New York

Alberto Burri, Nero Celotex (Black Celotex), 1986–87, acrylic and Vinavil on Celotex, 50 x 98".

Alberto Burri, Nero Celotex (Black Celotex), 1986–87, acrylic and Vinavil on Celotex, 50 x 98".

Alberto Burri

Alberto Burri, Nero Celotex (Black Celotex), 1986–87, acrylic and Vinavil on Celotex, 50 x 98".

Shown in this bijou Upper East Side town-house gallery, a group of ten paintings titled Nero Celotex (Black Celotex), 1986–87, by Alberto Burri (1915–1995) bring to mind contrasting works by Dieter Roth (1930–1998) and his son Björn in a concurrent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s dauntingly mammoth new outpost in Chelsea. Both Burri and Roth the elder, in some measure overlooked in the United States, are in their own countries—Italy and Switzerland, respectively—regarded as iconic figures. I briefly couple these exhibitions because they curiously illustrate reverse patterns of development.

Roth’s work—the earliest dates to the 1950s—was at first characterized by immaculate neatness, but over the decades transformed into an art of histrionic self-exposure deeply caricatural of presumed Swiss mores. His infamous moldy and collapsing chocolate sculptures, for example, ridiculed the country’s emblematic industry. Yet Roth began as an epigone of Max Bill, obsessively perfect in every way.

Conversely, Burri, during a nearly contemporaneous career, began his art with the telling disorder of the burlap constructions. By the time of the Nero Celotex paintings, he had become a kind of progenitor of Group Zero sensibility, or, rather, the strain of it embodied in the work of Enrico Castellani and Lucio Fontana, the movement’s leading Italian associates. True, Roth seems more topical today, owing to the broad range of contemporary arts emphatic of atomized, decentered structures. Burri, for his part, becomes in the Nero Celotex paintings a model for the unitary and the static and in that sense appears less in touch with the intentions of younger artists and more stylistically fixed and historicized.

Still, the Burri example is deeply instructive. His most esteemed works are, of course, those torn and hemp-sewn burlap constructions stretched and stitched upon painted supports. At times, patches of colored ground (often cadmium red) peer through the torn holes in the rough sacking. These pieces resonate with period Neorealist poverty—think of the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica that address the sheer hardship of Italy during the deprivations of World War II and its aftermath. The burlap works made it seem that Burri was both part and forebear of Arte Povera, presaging the work of Jannis Kounellis in particular with its walls of sacked coal. Similar signifiers of wartime poverty still remain in Burri’s next comprehensive body of work—the scarred and scabbed assemblages of burned plastic of the ’60s.

By contrast, the curious, virtually unknown works in the present exhibition are made of Celotex, an industrial plastic—a material that Burri used earlier in his work as support, not unapologetically as the naked material itself. The surfaces of these large black horizontal rectangles have been heavily manipulated; scored, scratched, and palpated, they reveal scarcely perceivable compositions of few but large forms. Bladelike and biomorphic in character, the shapes suggest breasts or lips while conjuring an achromatic pastoral metaphor. Legibility is a function of the contrast between matte and semigloss black paint that, depending on the light source, may shift to dark gray. These abstractions are close in spirit to Minimalism and seemingly fall outside a simplistic chart of Burri’s development. They serve as a kind of antithesis—apart from their scarified surfaces—to all that had gone before. To cherry-pick outstanding examples from among so reductivist a group—and granting the considerable resemblances among them—would be a connoisseur’s Sisyphean task.

Robert Pincus-Witten