‘Trauma” is the operative word in Alberto Burri’s retrospective “The Trauma of Painting” at the Guggenheim. One of the most innovative outliers in the field of postwar abstraction, the late Italian modernist sought out unconventional industrial materials when other artists were stuck on paint, and he didn’t hesitate to refer to the body when others were trying to erase it from art.
Burri started experimenting with art making while in a Texas POW camp after having been captured in Tunisia in 1943. He’d been an officer in the Italian medical corps, and the sutures, scars, scabs, skin grafts, blisters, and burns he witnessed all made their way into the visceral abstractions that curator Emily Braun gathered for the show. But it is the trauma that he inflicted on his materials—melting, burning, stitching—that appears so beautifully raw against the purity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral.
Burri titled his works after his materials and processes, from the early “Sacchi” (Sacks), ripped burlap bags with red pigment, to his “Cretti” (Cracks), combining unbound pigments and binders that dried into fissures. His assemblages, such as the 1960s “Combustioni Plastiche” (Plastic Combustions), sheets of PVC melted into webbed masses, are satisfyingly grotesque.
Trauma yielded to more formalist experimentation in the 1970s and ’80s with the “Cellotex” compositions—geometric forms made from incising industrial particleboard. These inspired several of the suites in “Albert Burri: Grafica” at Luxembourg & Dayan gallery nearby. Materials, like process, were still key elements with Burri’s stunning re-creations of three-dimensionality in editioned form. For a series of 1971 “Cretti,” Burri used chalk and gesso to make editions resembling cracking skin. Suites mirroring his “Cellotex” series consisted of cardboard forms fit together with glue. These, with their intense pigments, halo shapes, and gold leaf, were a fitting coda to all the trauma.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 78.