Rediscovering Alberto Burri At Estorick Collection

Alberto Burri

Alberto Burri: Form and Matter @ Estorick Collection – REVIEW

This small but compact exhibition at the Estorick Collection presents the work of Italian artist Alberto Burri (1915-1995), and is the first solo show of his work held in the UK for sixty years. The purpose of this exhibition, at least in part, is to draw attention to this significant but unfairly neglected artist. Judging by quality of the work, it is high time that purpose was achieved.

Gallery 1 shows some of Burri’s earliest paintings, which he produced while a prisoner of war in a Texas jail. These are largely figurative and, while not particularly noteworthy in themselves, do allow us to chart his increasing engagement with the materiality of the paint as stuff, and the dwindling interest in the figurative. This he abandoned quite early on, as a preoccupation with matter in and of itself became the driving force of his mature work. The later, abstract ‘materiality pieces’ in gallery 1 are made with either charred paper, welded metal sheets, or hessian sacking. Each work uses just one of these main materials, with paint (usually red or black) and occasionally a small quantity of another material.

The sacking works are the most famous and they are the stars of the show. Particularly stunning is Sacking and Red (1954). In this piece the sack cloth is used in a visceral and painterly way (its frayed edges look like brushy marks), as if the stroke of a brush has been pieced together from stitched, torn, pasted and folded scraps of fabric, grafted to the surface – almost like an act of reconstructive surgery. The blocked-in scarlet paint, meanwhile, is applied flatly without texture. Its painterliness has been stripped from it. The painting has a strange transcendental quality, hinted at in the title, with ‘Sacking’ and ‘red’ put together as equals – listed without hierarchy – without regard for the classical distinction between substance and attribute. Both are treated as raw material, physical stuff to be used by the artist. The effect of this powerful combination is the transformation of the colour. Pure red, colour itself – ‘redness’ – becomes somehow reified, solidified as tangible matter.

In Gallery 2 holds works made from scorched and melted plastic, Cellotex (a kind of insulation board used in the 70s), and a PVA glue + Kaolin mix, which dries to create a cracked surface like parched mud (works that the artist called Cretti). Each series is an interrogation of whichever stuff is being used, trying out every possible manipulation of its materiality.

The burnt, ripped, gauged, stitched nature of Burri’s work – particularly in the sacking and plastic pieces – leads easily to more symbolic or metaphorical readings about the wounded body and war (Burri was a medical officer in WWII). The similarity in appearance of the melting plastic pieces to hideously burned flesh is particularly hard to miss, and looking at them can at times be almost painful. The copious use of red paint undoubtedly contributes to this effect. Burri, however, was always anxious to underplay these connotations. He insisted that his work be understood in pure formal terms as matter and composition. For him the red is not symbolic, it is just another material. But, as with all good art, the work is strong enough to support both interpretations, and many more, simultaneously. However they are read (*cough*), the works’ intensely visceral, physical quality and their tactile force is undeniably affecting and powerful. Words Laurence Lumley © 2011 ArtLyst