Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting was at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from Oct. 9, 2015, to Jan. 6, 2016, and is at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf from March 5 to July 3, 2016.
Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1935-1954 is on at the Museum of Modern Art through May 1, 2016.
Frank Stella, A Retrospective was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from Oct. 30, 2015, to March 7, 2016. It will be at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas from Apr. 17 to Sept. 4 and the De Young Museum in San Francisco from Nov. 5 to Feb. 26, 201
NEW YORK: BURRI, POLLOCK, STELLA.
Alberto Burri was one of the giants of European matériel painting. The enormous exhibition, Alberti Burri, The Trauma of Painting, which at first occupied almost all of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and is now at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, presented numerous works from not quite a dozen series in the artist’s richly varied career. The exhibition was accompanied by a thoroughly researched catalogue of 279 pages. It argues persuasively that Burri’s artistic vocabulary emerged directly from his life experience.
Take for instance the “laborious sewing… stitching” and folding of Burri’s Sacchi (sackcloth paintings). Burri lived in Città di Castello, a mere half-hour’s bike ride away from Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, with, as Burri’s friend Sandra Blow recalls, its “mobile folds” of drapery “scrunched and tucked by laces.” The artist’s extensive military experience in Ethiopia, Yugoslavia and Tunisia, much of it as a doctor in the medical corps, required him not only to suture battle wounds but also to sew repairs in his own uniform. The exhibition curator Emily Braun writes, “Burri undoubtedly had images of combat wounds seared into his mind, not to mention the muscle memory of suturing actions.”
After being captured by the British in 1943, the artist was incarcerated along with around 5,000 other prisoners of war at Hereford, Texas, in a bleak and spare facility where the latrines might be just a few buckets separated by curtains of burlap, which was also used for tents, supply sacks and sandbags. It was one of the few materials on which Burri could paint so as to have a “way of not having to think about the war and everything around me.” For Braun, Burri’s continued use of sackcloth after the war is not only a reprise of his war-time experience but also exemplary of “the reality of contemporary [post-war] Italy as a mendicant state” and is reminiscent of “the abject poverty of St. Francis of Assisi.”
The Cretti (craquelure or crazing paintings) were, Burri argued, “specifically inspired by visits to the arid landscape of Death Valley in California.” The lifeless aridity of that place must have been compelling, as was the sight of the town of Gibellina in Sicily after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1968, killing more than 500 people and leaving 90,000 homeless. Burri’s tribute to Gibellina was to construct over some 16 acres his Grande cretto (Large Cretto, 1985-89), which now covers the ruined city. That work is the subject of a compelling movie shown at the retrospective.
Such art-historical questions have their interest and might lay the foundation for critical concerns, but issues of aesthetic essence and quality are approached only sporadically in this text. One would want to know more about why these paintings move us (if they do), that is, how they function aesthetically, and what their level of artistic quality might be.
Burri consistently declined to assist historians and critics who hoped to unearth the content of his art, preferring to emphasize instead “a whole chain of pulls and tension,” “architectonic structure,” “unbalanced equilibrium,” and other such purely formal concerns.
Braun’s analysis prioritizes a presumed “redemptive” quality of the work, which she locates in “degradation and attempted restoration,” in “[c]onflicting perceptions… of organic disintegration and pictorial integrity,” and impoverished materials [that] create something whole and rich out of nothing.“ In this she takes off after the celebrated argument of James Johnson Sweeney:
“Burri transmutes rubbish into a metaphor for human, bleeding flesh. He vitalizes the dead materials in which he works, makes them live and bleed; then sews up the wounds evocatively and as sensuously as he made them.”
Thus, to Marcia Brennan, Burri’s artistic process was “one of quasi-miraculous healing.” But Braun goes beyond this idea of reparation. While she might plausibly have invoked the Melanie Klein/Hanna Segal concept of reparation[i] and stopped there, she instead unconvincingly expands the argument to make Burri’s enterprise into an attempt at “representing consciousness to and within the beholder,” whatever such “representing” might mean. And at times she is even less persuasive, as when she writes that “Burri made medium, not form, the content of his pictures,” a statement betraying an unprofessional understanding of the term “content.”[ii] And one wonders what concept of art could possibly underlie her assertions that “Burri “illuminates our perception of white in myriad ways, and some Cellotex paintings “investigate the properties of black.” Why and how would such an investigation be of meaningful significance?
Braun would have done better to take into account Burri’s own words. He wanted a “way of not having to think about the war and everything around me.” The relevant concept is surely that of “psychical distance,” as expounded by not only Edward Bullough in his widely cited yet controversial article,[iii] but also Georg Hegel, Walter Pater, and Benedetto Croce, among others.
So where is the greatest quality in Burri’s oeuvre? Not, I would say, in the Catrami (tar paintings), which obviously came before Burri’s maturity. As interesting as the concept of protruding surfaces may be, the Gobbi (hunchback paintings) strike me as not-yet-fully-realized exemplars of Burri’s notion that “all of my paintings are based on the idea of invasive space.” The Legni (wood veneer works) are too often vitiated by excessive regularity in the rhyming shapes of their laminate elements. With the exception of Grande ferro M 3 (Large Iron M3, 1959), I find the Ferri to be compositionally weak, as if the laborious task of managing weighty steel plates impinged on decisions about layout, and indeed, Emily Braun and her co-author Carol Stringari acknowledge that “reduced compositions characterize the bulk of the series.” The Cretti likewise are too often compositionally trite. The supposed link of their occasional “lunette shape” to “Renaissance altarpieces and chapel walls” does not convince me of their aesthetic force. And the late Cellotex paintings (fiberboard panel works) mostly seem embarrassingly weak, with their surface variation being too minimal to be effective. Was Burri’s inspiration tailing off at the end of his career? I believe it was.
The Muffe (molds, that is, works with a ground-pumice surface) initiated what I take to be Burri’s greatest strength: a rich array of varied surface patterns that call to mind Matisse’s so-called pattern paintings, such as The Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908). I particularly admire Muffa (1952). Of the Bianchi (white paintings), the one I admire the most, Bianco (ca. 1949), is in all but name a Muffa.
The Sacchi (sackcloth paintings) were the works that first established Burri’s reputation. To Braun, they can be richly referential, “unmistakably” suggesting “genitalia, pubic hair, and dried bodily fluids.” A “viscous texture… mimics a scab in formation.” Burri’s “stitching… replicates the techniques of skin grafting.” To Braun some of the holes in the Sacchi are “akin to Christian reliquaries.” Perhaps. Perhaps not. In any case, none of this explains why and when the Sacchi are at their best as visual objects of contemplation.
Burri’s colour vocabulary is distinctively limited, almost entirely confined to red, white, black and brown. Often he uses not much more than one of the four, demonstrating a considerable gift for monochrome. I find the best Sacchi to be those that play off the unity of a narrow range of hues – within one or at most two colour scales – against a near dizzying array of different though shallow surface depths and a plethora of different textural patterns. Composition (1953) and Nero con punti rossi (Black with Red Stitches, 1956), for example, are much superior to the multi-coloured Sacco e bianco (Sackcloth and White, 1953).
Among the innovative Combustioni plastiche (burned plastic works), I was moved only by the monochromatic black paintings. The rather haphazard Rosso plastica-R (Red Plastic-R, 1962) cannot stand up to the stuffed and fulsome Nero plastica (Black Plastic) (1965).
In the end, I was disappointed to find that only a small number of works in the exhibition moved me deeply. The success ratio was not what I had anticipated. Perhaps better combustioni plastiche have been exhibited in commercial galleries recently. Perhaps the exhibition would have benefited from some editing. Burri is an important artist, but I have no doubt that he is not on the level of Jackson Pollock.
Jackson Pollock, who has already been given two impressive retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art (1967 and 1998-99), is represented by 56 works from the museum’s permanent collection in Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1935-1954. There is no catalogue for the exhibition, but it does bring attention to some lesser known aspects of Pollock’s oeuvre, especially the artist’s print making. It’s illuminating to see how Pollock moved from state to state in making his etchings, with several variants presented side by side. Pollock’s interest in innovative techniques – well known in his paintings – is revealed to extend also to his works on paper. To make Untitled (ca. 1951), we are informed, Pollock “stacked several sheets of absorbent Japanese paper, applied ink to the top sheet, and then allowed it to seep through, forming the same but less distinct composition on each successive sheet” and thus invented a kind of staining.
Pollock’s intense involvement with art history is well known. Clement Greenberg once remarked to one of my colleagues that of the very many artists he had met, Pollock and Morris Louis were the two most knowledgeable about art. William Rubin persuasively traced out many of Pollock’s art-historical interests in a series of 1967 essays in Artforum, and the exhibition Jackson Pollock: Early Sketchbooks and Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum in 1997-1998 documented Pollock’s intense involvement with Renaissance art and the Mexican muralists, in particular.
The Flame (ca. 1934-1938) abounds with suggestions of Jose Clemente Orozco, the great Mexican muralist whose Prometheus (1930) at Pomona College was cited by a youthful Pollock as “the greatest contemporary painting in North America.” The central image is the blazing flames into which Prometheus thrust his hands, and the skeleton at the bottom is reminiscent of Orozco’s mural, Gods of the Western World at Dartmouth College, which Pollock had seen in 1936. The Flame is not yet a mature work. Nonetheless, the vigorous, rhythmical brushstrokes carrying the eye in various directions trump any borrowings and make clear how well influenced Pollock was, able to assimilate his sources into a thoroughly personal transmutation of their iconography and style.The subject matter of the lithograph Landscape with Steer (ca.1936-37) might suggest Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock’s teacher at the Art Students’ League, but it has none of Benton’s signature spatial determinacy, and the airbrushed lacquer additions probably owe to David Alfonso Siqueiros’ 1936 Experimental Workshop, a Laboratory of Modern Techniques in Art in New York, which Pollock attended. Other landscapes influenced by Benton can show the impact of Rubens, Michelangelo, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and especially El Greco; David Anfam would add Turner to the list.
The Mexicans are only one of the many modern influences that Pollock assimilated. There’s shimmering late Monet, Picasso’s fragmentation of the image, Matisse’s colour, the angst of German Expressionism, Kandinsky’s freedom of handling, Surrealist automatism, the materiality of American Indian sand painting, and a great deal more. Clearly, Pollock is exemplary of Michael Fried’s concept of the “all-together” painter, an omnivorous artist who assimilates a great range of art history, such as Fried argued Manet had done. No wonder that Alfonso Ossorio said that Pollock “had pulled together… all the traditions of the past.”
The exhibition helps to clarify the path of Pollock’s evolution towards his poured-and-spattered all-over masterpieces of 1947-1950. His engravings, with their inherent heightened linearity, seem to have played a significant role. Untitled (ca. 1944-45), Pollock’s most finished engraving, is a convincing example. It already has the all-overness and the heightened, inter-weaving linearity of works like One: Number 31, 1950.
It has been said that nineteenth-century artists would sometimes aim to “establish the oppositions” and work from the resultant tension. Elizabeth Langhorne found in Pollock a desire for a “union of opposites.” Her idea is consistent with Pollock’s comment that the fusion of two musketballs that had collided in mid-air – a Unionist and a Confederate one that he had seen in the Gettysburg National Military Park – was art. Pollock’s work is replete with tension: troubling ambiguity in the distinction between male and female (especially in the painting of that name); abstraction versus the image, which he often said he “veiled;” innovation versus immersion in tradition; alloverness in tension with rhythm or inflection; crudity of application versus decorative elegance, resulting in what William Rubin described as not just tranquility but an “almost Rococo fragility and grace;” tenderness versus aggression, and in Alfonso Ossorio’s words, “human action” versus “inertia.” As B.H Friedman argued in his biography of Pollock, we can see “the images of father and mother, male and female, the whole dichotomy of active and passive principles being resolved in art.”
This exhibition did not address Pollock’s sources of inspiration, but they can be illuminating and should be considered more often. Stanley William Hayter has said that Pollock “could talk intelligently about the source of inspiration and the limits of working from the unconscious,” but art historians are frequently loath to consider how “human needs and motives” (Pollock’s words) infuse art. Tate Modern posts an illuminating audio commentary, not by an art historian but by a doctor, beside Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A (1948). It suggests that Pollock’s choice of his signature poured-and-spattered method was not simply his critical assessment of an opening left unexploited by Hans Hofmann, nor the influence of Siqueiros’ dripping as a preparatory technique, nor his response to Stanley William Hayter’s method of dripping paint at Atelier 17. Rather, it was an unconscious attempt to positivize a painful experience – the accidental severing in his youth (age eleven) of one third of his right index finger in a woodchopping accident, with its frightening and painful spurt of blood. He needed to turn uncontrollably flowing fluids into something pleasurable and controlled in art and so transcend the embarrassing mutilation he had suffered. Perhaps this is the deepest reason why Pollock asserted, “I don’t use the accident ’cause I deny the accident.”
As is well known by now, after three biographical studies of the artist, Pollock’s life was full of unresolved tensions and ambiguities: doubts about his sexual orientation, uncertain relations with women in general and his mother in particular, a troubled relationship with a frequently absent father. There were more than enough reasons for Pollock to want to set up and resolve tensions in his art, not just as transference, a removal from his life as he lived it, but also as reparatory respite from the tribulations of that tumultuous life.
Regrettably, we will never know where he could have taken the staining techniques he invented, nor see the junk-iron sculpture he hoped to make. I remain convinced that in 1950 Jackson Pollock was as great as any painter in the world. Perhaps the greatest.
Frank Stella is one of the most widely exhibited of all American artists. The catalogue for the Whitney’s retrospective suggests some of the qualities rendering his art so popular with museum curators. Adam D. Weinberg, Director of the Whitney, emphasizes Stella’s “attitude and method: his impulsiveness, willingness to take risks…his commitment to using the tools at hand; and his persistence in solving a problem.” Stella was a serious thinker, tackling the question of “how to be original and subvert tradition.”
Michael Auping, Chief Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, argues, “For Stella… logic trumped emotion” and quotes Stella in support: “Paint and canvas are not spiritual.” Stella “absorbed the American pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, who envisioned art as an everyday activity in which problems are identified and worked through in a series of logical steps.” Such a view of the artist is re-inforced by his famous statement, “What you see is what you see.” The advantage of this unemotional pragmatism, as the artist John Baldessari observed, was that:
“Stella’s Protractors were at the time the essence of the clean, well-made, and broadly understood abstract painting. It was the perfect example of popular abstraction.”
But that advantage came at a cost. In 1964 Brian O’Doherty wrote that Stella’s paintings “announce… a new response to living life—one that is anti-emotion, anti-human, anti-art.”
Much of the argumentation in favour of Stella has been in accord with this “pragmatic” view of him. Michael Fried, Stella’s classmate at Harvard, set the tone in his influential Artforum essay, “Shape as Form,” in 1966: “Frank Stella’s new paintings investigate the viability of shape as such.” Today such an “investigation” seems less convincing that it once did, with a questionable aesthetic foundation, and it seems to me a secondary, unconvincing basis for claims of aesthetic merit. I find it hard to credit that such a logical, problem-based art practice is so laudable. Sometimes I find Stella to be emotionally limited, maybe even emotionally impoverished. But perhaps this focused practicality is the other side of a more manic self.
Another supposed strength cited by Auping is that Stella resisted “Clement Greenberg’s dictum that an abstract painting should read as a flat, material image, a visually inert plane, lacking depth or atmosphere.” No reference is given, and the trouble is that Greenberg did not say that. Greenberg often complained that his position was purely descriptive – simply an explanation of what had happened in painting from Manet on – but it was too often misinterpreted as prescriptive. He may have admired the indeterminate space of Jackson Pollock and Jules Olitski, but to him flatness was not a desideratum but merely a fact of painting – it mostly occurs on flat surfaces that become the locus of whatever tensions the artist chooses to establish, and the artist must necessarily take that fact into account.
Auping is more persuasive when he cites William Rubin’s account of Stella’s question, “How much could he subsume from the neighboring plastic arts of sculpture and architecture and still be making painting?” In the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures of 1983-4 at Harvard University Stella argued that contemporary abstract art was in a predicament, trapped in ambiguous space, “spatially impoverished,” and “no longer available to feeling.” He concluded it needed instead “a real sense of space.” While he admired Caravaggio, he did not think he could go back to traditional space. Rather, in an impressive show of self-criticism, he would turn to “real space” because “painting has always wanted to be real.” Hence the Moby Dick series, the later sculptures, and so much else.
Given the vast range of Stella’s work over almost sixty years, some debate over where he is at his best is inevitable. Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker seems to prefer the irregular polygons and the Protractors. Robert Linsley in abstractcritical writes, “For me, the high point of Stella’s late career is the Moby Dick series.” For Robin Greenwood in abstractcritical, the high point is the multiple Protractor series, with works like Harran II (1967). Pac Pobric, in a scathing review in The Art Newspaper, plumps for the work before1966. There doesn’t seem to be as much support for the later, “maximalist” works as there is for the more influential and minimal work of the late 1950s and the 1960s.
But at times the unity of these earlier Stellas is too pat, not at all the hard-won unity that is so moving in Cézanne, Picasso or Pollock. Perhaps Fried’s concept of “deductive structure,” which under pressure he later changed to “acknowledgement,” was not sufficiently dialectical to persuade, although I and many others did find it persuasive at the time. In any case, I am not convinced by the deadpan regularity of Ophir (1960-61), Palmito Ranch (1961) and Gran Cairo (1962). Even the Protractor series can too often be overly predictable and excessively orderly, despite its spatial interweaving.
At other times there is a burdensome jumble of disparate elements. I would not call this horror vacui but rather a sign that Stella can be so carried away in the sheer, exhilarating pleasure of making that he can’t bring himself to stop creating more and more unlikely juxtapositions, of working with yet more and different materials, so that he doesn’t even ask the question as to when he should stop this relentless accumulation. How else to explain the unfortunate, incoherent jumble of works like Organdie (1998), the excessively busy sculpture kandampat (2002), or the bloated hodgepodge, Das Erbeben in Chili [N#3] (1999)? Surely it was a curatorial lapse to include such works in the retrospective.
But in the end, Stella’s ability to critique his own practice, to reinvent himself, to take the risk of both extremely minimal and utterly “maximal” work, is impressive. I find faults with much of his oeuvre, and I wish he would edit more strenuously than he does, but there is much to admire in his richly varied career. Works like the Black painting, Arundel Castle (1959), Empress of India (1965), the irregular polygon Moutonville II (1966), some of the Moby Dick series, and even a few of the late, excoriated sculptures, especially the monochromatic ones, have staying power. Stella may lack the profundity of Pollock, but his position in art history is, I should think, despite all his faults, secure.
[i] Hanna Segal, “A Psycho-analytical Approach to Aesthetics,” International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 23 (1952), pp. 196-207.
[ii] Erwin Panofsky’s articulation of three levels of meaning, with content occurring only at the third level, is particularly helpful. See his distinction between iconography and iconology in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939).
[iii] Edward Bullough, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology, 5 (1912), pp. 87-117.