New York

Alberto Burri

Mitchell-Innes & Nash | Chelsea

On his release from the Texas internment camp where he was held as a prisoner of war from 1944 to 1946 (having served with the Italian army in North Africa), Alberto Burri embarked on a practice of post-painterly abstraction rooted in a commitment to scabrous materiality. From 1949 onward he employed wood, plastic, and burlap—often burning or suturing them—as well as mud and dirt to generate surfaces that mark an intersection of formalism, or rather formlessness, and a confrontation with history. Seeming on the one hand closed to interpretation by the utter opacity of filthy matter, these works on the other hand suggest a metaphorics of the wound (Burri was a surgeon in the army). They evoke the surfaces of the body under assault, and the dialectics of hope and healing. Burri’s project is symptomatic of the Italian art of his generation in its patent refusal to signify and its simultaneous repudiation of formal self-reflexivity in the wake of the war. The resolution, or at least negotiation, of this paradox animates much Italian art of the 1950s and ’60s.

This abbreviated Burri retrospective at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, which included just five works from the 1950s (all drawn from his widow’s collection), was a window on these contradictions, and as such helped complicate narratives of postwar art and its requisite emphasis on American practices. It also betrayed the extent to which the artist’s marginalized status in relation to New York and the market allowed him a degree of freedom unknown to many of his American counterparts. Robert Rauschenberg freely pilfered various of Burri’s strategies, citing his visits to the Italian artist’s studio in 1953 as a central influence on his 1953–64 “Combines.” Rauschenberg’s crucial contribution to irreducible materiality, Dirt Painting (For John Cage), 1953, postdates his visit to Burri’s studio. But while Rauschenberg understood that Burri’s work was critical of Abstract Expressionism’s insistence on authorial presence through mute materiality, he missed the fact that any such repudiation is political and bears the weight of historical responsibility.

The exhibition begins with Nero et Oro (Black and Gold) of 1951, the work that functioned as a model for Dirt Painting. Here, specks of gold paint are sprinkled over a contrasting ground of dirt and white paint and scorched black pigment. In Grande Sacco (Large Sack), 1953, meanwhile, a large panel of tortured burlap bears a number of sutured tears. The real stars of the show, however, surfaced from Burri’s dialogue with Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. Cretto (Clay), 1971–73, for example, quotes Fontana’s vertical slashes. Its surface of clay was left to dry naturally; the only mark of authorial intervention results from a smear down the center. Similar are Combustione (Combustion), 1965, and the iconic Rosso Plastica LA (Red Plastic LA), 1966, in which plastic appears to have melted and resolidified following some violent impact. These works seem to be responses to Manzoni’s experiments with accrued matter, works such as his gesso-on-canvas “achromes” of 1958–59, in which the fabric has been soaked in kaolin and folded as it dried, the results embodying both the material’s inherent characteristics and the process to which it has been subjected.

Jaleh Mansoor