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Alberto Burri, The Trauma of Painting

Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting chronicles the career of Italian doctor, prisoner of war, and artist Alberto Burri. Despite a dearth of exposure in recent decades, Burri’s work is not completely foreign to New York, or to the Guggenheim Museum for that matter, where an earlier survey was held in 1976. The museum’s second director, James Johnson Sweeney, was an early supporter of the artist, among the first to show him in America with the 1953 exhibition, Younger European Painters: A Selection. Nevertheless, Burri subsequently fell into relative obscurity in the United States. Perhaps this show is indicative of a new interest in Burri for art audiences and the art market of today.

Alberto Burri, Rosso plastica (Red Plastic), 1961. Plastic (PVC), acrylic, and combustion on plastic (PE) and black fabric, 142 x 153 cm. © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Massimo Napoli, Rome, courtesy Modern Art Foundation.
On View
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
October 9, 2015 – January 6, 2016
New York

Born in 1915 to a wine merchant and a schoolteacher in the town of Città di Castello, outside Umbria,1 Burri was trained as a medic, developing fine motor skills stitching patients—a faculty that would later come into play in his work—and joining the war as a doctor in 1943. He was captured by the British shortly after and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Hereford, Texas, where he began to paint in order to emotionally and mentally cope with life as a POW. Upon release, he returned to Europe where he first encountered abstraction in Paris in 1948.

Guest curator Emily Braun, Guggenheim Associate Curator, Megan Fontanella, and Curatorial Assistant Ylinka Barotto present a comprehensive body of work with Trauma of Painting. Organized more or less chronologically and by series, the exhibition proceeds sequentially up the rotunda, allowing viewers to see early and late works simultaneously as they peer over the upper balconies to galleries below. The installation makes the most of a space that is not always hospitable to art. Not only does it guide the viewer easily, it has a continuity that echoes the repetition and progression within Burri’s artistic trajectory.

Even though Burri was never explicitly tied to any movement, to most viewers his abstract “unpainted paintings” should appear comfortable in his cultural moment, absorbing the monochromatic interests of Abstract Expressionists,while also setting the ground for Arte Povera and assemblage art.The co-curators work extensively to expand these associations through the exhibition’s wall labels, which relate Burri to various artists, works, and moments far beyond the scope of midcentury abstraction, including Piero della Francesca’s Madonna of Partition (1455 – 6) (for the subject of incised fabric),Joseph Beuys (as an artist formed by war), Italian Neorealist cinema (for its use of artifice and rupture to reappropriate the realism of Facist war propaganda), and even Rodin’s Gates of Hell (1880­ – 1917)(for the “Combustione Plastica” series’ hellish melting of form). Connections to other movements in art history are fleshed out further in the catalogue. Some are expected: such as Futurist Abstraction, and others less expected, such as collage art of the ’60s and ’70s. In her essay, “The Burri Effect,” Braun finds the influence of Burri seemingly everywhere—especially as precursor to the body awareness of feminist art2 (which is not an unreasonable assertion if we buy James Johnson Sweeney’s conflation of Burri the doctor, stitching the body, and Burri the artist, stitching the canvas.)3 Other contended successors include Lee Bontecou, Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, and David Hammons—who did in fact make a pilgrimage to Città di Castello to visit the artist.

The sprawling catalogue is especially interesting when Braun relates Burri’s art to his war experience in a way that extends the idea of a “trauma” of painting. Braun argues that Burri’s well-documented resilience in the POW camp would inspire his later obsession with experimentation—which is not to be misunderstood as the expression of wartime trauma through painting. This is a distinction the artist took great pains to make, for fear of his work being overshadowed by a narrative of war. Unfortunately, as Braun notes, “the interpretation of Burri as the artist of wounds began in 1953, and is now so embedded in the critical discourse as to have become cliché.” For a contemporary audience, the narrative of humiliation, wounds, abuse, and abjection that still seems to follow this work proves to be a rather one-sided interpretation.

Alberto Burri, Sacco e oro (Sack and Gold), 1953. Burlap, thread, acrylic, gold leaf, and PVA on black fabric, 102.9 x 89.4 cm. © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

In fact, the materials Burri uses—iron, burlap, steel plates, wood, dressing gowns, Celotex, and PVC plastic—seem less like fragments of trauma or abuse so much as the generative basis of the work itself. The essential character of wood, plastic, iron, or fabric seems not only unhampered, but intentionally rearticulated through the gesture, line, and composition. The submission of raw, recognizable materials into refined gestures is dictated by the individual personality of those materials. To name a few: the natural elasticity of plastic informs the Combustioni Plastiche (1960 – 70)series, the flammability of wood: Combustioni and Legni (combustions and woods, 1955 – 60), the decrepit texture of mold is mimicked with pumice, sand, and plastic in the Muffe, or “mold”series (1951 – 53),and the unforgiving rigidity of iron informs the sharp lines and creases of the Ferri (irons, 1958 ­– 61) surfaces. There is a consensus between artist and material, reaching neither creation nor destruction, but a crystallized moment in between.

There is also a Zen-like, contemplative quality to Burri’s tactile abstraction. The elaborate surfaces, empty of typographical or pictorial content, invite interpretation. Viewers contemplate or project meaning (one sees a lot more of this than usual among visitors to the show). Signifiers of trauma are still present, such as when sacks appear (they were the artist’s rudimentary canvases when he was a POW, and still call to mind war rations), or burns, or deep gashes. Still, trauma remains a reference, and material the muse.

Alberto Burri, Combustione legno (Wood Combustion), 1957. Wood veneer, paper, combustion, acrylic, and Vinavil on canvas, 149.5 x 99 cm. © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

If he is Zen-like and abstract, where doesBurri stand amongst contemporaneous monochrome painters like Rothko or Newman? Besides his medical background and lack of formal art training, Burri is mainly differentiated through his privileging of tactility over opticality. (Although Lucy Lippard has argued in her essay “Eccentric Abstraction” (1966) that a surface’s tactility can actually enhance it’s opticality, inviting the viewer to seebetter through the idea of touch.) One could argue that the haptic nature of Burri’s works, which avoids the use of paint in favor of revealing their surface and support, probes as deeply into the nature of painting as does the opticality of “paint as paint.”

As Donald Judd declared in Specific Objects in 1965, “half of more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture.” Though he was speaking more generally, Burri no doubt fits this description. So one wonders if the lack of paint in his “paintings” excluded him from a certain history of abstract painting. Rather than reinsert Burri into a clean narrative of painterly abstraction, it seems that the show’s implicit mission is to transcend this exclusion by connecting Burri to so many other movements.

At the same time, Burri already placed himself exactly where he wanted to be by insisting that these works were paintings. If they were sculpture, perhaps they would be interpreted as material explorations. As paintings, they become about pushing painting to its physical limits.4


  1. Umbria is also where the current Burri museum stands, Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri. Nearby in Gibellina, Sicily is his monolithic concrete installation, Grande Cretto (1985 – 89), made of rippling blocks of concrete cut into chunks and imprinted over 8,000 square meters on the side of a hill.
  2. Braun writes further, “Burri’s […] laborious stitching and his evocations of the body, inside and out, challenge notions of strict gender binaries in art making.” (Braun, Alberto Burri, Trauma of Painting, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: New York, 2015).
  3. Introducing Burri’s work to American audiences with the first English monograph in 1955, Sweeney melded his two professions as artist and doctor, asserting that the “rubbish” was a “metaphor for human, bleeding flesh” and that Burri “is an artist with a scalpel—the surgeon conscious of what lies within the flesh.”
  4. Burri’s insistence on painting (as opposed to sculpture) also indicates an interest in the frame as a form of control. (In addition to strictly controlling pricing and system of naming, the artist also built his own foundation and museum to protect his legacy.) This interest in control is also evident in the artist’s naming system: all works are named literally for their material, such as the jute sacks of Sacco (sack, 1952). In the case of works with different ingredients, they are named in order of usage. Bianco Nero, (white black, 1952) is a work whose surface is predominately white with black sections.


Anna Tome

Anna Tome is an Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.


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