Abstract Critical

Disciplined and Polished or Burn, Burri, Burn!

Written by John Bunker

Some thoughts on ‘The Indiscipline of Painting Vs Alberto Burri: Form and Matter.


Alberto Burri, Red Plastic

There’s a huge amount of ground to cover in ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’, which is fantastic news for anyone interested in developments in abstract painting over the last 50 years. A show of such scope is always as interesting for its omissions as for its inclusions… I’d like to take issue with some of the underpinning narratives at work in ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’ and to highlight alternative histories of abstraction. I’d then like to consider the Alberto Burri show at the Estorick as a way of widening the debates around the histories and potential futures of abstraction in painting.

One interesting question that ‘Indiscipline’ might be asking is this: If we remove the Greenbergian rhetoric from abstract painting or at least question it, what repressed aspects of the medium have bubbled to the surface in the last 40-odd years? It’s a good question, though I’m not sure I like all of  the curator’s answers. But having said that, the show also asks an even more fundamental question. Can abstract painting still connect to wider cultures at large? Mainly the Indiscipline answers this through making connections to commerce or design, to Pop and consumerism. I’d like to suggest how Burri’s influence might be felt in other aspects of contemporary abstract painting and how there might be much potential for the future in his work.


Ingrid Calame, Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back, 2009, Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

‘Indiscipline’ is an interesting word to use to introduce a historical painting show as we teeter on the cusp of the teens of the 21st century. Last summer saw riots in Britain’s major cities. In winter a bankrupt government warns us of the evils of personal debt and irresponsible consumerism. One cannot help but look back at the 80s and 90s in particular with a peculiar kind of twisted sobriety… (To mash-up the title of a pop ditty of the 80s).

But then again, many of these paintings seem curiously prim. Peter Davies’ ‘Small Touching Squares Painting’ 1998, for example, has a kind of prissy disquiet – is it a faux-naïve take on Op or a ‘the grid’ humanized by a ‘ghost in the machine’? But isn’t it much more fun when painting shows no aesthetic or conceptual restraint!? Davies’ ‘Super Star Fucker Andy Warhol Text Painting’ did win the 2002 John Moores Painting Prize after all…! (Those were the days…..)

Even Andy himself is similarly restrained. We are in the middle of a horrible hangover from our western world’s debt fuelled orgies of consumption. Wasn’t it all ‘supra-heated’ by the rise of the 80′s philosophy of the ‘Free Market’ with Warhol happy to play the cultural ‘master of ceremonies’ over in NY? (Or ailing court jester depending on how you feel about his wigs….) Warhol was ‘indiscipline’ personified! The Shadow Paintings of 79 are a haunting ‘two fingers up’ to High Modernist abstraction…… Even a ‘Piss Painting’ here in Warwick would have been a welcome relief – so to speak….. Alas, we get to see some under-cooked not-so Day-Glo eggs.

Nor do we get master of Day-Glo and original 80s bad boy Peter Halley in full irradiated glory… Come to think of it, maybe this show could have done with a few more of the excesses of the ‘Beastie Boys’ of art from that time. Jack Goldstein,  Ross Bleckner or Philip Taafe could have made a more edgy start to the show, where Keith Coventry’s toxic colour chart  and Neile Teroni’s ‘The Vertical Imprint of a No 50 Brush etc, etc’,  hold court. By comparison Stella’s ‘Hyena Stomp’ 1962 looks like a real raver!


Where we get the less excessive sides of Davies, Warhol and Halley, in many other works in  ‘Indiscipline’ the colour and surfaces of product and packaging design are heartily swallowed whole (Francis Baudevin) or delicately nibbled upon (Daniel Sturgis). It’s interesting to consider for a moment that what is consumed must be excreted. Modernism from its very inception has been inspired by the debris of modern life (think Cubist collage). The dilemmas of modernity tied to Capitalism and its discontents are played out in the mountains and pits of detritus that surround the world’s capital cities. It is the inchoate, the base-matter of a post-modern world that is missing from this particular brand of ‘Indiscipline’, its arguments around painting and the wider world feel too rarefied, too polished, too conceptual. The transmutability of paint and material with all their uncomfortable associations with lived experience is in short supply here. This is where, I believe, abstract painting has a special role to play in exploring human subjectivity through a dynamic interaction with the viewer. It is about engagement with the materiality of paint or any kind of matter without recourse to obvious mimesis.  And if you want to find one of the great progenitors of this alternative lineage of abstraction that is lurking in the shadows of the ‘Indiscipline’ show – then go to see ‘Alberto Burri: Form and Matter’ at the Estorick.

White Cretto, 1975 Acrovinyl on cellotex 42 x 85 cm Galleria delle Arti, Città di Castello © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri, Città di Castello, 2012

This is not simply an old didactic argument between a ‘hot’  expressionism and a ‘cold’ conceptualism. If we take a look at ‘Large White II’ 1968 or ‘White Cretto’, 1975 for instance, we can see Burri’s development of a vocabulary of materials is far from ragged or rough. Its influence can be felt in Minimalist concerns with materiality and presence. (It is interesting to know that Burri had a house in L.A for over thirty years….) ‘Black’ 1961, one of the larger pieces, exerts such a brooding presence with such limited means. By contrast ‘Red Plastic’, an example of Burri’s technique of ‘scorching’, takes hold of space and twists painting and its history inside out! Beneath what at first might seem like a seething chaotic mass is in fact a rigorous experimental approach to the expressive potential of the surfaces and materiality of the modern world, a bringing into art of detritus, the inchoate,  and the base.

Black/Nero, 1961 Scorched plastic, wood and iron, 200 x 185 cm Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome

I’m interested in abstract art as an expression of human agency operating in the cracks and fissures of an image saturated consumer society. And there are glimmers of Burri’s lineage oozing out of the corners of the ‘Indiscipline’ show, as it were. Jacob Kassay’s chemically scorched and encrusted  monochromes, dipped in liquid silver are refreshingly rude. ‘Untitled’ 2009 looks like a Glam-Rock version of a miniaturized Rothko after a heavy night out. Jane Harris’ ‘Flirt’ 2009, makes a nod and a wink to painting’s alchemical and heraldic heritage, finding raw power in restrained sensuality. The work of Stephen Parrino, Richard Tuttle and Moira Dryer is also haunted by this alternative history of abstraction. The assemblage in Dryer’s ‘The Vanishing Self-Portrait’ 1990 through shape-shifting properties, anthropomorphic qualities and the creation of ephemeral ‘situations’ forces abstraction into new and interesting psychological territories.

Flirt 2009, 107cm x 123cm (42" x 48"), oil on canvas


Post- war abstraction was lumbered with impossible ideals by its Utopian history. Abstract art as ‘healer’. Abstract art as miraculous creator of an ‘essential’ shared visual language. But we know that ‘Universal Values’ cloaked the cracks appearing in monstrous post-war colonial melt-downs. We know that an ‘all American’ art that explores notions of personal freedom was exported by the C.I.A and became a cultural pawn in a most paranoid of propaganda wars.

These are the thorny issues that Burri’s work seems to grasp with both hands. It can be seen as part of a distinctly European wake-up call from within abstraction. I believe Burri’s work almost single handedly puts abstraction back into direct relationships with life lived. It expands our sensual understanding of the world and questions the Establishment hierarchies busily at work naturalising their strangle hold on notions of taste and beauty.

Contemporary painting has become a slippery stage on which the art world slides its intellectual and monetary capital backwards and forwards within the pendulum swing of style. Does this slipperiness belie critical strategies employed by artists to comment on our image saturated late capitalist world…? Maybe. And maybe ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’ might help you decide…. I think the jury is out. But when you take a deep long look into a Burri painting the jury can stay out for as long as it takes – a Burri painting stops you in your tracks. The psycho-babble trails off into silence. All around this show, moment by moment, visceral physical presence induces an intense visual awareness. This is what abstract painting can do to you! When a painting says  ‘this is now’- it’s a ‘now’ where nothing can be taken for granted…. In politics, in painting and its history, in life itself.

But maybe this is all too much!? Burri’s work was certainly too much for Pop’s more camp excesses or Greenberg’s ‘American Type Painting’…. But like all great painting it harbours aspects of both and pushes them to new extremes to create unprecedented realms of visual experience. This is what Modernism was all about! Both shows ask: where next? But Burri’s retrospective has the advantage of channeling the power and potential of ‘dark matter’.


  1. Sam Bell said…

    I’ve seen the ‘Indiscipline’ show, and was glad that it was offered. Abstraction has been taking a critical bashing for too long (and Gabriel Josipovici’s important recent analysis of Modernism hasn’t helped the ’cause’ of abstraction). However, too much emphasis was put in the exhibition on work as design, on patterning, and there was too much constraint in evidence. I’d agree that Burri exploritory approach to creation would have added a lot to the show.

  2. Nick Moore said…

    A thought provoking article, but I think it is impossible to compare the two shows (having seen them both); you might as well compare a dull coloured piece of flat plastic with a rose. The difference is that you can take a deep long look into a Burri painting and still come back for more. None of the work in ‘Indiscipline’ stopped me in my tracks. One look was enough. There is a human vulnerability in the material density of Burri’s work and this, combined with his use of colour, is visceral. A rich experience that will stay with me and inspire me for some time. Congratulations Estoric.

  3. Tania said…

    John Bunker – thank you for this review comparing and contrasting these two exhibitions. Having made it now to both the Burri was indeed thought-provoking, particularly at this moment in time though in its defence ‘Indiscipline’ gave us here in the Midlands a great opportunity to access a wide selection of international post war abstract painting (introducing me to Moira Dryer, B.M.T.P and Jeremy Moon for example). Great, too, to be able to sit down at the end on a piece from the show, so cheers Mary Heilmann!

  4. Ann Knickerbocker said…

    To John Bunker: This is a terrfic piece. I have just written a bit about it– and about Alberto Burri’s “Grande Cretto”– on my blog http://www.artistinanaframe.blogspot.com Thank you so much for reminding me about Burri, and for your passionate defense of abstract work that engages us.

  5. Tim knight said…

    Burri,is not an artist I am familiar with, But I love the images you have chosen,They are what I would discirbe as weighty works of content,which as a painter I have always aspired to myself.I commend his thought freedom.The Message if there is a single one is perhaps” believe nothing you have been told and been lead to believe”, I certainly want this with my work.

  6. Robert Linsley said…

    I haven’t seen either show, but, from what I know of the artists your comment that the selection of works for the group show could have been better rings true. But still better, in my view, is the distinction you make between works that offer experiences and works that offer concepts.