Tuesday, 22 January 2008



Another of the quiet revivals at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, provided an opportunity to briefly review this key figure to mid-20th century painting. The work of Alberto Burri (1915-1995) is noted for the introduction of unusual materials and techniques, their use in abstraction. Earlier use of novel materials focussed on recycling and surprising juxtaposition, particularly of printed matter: striking three-dimensional elements (as in the work of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1949), for example). But by mid-century the kind of materials adopted emphasise the imposition of two-dimensional reference upon them. They provide an unconventional base or support that draws attention to the effort or resistance to ascribed pattern, picture or notation. This aspect of painting is often called materiality, the particular phase considered is here termed Traction.

Traction has more figurative use in the work of Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) and Jean Fautrier (1889-1964), where basic picture planes (technically, orthogonal projections) are engraved or carved into a pigment augmented by plaster, glues, shellac, shoe polish and varnishes, amongst others things. The work of Antoni Tàpies offers similar strange pastes, and occasional notation, later allowing the figurative. Burri is noted firstly for his distressed and patched burlap or sacking, restricted colour in compositions that otherwise continue the biomorphic or organic abstraction of earlier artists. Yet ‘line’ is now coarse seams or patches, the colour harmonies, shapes and edges emphatically determined by the material. Burri subsequently turns to heated plastics to determine shape or ‘drawing’ from a chemical exchange with the supporting material. The work is literally about what makes a line or shape, colour or pattern from the support. Metaphorically, the organic shapes can suggest wounds, stained dressings, swelling, blistering and inflamed skins, an unnerving close-up of human distress or resilience.

Traction is largely a European trend and is sometimes contrasted with The New York School’s use of imposing scale to induce new techniques to abstraction. The difference is famously seen as cooking with rich pastes in modest servings as opposed to a stark smorgasbord, conducted over vast expanses. But there are crucial exceptions. The work of Robert Rauschenberg takes up traction with his black paintings, is possibly influenced by Burri after a trip to Italy in 1951. His subsequent work reflects a new and enduring attention to fabrics. Coincidentally, Burri, who began as a medical student, only took up painting while a prisoner of war in Texas in 1944. Rauschenberg, a native of Texas, spent much of his military service as a hospital orderly.

Rauschenberg’s interest in traction is rarely confined to one material and not always foremost as a compositional strategy, however his taste for shredded newsprint is passed to his colleague at the time, Jasper Johns, whose work incorporates it in a heavy encaustic and applies it to distinctly two-dimensional designs such as flags, targets, text and maps. Traction by this route is eventually inherited by New Image Painting, in mostly subdued form, but re-emerges more vigorously in the work of Joe Zucker in the 70s and then Julian Schnabel.

Burri’s influence upon abstraction is soon overwhelmed by Minimalism’s stricter symmetries, architectural ambitions. He also uses wood in veneer-like slices, although wood-grain is a somewhat familiar pattern, after Picasso and Braque, lacks a certain friction. He tries thin metal sheeting, again worked by heat and inevitably turns to sculpture, of welded steel sheets. Later works concoct vivid cracking or crackle, but again the clarity or ease of pattern rob materials of much traction. Yet, to ask more of materials can easily obscure a two-dimensional aspect, stress other, occasionally surprising qualities, brittleness or pungency, coarseness or crumpling, appeal to senses other than the visual. In this respect Burri’s work perhaps prepares the way for Arte Povera, with its diverse materials in surprising combination, including motion, sound and smell, site specific and temporary installations; that extend the visual and tactile with the transient. A current show at Luring Augustine New York includes many of these artists. Joseph Beuys is commonly associated with this group and his student Anselm Kiefer returns to traction in a more elaborate and figurative form in the 70s. The tendency continues to attract occasional exponents, such as Alexis Harding (see also Post 3).

For Burri its application was strictly abstract, although abstraction then remained a relaxed geometry or ‘organic’ sense of pattern. Ultimately his materials and techniques seem too loaded, not simply alternatives to paint, but redolent in other, extraneous associations that restrict their use in further abstraction. Minimalism took a purer view of chemistry and geometry (see also Post 52) but could not sustain it, even on the grandest scale. This is partly why work such as Burri’s continues to attract interest.

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