one who saves lives?

The creator of art with no meaning beyond its materials.
Alberto Burri was born in Città di Castello, in Umbria, Italy. The year was 1915. His father was a wine merchant and an elementary school teacher. Young Alberto earned a medical degree from the University of Perugia. His life was to change forever when, on October 12, 1940, two days after Italy entered World War II, Burri was called up as a medic and sent to Libya. Just over two years later, in November of 1942, the Axis forces were defeated at El Alamein in northern Egypt. Burri's unit was captured in Tunisia. He was interned in Camp Hereford, a prisoner of war camp in Hereford, Texas. It was then and there, lacking anything better to do, that Burri began to paint. The countryside of his home is an idyllic landscape, which served as subject matter for many of Burri’s first paintings--the ones he taught himself to paint as an American prisoner of war. Burri, who had been a member of the Fascist Party, was transformed by the dramatic and painful experience of being a prisoner of war. Even though his political views changed dramatically after the war, he remained mute on the subject. Instead, he embarked on a lifelong creative journey. He used the limited materials available to him at the camp, converting them into pieces of art marked by his experience of turmoil and violence. Lacking proper canvases he painted on burlap sacks. He painted idyllic landscapes of what he saw in Texas, and of what he recalled of Umbria.

Paint and anything else that would stick to stretched burlap.
After the war, upon being repatriated to Italy, Burri abandoned medicine, throwing himself completely into his art. But he took it in a much different direction than did other artists of his time. Burri reduced his visual language, creating images that were entirely abstract. World War II had wreaked havoc on Italy. The country's resources had been bled dry. Defeat had made Italy old and bitter as years of Fascism had imposed an agonizing cultural narrow-mindedness. Burri continued using burlap, which was in surplus in post-war Italy, while also adding whatever other materials, media, and tools that were cheap and readily available. His palette and his images resembled the torn apart landscape of his home country and the texture and appearance of so much that had been wasted.

Rosso Plastica L.A., 1966, Antonio Burri
With the end of the Second World War, a sort of modern-day Renaissance began sweeping through the a new Italy. Artists began to use their work as a way to reexamine the past and the future as the country tried to find confidence in itself. Painters, poets, and intellectuals formed new cultural groups, drafting specialized periodicals, which invited new theories, paving the way for a brand new type of art. American artists such as de Kooning, Matta, Rauschenberg, Rothko and Twombly visited Rome for brief intervals. Thus Rome emerged as an important venue for meetings among international art critics. It was during this time that the works of Afro Basaldella, Burri and Lucio Fontana emerged as pioneers on post-war Italian art scene.

In later years, Burri incorporated welded sheet metal
steel into his "paintings."
The fact that Burri’s newly abstracted style incorporated colors, textures, materials, and forms not unlike the destruction and carnage of the war seemed like an invitation to viewers to assume Burri was creating works about his experiences as a doctor and a soldier. But Burri insisted throughout his entire career that there was no such meaning to be found in his choices, and that there was no meaning at all in his images. Alberto Burri relentlessly claimed that his work exemplified "Material Realism," exploring the reality of the formal, physical properties of his materials, and nothing more. For many Italian critics, Burri's burlap canvases provided a historical link to international modernism and prewar movements, in the collage tradition, that could obscure Italy's recent fascist past. Yet at the same time, the innovative use of non-art materials set them apart as symbols of the progressiveness of Italian culture.
Burri invented the technique of charring (or sometimes
burning holes clear though) thin veneers.
The formal qualities of Burri's art were wildly innovative. He pioneered a broad range of techniques and incorporated an equally diverse range of materials to accentuate the impact of those techniques. Borrowing the concept of collage, his images took on a layered appearance that blurred the line between painting, relief, and sculpture. His early Italian works were mixtures of paint and layered fabric, which he stitched together (a skill he no doubt learned as a doctor). Later Burri added three- dimensionality by cutting, slashing and poking holes in his surfaces. He sometimes charred wooden elements of his work to create his forms. HIs melted plastic, added oddly organic dimensions and textures to his compositions. Rather than giving his work poetic names, Burri simply titled them according to their physical nature, using Italian words for their color, material, and techniques.
Cretto, 1975, Alberto Burri. Notice the
similarities to his Il Grande Cretto (below).
One of the most iconic achievements of Burri’s career came in the form of a technique he pioneered called Cretto (the Tuscan word for crack). The effect is normally considered to be a detrimental element to a painting. Kazimir Malevich’s seminal painting, Black Square, was once a solid black mass. Today it has aged so poorly as to appear similar to one of Burri’s Cretto paintings. To achieve Cretto, Burri exaggerated the processes that led to the natural appearance of cracks in various painting mediums as they aged over time. In using a process normally attributed to decay, he turned it into a process of creation. In so doing, Burri again confronted the dichotomy as to the meaning of things. He created through the act of destruction, finding beauty in decay. Alberto Burri died in February, 1995.
Burri's Il Grande Cretto, near Gibellina, Italy
(on the island of Sicily, actually).
Today, some twenty years later, the ultimate manifestation of Cretto is far outliving its artist. Burri used the Cretto aesthetic to create his monumental work, Il Grande Cretto, (above) one of the largest known works of land art. Il Grande Cretto was built over the former site of the Gibellina, Sicily, which was all but destroyed in the 1968 Belice earthquake. (The town was rebuilt some nine miles away.) Burri's Il Grande Cretto sits atop the ruins, a massive assemblage of irregularly shaped flat forms and crevices measuring approximately 120,000 square meters--an area roughly 300 meters by 400 meter--the town's rubble covered to shoulder height with pristine white concrete.
Burri, as seen through his art.

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