Alberto Burri

Former navy yard, the Giudecca

The sestante (sextant) is an instrument of revelation, used at sea to establish position; in giving this show such a title Alberto Burri seemed to be locating his position vis-à-vis painting. The vast former navy yard held 17 large works in acrylic on Celotex, each about 97 by 136 inches. The structure of the yard is a sort of large nave, and the paintings were arranged in regular succession in side “chapels”; sixteen were hung on a wall over three hundred feet long, their spacing punctuated by buttresses that framed them as in niches, while a seventeenth hung on the shorter entrance wall.

Some works here had been seen elsewhere recently: Il Viaggio (The voyage), a self-confident polychrome painting at the center of the cycle, was shown in Kassel and in Munich in 1980–81, and the nine Cellotex works from the “Orti” (“Gardens”) series were seen in Florence in the same period. But Burri’s exploration of color began in the ’50s, and his continuing concern with it can be seen in the tempera paintings and silk-screens from the period 1948–76 that were shown in 1976 in Pesaro. This corpus, now long unexhibited, may hold the seeds of Burri’s current chromatic investigations, which might otherwise seem to belie the work he is best known for.

This is, after all, the same artist whose earlier pieces were in burlap and plastic. But whether painting or working in other media, the same desire for the absolute governs his gestures; his experiments with different materials parallel his investigations of form and color. He is propelled not so much by a naturalistic vision as by a mental concept, that of the constant, unappeasable challenge between artist and surface or medium. The problem of color inextricably involves Burri; for him, color is onewith material. The relationship between form, material, and color is the same as that between thought and action—they do not negate each other, but exist in working synthesis.

The basic generative module in the paintings here is the exchange between black, red, and white, although other colors intervene in a brilliant, at times almost gaudy palette. Rectangles, hemispheres, irregularly outlined circles, and ovals coexist with biomorphic forms, phallic wedges penetrating softly defined surrounding areas, craters and abysses from which shapes emerge in a continuous alternation between solid and void, grouping and separation, extension and contraction of space. The second, seventh, and twelfth paintings in the cycle have a formal quality which interrupts the broad, cadenced rhythm of the canvases, introducing a broken, fractured tempo. These three pieces seem to set the pace of the viewer’s glance; if the forms in the other paintings generally fluctuate, float like calm, drifting continents, here a syncopation occurs.

Elsewhere the tempo is controlled. Rhythms may be rapid or slow, calm or hurried, but are always in harmony. Color here has no symbolic value, refers to nothing but itself; there is no content to be found between the work’s appearance and its meaning, unless it be that of the concept of painting itself. These are paintings that speak of painting, and here again is that tendency toward the absolute that underlies all Burri’s work and is fundamental to his ethic.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.