For most of us, one of the fundamental appeals of art is its exemplary capacity in the struggle against entropy — a cultural artifact is valued according to the degree of order it embodies — and the strength of its resistance to the ravages of time. The more intricately woven the tapestry or solidly constructed the pyramid, the more reassured we are that perhaps Kansas got it wrong with regard to all we are being dust in the wind.
Of course, this being the case, modernist and postmodernist artists have made it their business to challenge this preconception on a number of fronts — by ostentatiously reintegrating the already discarded detritus of culture into new arrangements, as in the collages of Kurt Schwitters and the Combines of Robert Rauschenberg; by emphasizing the spontaneous improvisational gesture in order to destabilize the balance between order and chaos, as in the abstract expressionist drip paintings of Jackson Pollock; by creating deliberately ephemeral performances, happenings and installations whose only record is whatever documentation or relics happen to be left over, as in Chris Burden's often life-endangering actions of the early 1970s, whose collectible evidence consists of snapshots, Super-8 film, audiocassettes and a handful of used bullets.
One of the pivotal figures in the development of this broad-spectrum aesthetic of decay was Alberto Burri (1915-1995), an Italian painter who first gained attention with his abstract compositions stitched together from scraps of surplus burlap sacks, then proceeded to explore the surface possibilities of shredded and burned plastic, welded plates of scrap metal, eroded acoustic tile and other quotidian industrial materials. An innovative central protagonist in Tachism and Art Informel — the European equivalents of abstract expressionism — Burri prefigured and influenced later movements such as Arte Povera, pop, certain strains of minimalism, Land Art Conceptualists like the Boyle Family, and the whole Destruction in Art branch of Fluxus led by Gustav Metzger.
Although he remained largely devoted to the traditional painting convention of rectangular compositional framing, Burri was capable of much more unorthodox modes of expression: During the 1980s he encased the earthquake-shattered ruins of an entire Sicilian village in concrete slabs, creating a walk-through environmental enlargement of one of his later Cretti series, mimicking the craquelure of old frescoes and the parched crust of the desert in an elegiac archaeological theme park–cum–land art installation.
Like many of the European postwar avant-garde, Burri has been given short shrift in Manhattocentric accounts of contemporary art history, but his American legacy is unique in a number of ways. Trained as a surgeon, he actually began painting during World War II in a prisoner-of-war camp in Texas. He had an early and enthusiastic reception by the U.S. art community, with 72 solo and group shows between 1953 and 1963, including three at New York's Museum of Modern Art and four at the Guggenheim. And from 1963 until 1991, Burri spent his winters in near-anonymity at his house in the Hollywood Hills. The artworks created during these annual L.A. sojourns form the basis of "Combustione: Alberto Burri and America," at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through December 18.
Curated by SMMOA's Lisa Melandri and local critic Michael Duncan, the exhibit is exemplary of the kind of focused, high-quality, historically significant survey that ought to be the bread and butter of our major museums — examining a remarkable instance of regional and international art-historical simultaneity with a thoughtful and tightly edited array of representative works by an underexposed figure of note. But art history and museological praxis aside, what makes this show truly rock is the awesomeness of the work itself.
In spite of the abjectness of his materials, the considerable chance element at work in many of his procedures, and the reductivism of his color palette and compositions, Burri's art is exquisitely sensual and uniformly brilliant in terms of formal design. Much has been made of the supposed autobiographical subtext of Burri's work — the horrors of war, blah blah blah — but he was adamant about the symbolic autonomy of his visual art. "Words are no help to me when I try to speak about my painting," he asserted in a rare artist statement for a 1955 MOMA show. "It is an irreducible presence that refuses to be converted into any other form of expression. It is a presence both imminent and active. .. I can only say this: Painting for me is a freedom attained, constantly consolidated, vigilantly guarded so as to draw from it the power to paint more."
Words are no help? Present company excepted, of course! One thing I love about midcentury abstract painters — and which doesn't seem to be a quality generally appreciated in art-critical circles (not to mention every subsequent generation of academically programmed artistes) — is the animosity and bewilderment with which its practitioners confront attempts to verbalize the work. I am totally down with that — except for the fact that I'm paid by the word. So I might as well put my two cents in.
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Rather than some kind of tortured ritualistic translation of his medically informed observations on the unabsorbable pity of industrialized warfare, Burri's work is, by the artist's own emphatic assertion, an unbroken sequence of declarations about the positive, transformative powers of visual language, and the irrelevance and ultimate expendability of the verbal rationalizations to which it gives rise. And, of course, it is relentless in whittling down what is essential in making an artwork precious — with particular emphasis on the humbleness of the materials, the non-necessity of predictable, micromanaged execution, and the wealth of meaning inherent in a handful of simple variations of composition, surface and color.
I can't think of a figurative or representational painting that balances narrative structure and sensual immediacy, the festive and the melancholic, the spatially complex and the graphically dynamic with the economy of means demonstrated in Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday), Burri's 1956 accumulation of used paint rags. 1973's monochromatic white Bianco Cretto C1, a rough circle of relative smoothness hovering in a rectangular field of artificially generated cracks, is, for my money, among the most mesmerizing and spiritually potent images of the modern era. These are not distress signals, but simply memento mori — reminders of the unavoidability of decay and death, uttered in a language that, unlike linear verbal discourse, is not wracked with anxiety about reaching the end.
So it turns out Kansas was right after all. But they put it in a song anyway. One of the too-infrequently pondered issues of avant-gardism is, "Where do you leave off leaving things out?" So much art from the last half-century has thrown out the conceptual baby with the sensual bathwater, by following a verbally encoded concept to its logical extreme, with predictably diminishing returns. Exhibits that try to immortalize performative gestures of ephemerality are doomed to redundancy at best, hypocritical betrayals at worst. Burri's insistence on leaving behind artifacts that testify to their own impermanence ensures that they make their statement without making their host institution appear idiotic — and, as artworks, they may be as close to the edge as you can get without falling off. Falling off into what? It's not something you can put into words.
COMBUSTIONE: ALBERTO BURRI AND AMERICA | Santa Monica Museum of Art | Bergamot Station G1 | 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through Dec. 18