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Art Review

In Alberto Burri’s art, desperation and inspiration

Alberto Burri’s “Rosso plastica,” at te Guggenheim Museum.
Alberto Burri’s “Rosso plastica,” at te Guggenheim Museum.Modern Art Foundation

NEW YORK — What Europeans — what the rest of the world, in fact — can’t bear about Americans is their naivete. To the extent that naivete is a function of innocence, and even of energy, it’s also, of course, what they envy. But that doesn’t make it more tolerable.

You can get a feeling for this dynamic, still at the heart of world affairs today, by comparing postwar avant-garde art coming out of, say, Italy, and the United States — or specifically by comparing the work of Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Alberto Burri (1915-95).

Some of Rauschenberg’s breakthrough early work — including “Minutiae” (1954), a free-standing set decoration regarded as the most important of his early “Combines” — can be seen at the Institute of Contemporary Art in “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957.” Burri’s work, meanwhile, can be seen in a remarkable retrospective, “Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting,” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Rauschenberg was an ebullient Texan. His work in the 1950s was made from tattered fabric, old newspaper, reused wood and plastic, reproductions of famous artworks, scrap metal, scrunched towels, wooden doors, and so on. Slathered with paint and random scribbles, these extraordinary works were fired both by the utopian optimism of Black Mountain College and the cultural thrust of New York.

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They possess an exuberance that can seem as irrepressible as America itself. They also have a quality that combines naivete with impunity: When Rauschenberg appeared before the Dutch immigrant Willem de Kooning in 1953 to ask him for one of his drawings so that he could erase it, de Kooning was powerless before this quality, and reluctantly gave his consent.

Burri also knew Texas, but not by birth; rather, he was an Italian prisoner of war there. His works combine punctured canvas and other compromised supports with ripped and unpicked fabrics, old thread, tar, corrugated cardboard, tree branches, PVA, Celotex, welded sheet iron, paint, enamel, wood veneer, and plastic, all this variously ripped, torn, blow-torched, combusted, and scarred.

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If these descriptions make the works of Rauschenberg and Burri sound similar, they are — and they aren’t. Rauschenberg used refuse and junk to make painting seem freshly alive. Burri’s works are not so much paintings of ruins as ruins in themselves. They suggest a man who knows all too well that impunity is an illusion.

How did Burri end up in Texas?

The son of a winemaker and a schoolteacher, he had enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Citta di Castello, in Umbria. When he was 20, he interrupted his medical studies to volunteer for Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Between that adventure and the outbreak of World War II, he obtained a degree in medicine and surgery. He then commanded an infantry platoon in another misbegotten Italian invasion, this time of Yugoslavia. His superiors described him as “a dedicated Fascist,” and a “gifted” and “enthusiastic soldier.”

In December 1942 he was transferred to the medical corps. His younger brother, also a doctor, died a few weeks later, during the Battle of Stalingrad; his body was never recovered. “The lack of closure,” writes curator Emily Braun in the Guggenheim show’s catalog, “was perhaps the only emotional wound to which the taciturn Burri ever admitted.”

In April 1943 Burri was sent to fight in North Africa. British forces captured him less than two months later. Along with other captured Italian medical officers, he was shuttled by the Allies between camps in Algeria and Morocco, tending to the wounded on both sides.

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Along with 50,000 other Italian captives, Burri was eventually sent to the United States, where he ended up in a POW camp in Hereford, in the Texas Panhandle. Conditions in the camp were good, at first.

Within the wider war between the Allies and Axis powers, Italy was experiencing its own civil war. The Italian POWs in America were pressured to switch sides and pledge loyalty to the Italian King and the Allies. Burri resisted, out of honor and perhaps other considerations. In April 1945, as the war came to a close, POW camps like Hereford began imposing draconian conditions, especially on non-collaborators like Burri.

“Red Hunchback”
“Red Hunchback” artists rights society

Faced with hunger and chronic boredom, he began painting. When supplies of materials dried up, he took to painting on empty burlap sacks salvaged from the mess hall. He knew the material well: It had been used to separate the buckets serving as latrines in the POW camps in North Africa, and during the conflict itself for tents, sandbags, and supply sacks. Strips of it were even sewn into camouflage netting.

He was shipped back to Italy in early 1946. Rather than resume as a doctor, with all the financial security and social standing that would have entailed, he decided to be an artist.

The Italy he returned to was a smoking ruin. He disembarked in Naples, a bombed-out city seemingly beyond salvation, its people beyond illusion.

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A memorable passage in Curzio Malaparte’s novel “The Skin,” which is set in Naples after the US occupation, has an Italian officer explain to his American overlord why the tanks, guns, and machines of the triumphant Americans are met with smiles by the locals. They are thinking, he explains, “What beautiful rust!”

The work that Burri began to make in the late 1940s and early ’50s evinces a similar philosophical attitude. It was art beyond illusion. If a conventional picture began with a stretched, flat surface, designed for the presentation of pleasing illusions, Burri now proceeded to tear holes in that surface, or to cover it with fallen, ransacked things from the real world — burlap, sheet metal, paper, glue, you name it.

“Black White and Sack”
“Black White and Sack”Paolo Vandrasch and Romina Bettega/ ars

His sense of coherence, of how to arrive at a balance between concrete particulars and overall unity, was uncanny. But it all served only to crystallize the act of seeing itself — to get past illusion and on to real presence.

His ravaged, burnt, and punctured surfaces obviously call to mind Europe’s shattered cities. They also express Italy’s sheer abjection. During the war, even in its desperate last stages, there had been nobility in fighting not to die. Fighting to stay alive in its aftermath was simply humiliating. “The name of Italy,” says Malaparte’s Italian narrator, “stank in my nostrils like a piece of rotten meat.”

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Burri always tried to distance himself from the assumption that he was a painter of trauma, of scars and wounds. He wasn’t interested in metaphors or symbolism — much less catharsis or therapy. He remained virtually mute on the subject of his work, saying only two things worth reproducing: “My painting is a reality which is part of myself,” and “Painting for me is a freedom attained, constantly consolidated, vigilantly guarded.”

We associate this rhetoric of freedom with American postwar art, and specifically with the abstract expressionist art of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman — a sort of last-gasp Romanticism that happened to coincide with, and was soon overtaken by, galloping American self-confidence.

Burri’s idea of freedom, I think, was darker, more hedged. It was the freedom of a death row prisoner who stashes away smuggled cigarettes, or of — as Leonard Cohen once sang — “a drunk in a midnight choir,” trying, in his way, to be free.

In the decade after the war, Italy was so diminished that Burri knew his only hope, economically, lay in selling his work to Americans. He did, and the work was well-received. And this is where Rauschenberg reenters the story.

Although it is often noted in passing, the significance of Rauschenberg’s exposure to Burri’s work at a crucial stage in his own development has been grossly underplayed — perhaps, out of a fear that, as Braun writes, “the distinctive genius of Rauschenberg [will] lose its luster.”

There is no danger of that. Rauschenberg earned all his glory, and more. But it is as well to know that, with Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg visited Burri’s studio in Rome, twice, early in 1953. He took photographs of Burri’s New York debut at the Stable Gallery later that year, and saw more Burri works before the year was out in the Guggenheim’s “Younger European Painters.”

Upon his return from Italy, Rauschenberg reworked the black paintings he had begun at Black Mountain so that they more closely resembled the textured surfaces of similar works by Burri. He made paintings using gold leaf and dirt, both materials he had seen Burri use. And he made the first of his Combines — combinations of paint, fabric, collage, found objects, and sculptural elements that, especially in these early iterations, anyone can see are indebted to Burri.

And yet, what a different key Rauschenberg’s work is in! It’s bright, zesty, drunk on potential. It’s not exactly “brand new and terrific,” as Alex Katz, in 1961, said he wanted his own work to be. But it’s certainly optimistic, world-flooding, world-engaging, just like postwar America.

“I need Europe to make me conscious of being an American,” says Jack, the well-educated, sympathetic — and naive — American officer in Malaparte’s “The Skin.” Jack, like many American soldiers who went to Europe at the end of the war, is in awe of Europe’s history and culture.

His inferiority complex, suggests Malaparte, is not due to his American “inability to understand and forgive [Italy’s] misery and shame,” but rather “a fear of understanding, a reluctance to understand which was due to a certain delicacy of feeling.”

That delicacy of feeling — not wanting to register the full extent of another’s shame — is itself a kind of naivete, perhaps. I suspect Rauschenberg may have felt it when he visited the ex-fascist, ex-POW Burri in his Roman studio. It’s natural to find things in common, but I suspect they avoided the subject of Texas.

The intersection of biography and art history can get terribly confusing. Rauschenberg’s trip to Rome, where he met Burri, included a side trip to North Africa, the very place where Burri had been taken captive. Half a century later, Rauschenberg died in his home on the island of Captiva, just north of Naples.

Naples, that is, in Florida.

Art Review

AlbertO Burri :

The Trauma of Painting

At Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.Through Jan. 6. 212-423-3500, www.guggenheim.org


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.