Los Angeles

Alberto Burri

Pasadena Art Museum

The first impression of this retrospective of Burri’s work is one of extreme quiet and order, with a tinge of melancholy. Burri’s collages—his Saccos, Ferros, Legnos, Combustiones and Plasticas—are perfectly structured; the scale and relative positions of his few elements seems almost inevitable, posing an order that derives more from Mondrian and Constructivism than from Cubist, Dada or Surrealist collage.

The drama of these objects (for they are much more objects than pictures) comes primarily from the inherent qualities of his materials, set, as they are, in their immutable architectonic relationships. There is a special emotive quality to his patinaed pieces of sheet iron, his thin slices of raw wood, his burlap, and his transparent sheets of plastic. It is a quality that carefully avoids any tendency toward allusion while, simultaneously, creating a mood of human feeling.

The collages seem to bleed and swell, somehow. The Plasticas and Combustiones seem to show sores and a history of physical suffering, and yet these are simply existential objects, primarily rectangles of specific materials or color, stitched, welded, cemented or fused with heat without overt symbolism or literary affectation.

The key to this mood seems to be a function of his color, or, rather, as James Johnson Sweeney says in his excellent catalog introduction, his use of light, for Burri has reduced color to bare essentials. The color of his wood, burlap and iron is the natural color of the material, but set against his deep tarry blacks, weathered empty whites or harsh mechanical reds, they force a kind of glow that creates a level of involvement that is unique. Burri’s most recent work has been with overlayed sheets of transparent flexible plastic. These are stretched in layers over a frame, often with color sandwiched between, and then touched with heat to form gaping, wound-like holes. In these works, (unfortunately, too few were included in this exhibition, organized last year for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston) the quiet of structure remains as in the earlier pieces, but with a more ferocious attack on our sensibilities. One is led to think of war and the burden of being, and the sense of fragility of the material itself. Even the timelessness of art becomes finite.

This new, more open drama seems necessary in the context of Burri’s work, for time and familiarity have given his Saccos and Ferros a kind of decorative elegance. They have been formalized by his followers and can no longer issue the profound bite that once excited viewers. Burri has never been concerned with the creation of elegance or prettiness. Rather, his work is concerned with the beauty inherent in the recognition of his simple, visual statement, where the existential qualities of real material are dealt with, in reality, by man and time and space.

Don Factor