Among all of the galleries that I visited whilst in New York, none had such a resonance for me as The Trauma of Painting, at the Guggenheim which is a massive retrospective of the work of Alberto Burri.
I had never previously seen or heard of his work but his particular methods of transforming materials and their non-regular use, completely captivated me. He was originally trained as a doctor but after being incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp during WW2 he began to paint and on his return to Italy made the decision to become a practising artists with no formal training.
“The war had a more profound effect on him than most, overturning not only his professional career and his political convictions, but also his entire view of life”
His work was almost always executed in series and apart from the first pieces in the exhibition (Combustioni Plastiche) the whole exhibition had been curated in a way that allowed the viewer to closely examine each series at a time in chronological order. I thought this was a fantastic way to have a retrospective because i went in knowing nothing about him and was able to compare the piece in a series as well as get an understanding of his sheer handling of material. I’ve chosen to discuss a few of my Favourite pieces of his work.
The first pieces that i saw were called Combustioni Plastiche (plastic combustions) and consisted of large plastic sheets suspended from the ceiling by wires. In suspending them the viewer was allowed to peer through the holes that he had melted in the plastic completely mixing up the differences and pre held notions of the front and back of a painting, the solid and void, exterior and interior. Id never seen a piece of work like it, he had turned a completely transparent material, opaque by melting it and then made holes in the surface so that you could still see through it but not in the same way, completely transforming the nature of the material and creating within it a sort of irony in that I doesn’t do what you expect or what it was supposed to do and in doing so creating a “colourless monochrome”
This is a piece from the cretti series and is created from acrovinyl and cellotex. He transformed these materials by varying the ratio of pigment and binder then working into it to encourage the paint layer to fissure over time. Its this breakage that enticed me, the images don’t do the surface quality justice. He create his black on black pieces with the intention of forcing the viewers eyes to adapt to the varying degrees of darkness. The sheer scale of the works envelops you, inviting you to examine every scar crack and blister.
This is from his series Bianchi which means white in Italian and is composed of household linens or “whites” which are part stretched across a canvas then painted on top of. They completely defile the idea of household linens which so often prove difficult to keep white, but also at the same time they create a new kind of minimalism that not only focuses on one colour but creating a depth within them by collaging fabrics together. Which creates creases and shadows and in keeping it pure white, the viewer is able to examine all of the details clearly, not unlike Piero Manzonis series of achromes in which he created paintings using kaolin (a soft china clay)soaked canvas.
This is a piece from his ferri series, which consisted of pieces made from welded together cold rolled steel, the welding together creates seams within them which are almost scar like in appearance.
They also still bare the factory marks, which made me wonder what they are and if they were intentional.It subverts the traditional look of the material as it normally occurs in flat shiny industrial environments but I like the transformation that its undergone, the way that it buckles and peels away at the edges it just begs the question what has had to happened to It, for this transformation to occur.
I don’t know the significance of the colour red in Burris work but it seems to be a recurring feature. A writer from The observer (laura cumming) seems to liken his work to literal wounds that he would have seen during WW2 the lacerations as war wounds, the stitches to sutures and the surface as some kind of putrefying flesh.You could even equate the colour red to military uniform, the Italian flag or even the Nazi one and that subconsciously he wants to destroy it.Of course he has always refuted the associations that his work relates to the psychological trauma of war despite their resemblance. He did this so as not to detract from their affective power and historical relevance but he was in fact known to have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.It says in the trauma of painting “the mimetic repetition gave way to process art and the use of sutures, patches and adhesions wasn’t repeating the trauma but an expressive means of creating a new material minimalism.”
I would highly recommend seeing his work in the future or looking into him yourself as i find him fascinating.