Various Venues

Houston’s long dormant summer was finally broken in late October by the Alberto Burri Retrospective at the Mu­seum of Fine Arts and several small shows at local private galleries.

The Burri show is a highly significant one. Spanning fifteen years and includ­ing fifty pictures, it is the largest ex­hibition of his work ever assembled in the United States. In addition, every selection, without exception, is a major one. It is particularly fitting that a major exhibition of his work be held here since it was in Texas that Burri first began to paint. Born in Italy in 1915 and trained as a doctor of medi­cine, he was sent to the Hereford, Texas, detention camp as a prisoner of war in 1945. It was at the camp that he took up painting, becoming so com­pletely involved in it that, on returning to Italy eighteen months later, he gave up his medical career to devote his en­tire time to art.

Burri’s exhibited works fall into four clear chronological groupings. The earl­iest, “pitch” and “mould” paintings dating up to 1952, are much more austere, contained and sharp-edged than what was to follow. From 1952 until about 1956 came Burri's famed burlap paintings, strangely sensuous, evocative compositions of ripped, shredded and gnarled rectangles of burlap, sewn and knotted against generally black back­grounds. Round holes, occasionally filled with flimsier fabrics painted blood red, usually break the rough bur­lap surfaces, resulting in a compelling quality reminiscent of a torn flesh-wound, although there is no objective imagery to substantiate this feeling.

The late ’50s mark Burri’s explorations into more varied media: metal, paper and wood, experimentation with torch burning, and his new use of mono­chrome. The wood paintings are usu­ally organized in horizontal-vertical lines of shaved boards on black, with burnt holes and tonal areas subtly added. Less subdued are the burnt paper com­positions, which are less regular in format and more extreme in tonal varia­tion. Slightly different yet are the un­dulating metal works, comprised of large, slightly bulging plates with burned and painted color and texture variations. The monochromatic paint­ings, such as the all-white Two Shirts of 1957, are rich and textural, with natural fabric wrinkles set against heav­ily cracked paint surfaces. In 1961 Burri turned to still another medium—trans­parent plastic. These cellophane-like compositions are made up of several layers of burnt sheets, sometimes over opaque, colored-plastic grounds, some­times completely transparent, free-hang­ing, and dependent on natural light. They are generally larger and more free-flowing than the works that preceded them.

Viewed in its entirety, the Burri exhi­bition really is impressive, for it shows the artist’s organized and comprehen­sive explorations into a wide variety of media resulting in consistent per­sonal, potent expressions. His growth within the limitations of a single med­ium is demonstrated by his 1961 burlap elegy for the 13 massacred Italian U.N. soldiers, Grande Sacco Conga Binga, a kind of proof of the infinity of ex­pression one artist can find within a given medium. It is almost breathtaking in evocative power and monumentality within the greatest economy of means.

Charlene Steen