Alberto Burri

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Nero e oro

Nero e oro Photograph: Couretesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash

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<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Best known for abstractions that evoke the trauma of war and its aftermath, Alberto Burri (1915–1995) originally served as a surgeon with the Italian army during WWII before he was captured by the Allies. It was as a prisoner of war in Texas that he started to make art, using whatever materials—including empty sacks—were at hand. This long overdue exhibition traces his subsequent career as an artist from his return to Italy in 1946 to shortly before his death.

After briefly flirting with representation, Burri turned to abstraction. By 1949 he was experimenting with the emotive potential of non-art materials, incorporating tar and paper into paintings such as Nero et Oro (1951), in which black paint laps against friable areas of white that seem to float in a void like bombed-out ruins. In the 1950s he created the “Sacchi” series, roughly sutured collages of patched, stained and painted burlap; in the 1960s, he formed the even more disquieting “Plastiche” series, with plastic melted into the semblance of scorched and blistered flesh.

Along with those of Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, these works foreshadowed the arte povera movement of the late 1960s, as well as the assemblage art of Bruce Conner. But while Fontana and Manzoni reveled in the anarchic joys of scatology and spectacle, the elegance of Burri’s work marked him as a formalist. Nevertheless, the power of his early period remains undiminished, resonating not only with Beat and Process art, but also with the work of women artists such as Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta and Sophie Ristelhueber, which likewise conjures a phantasmagorical body by conflating inanimate material with living flesh.

—Anne Doran

Mitchell-Innes & Nash, through Jan 19

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