When I mentioned in last week's program, The Best of 9/11, the captivating exhibition of Italian artist Alberto Burri currently on display at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, I was still ignorant of the most important and dramatic experience of his life. While serving as a physician in the Italian army in North Africa, he was captured in 1943 by American troops and then imprisoned for three years at a POW camp in Texas.
Now, after attending last week's lecture at the museum about the fate of nearly 50,000 Italian POW's held in the United States and reading exhibition catalog essays, I'm seeing the artworks of Alberto Burri - which I liked even before I knew the whole story - in a completely new light. His choices, especially for the early abstract collages, were often limited to decidedly unglamorous materials: burlap, bark, corrugated cardboard, sheet metal, and crushed pumice stone. Initially, I thought about these choices as purely aesthetic ones, in which he courageously rejected traditionally accepted materials and techniques. Now I know better.
Strange as it sounds, the dramatic and painful experience of being a POW in an American camp became a catalyst for change, transforming this young Italian physician into an artist whose first works were made while he was still imprisoned. With this knowledge, I look at the humble materials of his early works and I see the deprivation of his life during those years. But it's amazing what he does with all that, and how, with these limited materials, he achieves such a rich variety of dramatic effects in his art, both in composition and texture.
No Hollywood screenwriter could come up with a storyline as utterly improbable as that of Alberto Burri: a young Italian doctor, a member of the Fascist Party, a prisoner of war in an American camp in a remote area of Texas. To my astonishment, I learned that Italian POW's in America had an easier time than their German and Japanese counterparts; they played soccer, grew Italian-style vegetable gardens, cooked Italian food, built religious altars, and interacted with local Italian-American communities. After the 1943 armistice between Italy and the U.S., most Italian POWs chose to swear allegiance to the allied forces, but Burri was not among them. Throughout his life, the artist remained extremely reticent about the details of his wartime experience and years of imprisonment. It's up to us viewers to interpret the aesthetic choices made by the artist and perceive in them the echo of his personal turmoil and deprivation.
Just imagine that without all the above, he would have become - with all due respect - just a respected provincial doctor, and the history of Italian post WWII art would be deprived of the crucial impact he had on it, along with another precursor of the famous Arte Povera movement, Lucio Fontana. The trajectory of Alberto Burri's life reminds me of the words of wisdom I once heard from a very old and very wise man - that life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% what you make of it. If you need additional proof of that, take a walk through the sculpture garden on the campus of UCLA and find the monumental black ceramic wall designed by Burri to the most somber and theatrical effect. Here's a conundrum for you: in this excellent work made in 1977, you can still see the parched, cracked soil of the Texas prairie where thirty years earlier, he was just one of thousands of Italian prisoners of war.
Combustione: Alberto Burri and America
On view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through December 18
Banner image: Installation view, Combustione: Alberto Burri and America, 2010; Santa Monica Museum of Art; Photo by Kelly Barrie