PRINT December 1990


THE SLOPING ROOFS are red. The walls, very high and smooth, are black. It looks like a work by Alberto Burri, enlarged and transformed into a piece of industrial architecture. In fact it is the site of the second part of the Burri collection, installed by the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini in the Ex Seccatoi Tabacchi (a former tobacco-drying facility) in Città di Castello, Umbria, the artist’s birthplace. The first part of the collection, which contains works dating from the late 1940s up to the early 1980s, is located in the Palazzo Albizzini, a short distance away. In 1978 the Fattoria Autonoma Tabacchi ceded to Burri 1 of the 11 sheds that form the Ex Seccatoi Tabacchi. In this space, the artist created his first large cycle of works, “II Viaggio” (The voyage), which was presented to the public one year later. In 1989 the foundation acquired the entire complex and began restoring and adapting it for museum purposes. The second part of the collection, installed in collaboration with the artist, opened to the public in July 1990.

For a quick description of the site, let’s rely on the picture that the numbers give us: rooms 52 1/2 feet high, 230 and 131 feet long, and 47 1/2 feet wide. There are 109 works exhibited within 17,708 square feet of exhibition surface. In other words, perfect spaces in which to accommodate large-scale works. Outside, in the large front meadow, are three sculptures (Grande Ferro Sestante [Large iron sextant, 1982]; Grande Ferro K [Large iron K, 1982]; and Ferro U [Iron U, 1990]) made of iron and sheet metal—black and red oxide—that set up a play of concave and convex elements against elements at right angles, as if the space were being simultaneously drawn in and expelled. A fourth, smaller sculpture (Scultura SP, 1981) is exhibited indoors, together with three cellotex pieces from the same year. There are also two large “Cretti” (Cracked surface pieces) from 1974 and 1976 and a marvelous Grande Plastica (Large plastic) from 1978, as well as the less intense cellotex pieces (1975–84); the “Rosso e Nero” series (Red and black, 1984); and the “Neri” (Black paintings, 1988–89). But the climax of the collection lies in the unified cycles: “Il Viaggio”;“Orsanmichele,” 1980; “Sestante” (Sextant, 1982); “Annottarsi” (Nightfall, 1987); and “Non ama il nero” (He doesn’t like black, 1988).

The last, enormous space, marked by an enervated but nonetheless compelling elegance, is deliberately monumental: the extremely long white walls are empty; at the center, a monolith ten feet tall—a cretto of majestic spareness in black sheet metal. In these spaces, suspended between industrial use and museum reuse, time advances slowly, measured by the paintings that unfold along the walls over an expanse that is scores of meters long, orienting viewers, stimulating them, stopping them. Nietzsche comes to mind; he said that the best thoughts come while walking. And in these spaces, one walks beside the works and respires in an atmosphere of severe and modern classicism. This is exactly the feeling that has always marked Burri’s work, which is nourished at the sources of the tradition of painting. One sees the playful, paired arrangement of red and black that, harmoniously uniting the sculptures outside, reverberates inside, projected into an entire cycle of paintings.

Here, there is an intentional, symmetrical construction of a site, that is, of a space characterized by symbolic references and by precise and deliberate structural and formal decisions. In this place, time is not just consumed; it is as if its progressive entropy had been slowed down, become suspended for a moment and converted into what Henri Bergson called “durée,” an internal flow, a qualitative and no longer quantitative perception. In the end, what is intended is an ideal condition of both vision and realization.

Burri paints what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called “la chair du monde” (the flesh of the world), that is, the very substance of the visible, presented for our viewing in terms of absolute passivity. The substance of the visible is material, and Burri paints its heat, its rhythm, without painting it, that is, without symbolizing it allusively. Instead he presents the visible in its literalness: burlap or wood, iron or plastic, cretto or cellotex.

In 1949, three years after his return to Italy from a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas, Burri painted a white ground in oils, using as a support an old burlap sack (SZ 1, now in the Palazzo Albizzini) in which the U.S. armed forces transported sugar under the Marshall Plan’s aid to areas of war-devastated Europe. Squeezed within the black stained-glass-like outlines that break up the ground, some fragments of the support—stamped with typographic characters (“140 LBS.,” “WEIGHT,” “EUROPEA”) and shreds of the Stars and Stripes—remain visible. This work still falls within the realm of the Cubist collage but with two substantial differences. The burlap has not been added to the painting like the ripped newspaper or the letters or numbers in a work by Picasso or Braque; rather, it constitutes the fabric of the ground and the plane of support. But it doesn’t remain at the level of support, because it emerges formally, in a deliberate pictorial way, as a plane. Furthermore, there is no distinction between “painted” painting and objectlike insertion, as is typical of Cubist collage. Instead, in Burri’s work, such stratification is negated by means of a literal and integral presentation of the raw material. In SZ 1, the whole space of the piece becomes identified with the rough surface of the burlap fabric.

Over the years, Burri’s development has been charted in a vast body of critical literature, ranging from the writings of James Johnson Sweeney to those of Michel Tapié, from Cesare Brandi to Giulio Carlo Argan, from Jean Leymarie to Maurizio Calvesi and Vittorio Rubiu. And so much—everything—seems to have been said: about the identification between material and color; about the dialectic between material and form; about his essential contribution to European art informel; about his relationship to action painting and to the “new Dada” of Robert Rauschenberg (who, during the early 1950s, made a profitable visit to Burri’s studio in Rome); about the impossibility of existentialist, naturalist, or symbolic interpretations of his particular use of material; about Burri’s surface seen as an obstructed horizon that—according to Modernist tradition—impedes all perspectival and illusory movement, either forward or back.

Keeping in mind the interpretive picture delineated by these and other critical motifs, which can be considered definitive at this point, I would like to propose a reading of the ontological category of the material and, closely connected to this, of Burri’s dialectical relationship with form. Presenting it in its literalness, Burri turns matter into an event. And by event I mean that which might not have been, might not have been produced, might not exist—that which is conditioned in its very essence by the aleatory. If it is true that reality is only a particular case of the possible (might not the emergence of life, the formation of DNA, be due to a fortuitious “accident”?), then our existence, the totality of being, is a singular case, an event Matter exists, it can be seen and touched, it is exhibited and available to our senses: this is what astounds us. Burri helps to revive such a profound and archaic amazement about being in the world: it is not the how of the world that is significant but the fact that it is at all.

Wood is wood. But the human act of being capable of feeling and thinking about wood as wood and nothing else transforms it into something more. When it is truly only wood, then wood is no longer just that. Burri allows this in the “Legni”series (Wood pieces, 1955–61), bringing forth the world, reproposing the origins of its visibility, in such a way as to make us understand that this operation has defeated the possibility of nothingness, even if the risk of nihil— which we all know so well—is always present. For this profound reason, and not for content-related, psychological, or “humanistic” reasons—“the cry of pain of the violated material” or of “suffering humanity”1—many of Burri’s works, at least until the ’60s and to a certain extent the ’70s, have a conflictual aspect, as if battles had been fought on the field.

And this is why I can say that, for Burri, the material is an event. Its accidents (the abrasions, tears, burns) are outright apparitions, but not in the sense of “illusions.” Here, “to appear” is not the opposite of “to be,” as in fiction versus reality. To appear is a primordial phenomenal manifestation of the visible. For Burri, the apparition of the material is neither an objective fact nor a subjective representation, but comes from that deep place where subject and object form a magmatic and burning core, a primary synthesis. In his work, the making of the piece, the constitution of the object (which is the same as the consciousness of the phenomenon: we perceive “objects” and nothing else, according to both the phenomenological lesson and the transcendental schematicism of Kant), already implies an identity between the classes of “objects” utilized (burlap fiber, plastic, cretto, etc.) and its specific, operative formulation (the particular tear, bum, crackling, etc.). For Burri, the essence is the phenomenon; thus the material—once it has emerged into existence, even if it is incessantly suspended above nothingness—assumes its specific aspect, undergoes a specific process of transformation, or it could not convey any necessity, much less be admitted into the esthetic process.

Now, in Burri’s work, this material is subjected to a process of formalization, a decisive point upon which its very meaning depends. In all Burri’s work—from the earliest “Sacchi”(Burlap pieces, 1950–61) to the most recent cellotex pieces—the material is assigned edges; it is placed in a classical spatial orchestration that f m it within insurmountable boundaries. The “Ferri” (Iron pieces, 1958–61) are a marvelous example of this tension between matter and space (and not incidentally are fundamental to understanding an entire side of Jannis Kounellis’ work). Just emerged from the foundry in sheet form and, therefore, not objets trouvés, like the burlap or rag pieces, they blaze with a rust-colored flush left by the flame. Some, cut at sharp, jutting angles, are forcibly wedged against each other, due to the two-dimensionality of their frame (Ferro D, Ferro E, and Ferro SP I, all 1958); others, more subdued, are welded and “sewn” like the burlap pieces (Grande Ferro and Ferro SP 2, both 1959; Ferro, 1961), without, however, renouncing or negating the barely suggested plane. At the opposite pole are the cellotex pieces, in which form is supreme. As a material, cellotex, a mixture of sawdust and pressed wood, is much more malleable, sub missive, hot, and spongy than iron. Indeed, the material, without ceasing to be itself—cellotex qua cellotex—seems to give birth to its own form. And this is the decisive heart of Burri’s art, at least until the “Ferri”: material is transformed into space—into its very antithesis. In Burri’s work, then, the spatial framework is never given a priori; nor are the geometric forms the result of a superimposition. On the contrary, they have originated from the rhythmic and ordered modulations of the material itself, which is more or less submissive to the operation.

The forms, therefore, are always revocable; they are never positioned definitively. And, in fact, in Burri’s work, geometry is never a deduction of general, self-evident golden principles. Thus form doesn’t redeem matter, it doesn’t ransom it, doesn’t absolve it, doesn’t justify it. It is instead another confirmation of it. In the “Cretti” (a series developed mostly in the ’70s), for example, the crackling that runs across the entire, sometimes huge, surface is an action in progress; the visible form is the form of the material, a paste of zinc oxide and polyvinyl glue, which is shown in the act of crackling and in the moment of its making. Formal exigency may set up a diaphragm, a distance, create an aura. But its immaterial noetic power (that is, mental power) never destroys the concreteness of the material, which remains intact as phenomenon. Thus Apollo (the principium individuationis of Form) never conquers Dionysus (the indistinctness of Matter, the chance element and torment of impulses), because both have the same unfathomable father. Yet it is precisely the difference between them that prevents them from annulling each other; they are joined in their vital struggle, united by their very division.

In “Il Viaggio,” a cycle of ten works, Burri performs almost a Freudian Durcharbeitung, a working through and elaboration of his own artistic memory, combining techniques, materials, and formal attitudes that have become second nature to him over the years. The materials—from sheet metal to cellotex, from plastic to cretto, to actual painting with pigment—are organized with a sense of grandiose and monumental form that cannot help but bring to mind the dimension of the Classic as it was reexperienced in the Renaissance spaces of Giotto and Piero della Francesca, of Masaccio and Paolo Uccello. Indeed, we are very close to traditional painting (and here we might speak of Burri’s classicism, rather than his classicizing).2 The impastos, the veilings, the shadings, all the “fatal strategies” of Form, Color, and Space, are reexperienced, reremembered in the precisely calibrated fittings of the sheet metal, in the spatial relationships created by the transparent plastic, in the perfect juxtapositions of the sheets of cellotex, upon which Burri works through a process of subtraction, removing bit by bit areas of the originally compact surface. In the large semicircles, in the ovoids, in the geometric and yet free divisions of the field, the surface appears as a plane totally exposed to light—another constant in Burri’s work.

After the subtly expanded, seemingly monochromatic luminosities and the earthy, ashen shadows of “Il Viaggio,” the chromatic celebration of “Sestante,” a cycle of 17 large paintings in acrylic on cellotex and one sculpture, is surprising. Here the chromatic note and the fragmented formal layout that Burri had already realized in Il Viaggio 5, 1979, reach their most complete expression. The space is defined by intense, ringing color that seems to leap from the surface to strike the eye of the viewer. The tints, which in their immediate physicality have a weight and a specificity, are measured in a purely timbral and compact fashion. It is like being inside an organism as it is supported by the internal and solid order of its parts: each element derives its value from the position that it assumes with respect to every other. Every piece of inlay, every area or particle of color is closed within itself, shut off within its own spatial limits. But upon visual contact with the others, each piece, as in a puzzle, becomes animated and acquires an inner dynamism and structural significance.

The yellows, the blues, the oranges, the reds, the greens are strained to the point of spasm, brought to their most powerful pitch. In almost all the pieces of the cycle, the image undergoes extreme prismatic breakdown (the Futurist lesson of Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini). In Matisse-like fashion, Burri seems to have cut out the shapes in pure color and then to have juxtaposed them in a paroxysmic fragmentation of the surface. But by the end of the cycle in Sestante 16, he reverts to a solemn and grandiose synthesis, majestically expressed by the slow curvature of the black band that embraces and at the same time frees itself from the grip of two large semicircular shapes of exhausted, indistinct gray and beige.

Along with red, and to a lesser degree white, black is one of the fundamental poles of Burri’s chromatic universe. If, in the “Rosso e Nero” cycle, which brings red and black together, black acts as a base for red, exalting it, warming it, rekindling its color, in the “Neri,” in “Annotarsi,” and in “Non ama il nero,” we see infinite and extremely refined tonal variations within the same tint, produced, for the most part, by the alternation of shiny and opaque. Burri, in these later works, shows us how many blacks can exist and thrive within Black, somewhat as Robert Ryman shows us how many whites can dwell within White. And once more, the essence is phenomenon—and vice versa.

If, in “Sestante,” the space is identified with the color, here the equivalence between space, material, and color is most absolute. The basic material procedure is the same as in other cellotex pieces (many examples of which, dating from 1975 to 1984, can be seen in the Ex Seccatoi) and consists in the mixing of the cellulose residue with greater or lesser amounts of polyvinyl glue. By specifically using black, the color that absorbs all light, Burri shows us the luminous tie that embraces all the material’s different qualities. Through ironic antiphrasis, the letters of the phrase “non ama it nero” (he doesn’t like black) slowly scan—brilliant tone on top of opaque—the nine works of the homonymous cycle. Sometimes the clear surface divisions create soft, elongated, and sinuous forms, at other times orthogonal planes that seem to spread open like the stage wings in a theater. The luminous variations within the same tint are neither simple retinal fact, nor do they merely define the structural layout of the space. More profoundly, they capture the glance of the viewer (which is always a glance of desire), drawing it over the micro-roughness and the micro-smoothness of the surface.

And yet everything is rigorous, geometrically measured: the delirium and the desire of the eye are drawn precisely by what one commonly, and ingenuously, thinks of as their opposite—order. In the end, it is the law that gives pleasure, not its transgression, which, of course, wouldn’t exist without the former. Or better: it is the Law (the Norm, the Form), slightly shifted, minimally “tempered” by that to which it is applied (the material, the impulse, the psychic nature). I spoke of Burri’s capacity to have us discover infinite blacks within Black. In this manner he reminds us that there is a dimension of perception that eludes our conscious control; he shows us that infinitesimal perceptions, which we cannot fathom, live within us at every moment. There is a universe of possibilities that don’t become real and tangible, that don’t enter into existence, and that we thus never succeed in perceiving. Nonetheless, they are. Burri seeks to show them to us.

Leibniz said that the crash of a wave is formed by a myriad of sounds indistinguishable to the ear that are woven together to form the totality that we hear. And that while every fragment of matter is a rich garden of plants, a pond full of fish, each branch of each plant, each element of each fish, is, in its turn and infinitely, a garden, a pond. Burri’s art listens to every sound that makes up the audible noise of the wave, it rests in that garden, swims in that pond.

Massimo Carboni is a writer who lives in Rome. His book Linguaggi dell’Ornamento, Saggio sulla decorazione is forthcoming.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. It is significant that Burri has never titled his works with those engagés or theatrical terms that others have used to comment upon them.

2. Burri has clearly always intended to make paintings that respect the limits, codes, and conventions of the object-canvas, and he thus could never be confused with a “povero” artist.