Alberto Burri: Form and Matter

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4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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This is the first major retrospective of Alberto Burri in the UK – though it's not difficult to see why he's been relatively neglected. Nothing to do with the works themselves, which are often powerful and disquieting. Rather, it's because of the way the Italian defied neat categorisation, slipping between various historical interstices: from the quick stylistic change-ups of his early works (initially figurative and expressionist, then abstract and Miró-esque) to his most well-known pieces, those radical collages using scraps and strips of sackcloth – which tend to be more frequently cited as an influence upon Robert Rauschenberg, or on Burri's compatriots, the later Arte Povera artists, than considered on their own terms.

This latter is particularly ironic, given Burri's insistence that the meaning of his sackcloth works lay in their formal arrangements, in what was directly and materially perceptible, dismissing attempts to read in any broader, historical connotations – the rumpled, hole-filled rags signifying war-torn landscapes, for instance, or wounded flesh (Burri had been a medic during WWII). Yet there's a sense of lugubriousness and violence in these works that's undeniable.

What's fascinating, as the exhibition progresses, is how such apparently contradictory formal and metaphorical readings seem to dovetail – particularly in his 'Cretti' ('cracked') paintings, whose thick, monochrome surfaces dried into networks of deep fissures. They don't just resemble a cracked, desiccated landscape, they literally are cracked, desiccated landscapes, albeit ones hung on a gallery wall.

Most of all, it becomes clear that Burri, despite his materialist claims, was as much interested in chemical processes – in scorching, melting and welding, in creating tectonic eruptions of metal plates, or beautiful, blistered patterns on plastic surfaces. So much in this exhibition seems alchemically alive, either on the brink of change, or already magically mutated – much, one hopes, like the effect of this exhibition on his reputation.

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