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Art review: 'Combustione: Alberto Burri and America' at the Santa Monica Museum of Art

October 17, 2010 |  5:30 pm

Grande Bianco Plastica Now that the world has gone global, much is made about artists getting around more than they used to. It’s not uncommon for a painter to have been born in one country, educated in another and to live and work in two or three others, often on different continents. Many commentators believe that such globetrotting cosmopolitanism results in greater cross-pollination — artistic hybrids that make wonderfully strange bedfellows of disparate traditions.

That did not happen in 1963, when Italian artist Alberto Burri bought a home in the Hollywood Hills, where he spent winters until 1991. For all intents and purposes, Burri (1915-95) could have been anywhere. His view of the Valley must have been lovely, but his works from those winters are not about their surroundings nor do they bear significant evidence of the place they were made.

This may bother city boosters, but it takes nothing away from “Combustione: Alberto Burri and America,” a smartly selected and seriously fascinating exhibition of the artist’s signature works at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Organized by deputy director Lisa Melandri, with assistance from independent scholar Michael Duncan, the eye-opening survey is exactly the right size: big enough to reveal the scope and depth of Burri’s talent and small enough so that every detail matters. Both intimate and expansive, the show reveals an artist focused on transforming gritty urban detritus into increasingly elegant abstractions.

  Burri Installation

Its size allows you to spend ample time with each of its 25 paintings (from 1951 to 1986) and suite of 10 prints (from 1990) without wearing yourself out. Concentration counts: The more closely you look, the more you see.

Burri specialized in wresting subtle indications of mortality from grubby materials. His works carry on a sophisticated conversation with one another, sometimes seeming to whisper across time and space. Eventually, the feeling that you’re eavesdropping gives way to a participatory sense of give and take. It’s a pleasure to revisit pieces after seeing others, which change first impressions and yield deeper, more resonant insights.

The first three works on display demonstrate Burri’s capacity to make much out of little. Using burlap, coarse thread, broken bits of pumice, scraps of metal, torn patches of fabric and some forlorn dabs of tarry black, dirty white and rusty red pigment, he manages to evoke both futility and persistence. Each of these works, “Mold” (1951), “White” (1952) and “Composition” 1953, is an abstract drama in which humble, human gestures collide with forces beyond anyone’s control. Burri removes his hand from his art, along with any indication of facility or virtuosity, to intensify its anonymity. Paradoxically, this makes his works all the more moving and intimate.

Each is a world unto itself. “Mold” suggests the carcasses of rodent-like figures, either decaying slowly or being obliterated by a ferocious explosion. “White” resembles a ruined building or a collage cobbled together in the aftermath of some cataclysm. And “Composition” calls to mind field surgery, wounds stitched together in desperation.

Burri  Installation 2Each of the remaining seven pieces from the 1950s and the five from the ’60s is unlike any other, its atmosphere distinct, singular, intense. Burri shows himself to be a master at conveying darkness and dread without giving in to futility or despair. Abrasive lyricism suffuses his best works.

Before becoming an artist, Burri was a doctor in the Italian Army. Captured in Tunisia by U.S. troops in 1943, he was held as a prisoner of war in Texas, where he started to paint rough landscapes. In 1946 he was shipped back to Italy. He abandoned his medical career, moved to Rome from Umbria and took up art.

Today, he is renowned in Europe and less famous — but by no means unknown — in the U.S. Part of that has to do with him being a recluse here, where he moved for his health and the dancing career of his wife, Minsa Craig. But it’s also because of his works getting increasingly elegant and tasteful and, by the late ’70s, almost formulaic. The show includes only six paintings Burri made after 1976.

With great efficiency and too many highlights to count, “Combustione: Alberto Burri and America” tells the story of an artist who lived in his own head, making work that followed its own potent logic.

— David Pagel

“Combustione: Alberto Burri and America,” Santa Moncia Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, through Dec. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays. 310-586-6488, www.smmoa.org

Images: Top, Alberto Burri, Grande Bianco Plastica; Middle and Bottom, Installation Views 

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