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Alberto Burri: The Allure of Trauma

Alberto Burri in his studio in Case Nove di Morra, Città di Castello, Italy, 1982 Photo: Aurelio Amendola © Aurelio Amendola, Pistoia, Italy 


Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
October 9, 2015 – January 6, 2016


           Upon attending a recent discussion at the Whitney, a panelist remarked that there was a resurgence of painting happening in New York. While this may be true from a marketing perspective, it should not imply that these exhibitions are uniformly showing high quality work.  Having reflected on this issue, I went out and discovered three truly impressive painting shows.  Two are historically-based. One is a Robert Motherwell exhibition of selected large-scale Elegies at Dominique Levy, and the second is a full retrospective of the Italian painter Alberto Burri at the Guggenheim.  The third is a relatively medium-size exhibition of work by the Beijing painter, Zheng Fanzhi, at the Gagosian Gallery on 24th Street in West Chelsea. While I  eventually hope to review the Motherwell and Zeng exhibitions, I will begin with Alberto Burri, the wartime and post-War painter from southern Italy, an artist who has surpassed the limits of the ordinary in the stylistic domain of high Modernism.

It is curious that Burri began his career in medicine before deciding that he would become a painter, an artist, to be sure. Upon returning to Napoli in 1946, he saw some of the decimation left over from the previous years, the same could be said of Sicily in those years. Burri would take is upon himself to tell the truth, not of triumph, but of pain and needless suffering, and the mindless destruction that he witnessed around him, impacting him on all sides.  He would become the painter of trauma, of traumatic fever and forlornness, of the despair and the degradation by which he was confronted. The Italian filmmakers De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini would tell other tales, as would the great novelist Alberto Moravia. It was a desperate time in post-War Italy, and that is the content of his paintings.

As with any expressionist, to tell the tale through painting requires a tactical accuracy, finesse, and supreme concentration. Burri’s paintings are less about the sweep of the gesture or the density of the color, than about the delicate balance, the absorption of the paint, the texture of the surface, the utter and complete tactility and finally the silence that emerges from these canvases, whether he is painting on fabric, wood, metal, or plastic.  Some would say that Burri was an innovator in his style and choice of materials, but the oracle lies elsewhere. These innovations only come as a result of a conscious approach to the unconscious, a pictorial defiance, which is embedded in the title of the exhibition “The Trauma of Painting.”

Alberto Burri, Rosso gobbo (Red Hunchback), 1953, Acrylic, fabric, and resin on canvas; metal rod on verso, 56.5 x 85 cm, Private collection, Rome
© Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/2015 
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

            But the title’s strange reversal is not entirely accurate in that the trauma is what Burri felt prior to the occasion of produces these ineluctable canvas. It was not that the formal procedure of constructing a painting’s surface was in itself a trauma. The trauma seethed within his sensibility and emerged through the act of painting. The impact of this trauma stayed with him throughout his career. It could not be forgotten. Therefore, these paintings at the Guggenheim constitute a remembrance of the trauma, a paean to the ability of human beings to survive the trauma, including himself. Where does it all begin?

The earliest example would be a group of sketches made shortly after Burri’s return to Napoli in which he depicts of remnants and horror, the bodies left in the slaughter across the Italian landscape.  Strangely these are shown toward the end of the upper ramp rather than at the beginning of the exhibition on the lower level. 

            The early paintings begin in 1950 with the “Black Tar” (Nero catrame) paintings in which tar, pumice, and oil are mixed on canvas. By 1953, the artist turns from black to white in the Bianco paintings in which he applies a medium called Vinavil on paper over canvas.  The rupture of the peeling membranes brings us closer to the corporeal and mental pain that thematically runs through this body of work.  In 1953, we see the Sacco paintings in which Burri employs burlap, fabric, acrylic, thread, and Vinavil on canvas.  The image is a metaphor for the bloody wounds seeping through fabric, which the medically trained surgeon/painter was able to witness. Indeed, these are some of the most moving pictures in the show. Yet another early series, titled Gobbo or “Hunchback,” has overlapping organic shapes on the front side with either tree branches or metal rods on the reverse.  There is no mistake. These paintings reference a broken wartime body.

Installation view: Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, October 9, 2015-January 6, 2016,
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald (c) Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

The late paintings from the 1970s and 1980s return to the black and white motif.

       In either case, the acrylic paint covers a large area, no longer easel scale.  In doing so, Burri mixes an additive called PVA into the pigment, which results in an evenly dispersed cracking across the reach of the canvas or Celotex.  Again these paintings are not immune to the memory of the troubled conditions he witnessed in the closing months of the battlefields. Now the bodies are gone, the wounds have healed into scars. Yet the cracked earth still remembers. The striking aspect of these memorable late paintings is their ability to issue what might be understood as a tactility of silence, that is, an ability to reach out and touch the silent air hovering in the mist. With epic grandeur, elegance, and beauty, Burri’s paintings reveal a silent aftermath of external conflict that might have been lost at one time within our collective psyche. WM


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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