Thursday, March 8, 2012

Alberto Burri's "Grande Cretto": On "Extended Wings"

"Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings."
                          from "Sunday Morning," by Wallace Stevens

"To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything."
                          Ernest Becker

I was reading a passionate review of the show "The Indiscipline of Painting," in an article called "Disciplined and Polished or Burn, Burri, Burn!" by John Bunker (read it at, 10 February 2012).  Bunker suggests that, all too often, the way contemporary abstract artists paint and the way we write about abstraction is "too rarified, too polished, too conceptual" and he insists that painting should be about "engagement with the materiality of paint or any kind of matter without recourse to obvious mimesis."  Too often, painters copy one another, copy their thoughts, copy without feeling. Bunker goes on to say that he is "interested in abstract art as an expression of human agency operating in the cracks and fissures of an image-saturated consumer society."  And he points out that the works of the artist Alberto Burri (1915-1995) are the works that put "abstraction back into direct relationship with life lived." We need this, Bunker says, and I agree completely. Painting should wake the viewer up and feel entirely part of lived life.  Bunker concludes by saying that Burri's retrospective [at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London] has "the advantage of channeling the power and potential of 'dark matter.'"

I had seen Burri's "Sacking and Red" and thought it in the same inventive, process-centered mode as the art of Robert Rauschenberg or Antoni Tapies.  Burri was part of a movement called "Art Informel," where process, not the finished work, was the point. But it wasn't until I read John Bunker's article and began thinking about it that I realized that I had already seen Burri's most powerful work of art.

My husband and I were driving through the Belice Valley in Northwestern Sicily. The countryside was beautiful, dramatic, with some agriculture, some goats and sheep, and very few people.  The houses were simple, stone with red-tile roofs.  But we began to see some unsettling vistas: deserted houses, towns where there were no people, no windows, and only the movement of a few flocks of birds and wandering dogs:

We stopped at the next populated cafe and asked.  "Oh, yes," an old woman told us, "the Belice Valley earthquake. 1968."  We went back out, stunned.  The hardest-hit places were Poggio Reale, Salaparuta, and Gibellina, all still there.  But they were so quiet; everyone had left and, worse,  no-one had ever come back.  I took another photograph:

And, soon after, we rounded a corner and saw this, and I began to take more pictures:

We drove up to the site. This is Alberto Burri's major work, called "Grande Cretto," created in the 1980's.  He kept the debris of the town of Gibellina, moved it into the even square blocks where houses had once stood, keeping the streets clear. He then covered all the destroyed houses with concrete:

You can walk through the streets, looking back at two or three once-grand houses in ruins up on the hill.  Below is the village, now the "Grande Cretto," with my husband in the corner of the first photo to give you an idea of the scale of this project:

It is a memorial, but one that has its own life. This was a more astonishing way to "see" the dead village than scattered ruins would have been.  This is what John Bunker meant, I think, by "direct relationship to life lived."

I see it as a combination of the beauty of Stevens's conclusion to "Sunday Morning" and the underlying monster in Ernest Becker's words above.  I think that powerful art addresses both beauty and the "rumble of terror."

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