At the Guggenheim, Alberto Burri Goes All Duchamp

THE DAILY PIC: In their miniature versions, Burri's pictures become concepts.

Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting October 9, 2015–January 6, 2016

Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting October 9, 2015–January 6, 2016

THE DAILY PIC (#1451): In the mid-1950s, the Italian abstractionist Alberto Burri started to make these miniature versions of his most iconic works as Christmas presents for James Johnson Sweeney, the Guggenheim director who was his biggest American fan. A full range of the minis is on view in the retrospective that Burri’s now getting at the Guggenheim in New York, which of course is also showing the full-sized versions. Not only are the miniatures my favorite thing in the entire show, but they transform how we need to read their larger avatars. The very fact that there can be avatars of a Burri automatically pulls it out of the world of the expressive, singular moment of making, which is the Jackson Pollock-ish world evoked by the distressed surfaces and angstful affect of most Burri works. Instead, we enter Marcel Duchamp territory, where works exist as free-floating ideas that can be conjured up in any number of ways, at any number of scales – I’m thinking, of course, of the various versions of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, the suitcase in which he presented tiny reproductions of all of his works.

As autonomous objects, meant to be contemplated for their emotions and aesthetics, Burri’s objects can feel oversimple and overblown. Considered instead as mere ideas for possible pictures they become more interesting, less full of themselves. They become the lab notes for experiments that Burri has run, and we can understand the experiment equally well whether the notes are in a tiny Moleskin or copied out big on a blackboard; we barely need to think at all about the particular mess left behind on the lab bench.

Considered in those terms, a burnt canvas by Burri, for instance, turns out to be closer to a wry Smithson glue-pour than to a somber Rothko meditation. (Photo by David Heald, ©Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

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