Nestled inside the sprawling yet contained space of Bergamot Station, lies the small Santa Monica Museum of Art that, until Dec 18 hosts “Combustione: Alberto Burri and America”.
Bergamot Station is one of my favourite corners of Santa Monica, especially on a grey Friday morning when the only people around are the gallery owners and a few curious souls like myself. Bergamot Station was, indeed, a station between 1875 and 1953, belonging to the Pacific Electric Rail. It then became an industrial compound with American Appliances being the longest tenant. The City of Santa Monica bought it in 1987 hoping to restore it to a station, making it the final destination of the railway project that is still supposed to run from downtown to the sea. In 1993, when American Appliances vacated the premises and it became clear that the railway was still decades away, the City asked Wayne Blank, who had just developed the Santa Monica Hangar, to turn it into an art space which has now become a must for every Los Angeleno and tourist alike.
I can’t say I was entirely familiar with Alberto Burri’s work, an Italian abstract painter who gained fame between the 50’s and 70’s. Born in Citta’ di Castello (which now houses a permanent exhibition of its most famous son) and having become a doctor in the in the early 40’s, he found himself practicing medicine at the front during the Second World War. Captured in North Africa and sent to an internment camp in Texas he abandoned his chosen profession and started to paint. His major claim to fame is the use of, until then, unlikely materials that became subsequently staples of abstract art: plastic, burlap, metal, pumice and vinyl are all to be found in the canvases on show at the museum.
Recently I have found myself more drawn to contemporary art than the old masters, probably in an effort to search for answers to more contemporary questions – I still struggle with most abstract art but if I let myself go without necessarily looking for exact meanings behind seemingly meaningless lines, it’s not so hard to find an immediacy that needs no explanations. For about 15 years, Alberto Burri spent part of every year in LA, working in a house on the Hollywood Hills and it was his LA paintings that most captured me. “Nero Plastica LA” from 1963 is a huge canvas covered in torched, black plastic – a metaphor for the consumerism of the ’60’s, the oil culture of this city, a reference to the tar pits? Or maybe all of those. Does it matter? That is what I saw. As much as I saw our desert in all the “cretti” or cracked paintings in black or white that looked like parched earth in the Mojave.
On the way out, the minuscule gift shop is a minefield of cute and hip gifts – I nearly snapped the golden hippo ($50) and the metal dog paintings ($40) before holding on to my tired credit card. Still, it beats the mall for that hard to find Christmas gift.
Santa Monica Museum of Art @ Bergamot Station Arts Center
2525 Michigan Avenue g-1
Santa Monica 310 – 586 6988
Open Tue – Sat 11 am to 6 pm
Entrance is free but a $5 donation is suggested