Alberto Burri, The Trauma of Painting.
Professor Braun, you are the guest curator of the large Alberto Burri retrospective “The Trauma of Painting” that has just opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Can you describe this long journey of yours?
I was asked four years ago by the Guggenheim, at the same time as I was working on the Leonard Lauder exhibition of Cubist art that later went to the Metropolitan Museum.
How did you set about your task?
I went to Burri’s hometown, Città di Castello, for the first time, to see his two museums and to meet with the Foundation board. At that time Maurizio Calvesi was the Chairman of the Board. I went back many times, the Board being very happy that the Guggenheim was undertaking this retrospective.
Did you work very closely with the Foundation?
I was fortunate to have a wonderful collaboration with the curator, Chiara Sarteanesi. Then I travelled a lot through Europe, looking at private collections. For Burri you really have to see his works in the flesh, because photographs don’t work.
How many pieces did you request for loan?
A hundred, but I saw many more than that.
What was your criterion for selection?
Two criteria. One was to find the works that are historically important, and also to find the works that are the best in each of his series. And a third: the works had to be chosen in concert with the journey of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda of the Guggenheim.
What is foremost in your mind when you are preparing an exhibition?
It is important for any monographic show to edit it and select it well. Every picture has to count, and you have to think about grouping and sequences.
Are there any particular masterpieces in the Burri oeuvre?
Yes, there are masterpieces that I looked for. For instance, Lo strappo, (The Rip, 1952), part of the Beatrice Monti della Corte collection. Another one is the Grande Sacco, (Big Sack, 1952), from the Galleria D’Arte Moderna in Rome. Another one is the Gobbo Rosso, (Red Hunchback, 1956), from a private collection. And then the Legno, Wood, of the Guggenheim Collection (1957), and then the extraordinary Ferro, (Steel, 1959-60) from the GAM in Torino. And then Plastica-Nero (1962) that belongs to a collection of the MoMA. We also have a beautiful transparent plastic coming from the Glenstone Collection (1963), and a Cretto Nero from the Pompidou (1975).
Is it true that in Burri’s work there is little or no paint, as Milton Gendel wrote?
Yes, in some cases there is no paint, in others very little.
What kind of artist is Burri?
Cesare Brandi called Burri’s work ‘the unpainted painting’ in regard to the Sacchi. I think that Burri is a Neorealist, like the cinema. I make a reference about this in my essay in the catalogue of the show. He is a material realist, but the work is grounded in the fact of the materials, and they have a tactile quality. I think that what people are responding to in the exhibition, as Giulio Carlo Argan wrote, is that Burri’s pictures want to be touched.
Do you consider him a solitary artist, or is he part of a group of a period?
He exhibited all over Europe and America, but he did not self-promote or join movements. He did not network, the way Fontana did.
Do you consider him an important artist?
Yes, very influential, and very well known in the fifties and early sixties all over the Western world.
Did he then fall into oblivion?
No, he was always well known in Europe, and then attention turned elsewhere, to minimalism, Arte Povera. Part of the reasons are the cycles of taste. By the mid-sixties the younger generation liked Pistoletto, Schifano, Anselmo, Boetti, the generation of post-minimalism, process art, conceptual art. Burri’s work was influential on the artists of Arte Povera. What I tried to draw out in the exhibition and catalogue was how other artists like Cy Twombly or Lee Bontecou knew of Burri’s work, and how much of his work deals with the body in a way that anticipates feminist art. This comes out in the sewing and the stitching in the body, and the use of material hidden parts.
Why do you see that the Guggenheim is the right place to show Burri?
For two reasons. The first is because of the long history of the institution with Burri, as the second director of the museum James Johnson Sweeney acquired three of Burri’s important works for the Guggenheim in 1955, and he wrote the first important book about him. Secondly, because of the way that the architecture unfolds up the ramp at the Guggenheim I realised that it was an ideal installation to have series unfold, ramp by ramp.
Are you pleased with the result?
Yes, I am pleased by the way the works are displayed in the building, both the views across the rotunda and in each grouping.
Do you think that Burri is one of the major artists of the second part of the 20th century?
Yes I do, because he invented a new approach to art, by creating pictures out of readymade material, common material, and they have this emotional power. When you look at a Burri you also feel it, and he really is a bridge figure for the first and second half of the 20th century art. He is an artist’s artist. Artists really relate to his work.
What is the critical judgement on the Burri exhibition?
In this exhibition critics are having the opportunity to see his work in depth and in a larger international context. There is great interest and the reaction is very positive. What I keep hearing from people who visit the exhibition is how relevant the work is, and it deepens our understanding on how complex post-war European art was. That is challenging for the usual way in which the history of modern art since 1945 has been written.
After having curated the Leonard Lauder Cubist collection for the Metropolitan and the Burri exhibition for the Guggenheim, what are your new projects?
I have various essays that I am writing, one of which is on Gustav Klimt’s portraiture, and another is on Cubism; and there is a show that I cannot yet discuss!
What show would you ideally love to do?
I would love to do a show on L’Ottocento Italiano, the Italian 800, and Il Risorgimento, not just Macchiaioli and symbolism. There is a lot of Italian narrative painting that has never been shown in the USA.
15th October, 2015
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Portrait of Emily Braun © 2014 MMA, photograph by Jackie Neale.