A friend recently told me about a time he went hiking up a mountain in the Northeast, young and on LSD. At a certain point near the top, he said, he lay facedown on a broad rock, his body feeling translucent like a newborn amphibian, and became “one” with it. Completely unable to move, he lay merged with hundreds of millions of years of sediment, looking through plane upon plane into the center. It wasn’t until his friend grabbed his T-shirt and yanked him to his feet that he felt like a distinct person again. I heard this story shortly after seeing “The Trauma of Painting,” the Guggenheim’s current show of Alberto Burri’s work, mounted on the centennial of the Italian artist’s birth. The story resonated with me because I had been struck by the strange qualities of Burri’s planes: by turns impenetrable and porous, austere and empathic, and threatening in their transitions.
The material manipulations seen throughout the work demonstrate an interest in physical invasiveness that might be rooted in Burri’s World War II experience as a soldier and medic and then a POW in Texas. The “Gobbi” (Hunchbacks, 1950-55) are canvases with sticks and other foreign objects wedged behind them, causing them to bulge out—a testament to forms under extreme stress. Like the body on the mountainside facedown on a rock, staring into a space which registers time in the metrics of dirt and stone and heat, they turn their backs to the psychological space of man. It seems that Burri much preferred the violence of matter to the violence of man. Or perhaps he knew that they are one and the same.
For the “Combustioni plastichi” (Plastic Combustions, 1960-70), Burri burned plastic sheets with blowtorches and other tools. There are suggestions of force and healing here, a moving in and through to understand physical limits and a cauterizing to prevent further damage. I sense an intense compression of energy in the violent acts inflicted on the plastic. That monochromes can become polychromes by way of heat touches on the most basic truth that we live and die through processes of chaos and combustion. The holes in the plastic also resemble galaxies in a universe, evoking the pushing outward of space. In contrast, the stitched-together burlap of the “Sacchi” (Sacks, 1950-56), with its association to sinners covering themselves in sackcloths as penitence, speaks to a kind of concealment.
With Burri’s various black monochromes, I couldn’t help but think of the proverb “In the dark, all cats are gray.” In these, he prioritized the “tactile brain,” exploring notions of equilibrium, pressure, pain and pleasure without relying on color and other immediate visual markers. Burri shows us that the dark is not fixed. It is dynamic. We know that he was not a follower and we can see him fumbling around in the dark, creating new definitions, a contented loner. It seems the darkest room for Burri contained the loss of his brother, also a doctor, who died in the war, but whose remains were never found. All of Burri’s work was based on the fundamental physical quality of materials. I think the loss of his brother and the lack of bodily proof of his death created a vacuous sinkhole that Burri aimed to cover with the physicality of his work.
The sacks, the plastics, the irons, the tars, the woods, the monochromes: in all of the works I see disillusionment with war, the crushed mouths of a failed call to arms. Burri knew that the voice needed to be spoken not from the mouth but from the entirety of his material language. His layered sediment compresses voice, violence, disorder, freedoms, deaths and renewals into concrete composites. The terrestrial quality we see and relate to in his pieces, however, seems able to crumble without warning. This recognition that the concrete is friable forces us to reconsider our faith in the absolute. With Burri’s works, we are the drugged forms lying against and within the prehistoric rock.
A little more than halfway up the Guggenheim ramp, I backed away from Burri’s 1957 Combustione legno (Wood Combustion) and stumbled on the base of the angled hip-height wall, nearly falling 50 feet to the atrium floor. I thought to myself that such a close call would be impossible in a museum designed in 2015, in an era of maximal safeguarding. I was happy for it. I found the rush that shot through my stomach and the soles of my feet before I caught myself to be analogous to the rush of time and space contained in the works. You can’t see them all up close or all at a distance. What Burri called their “unbalanced equilibrium” requires an active engagement. Looking at Combustione legno I pictured the entire process of the wood veneer’s burning, contracting and extinguishing. The piece captures the nature of Burri’s work as a whole, which was forged in the heat of his 80 years, and has been cooling and expanding in the decades since.