image credits
Italian soldiers during the Italo-Ethiopian War, Amba Aradam, 1935. From left: Alberto Burri, Ivo Serafini, Giuseppe Gentil, and Facondo Andreoli. Photo courtesy Mariella Andreoli, Città di Castello, Italy

Alberto Burri was born on March 12, 1915, in Città di Castello, a small town in the Umbria region of Italy. His father was a wine merchant and his mother an elementary school teacher. As a young student he was undistinguished in academics and mostly interested in soccer, although from an early age he admired the works of Renaissance art that filled the churches of Umbria and Tuscany, including frescoes by Giotto and Piero della Francesca. In 1940 he received a degree in medicine from the Università degli Studi di Perugia. While still in medical school he joined the Italian military forces when Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. He then served in World War II, first as a frontline soldier and then as a physician. His only sibling, Vittorio Burri, also a doctor, was killed on the Russian front. During the North African campaign, British forces captured Burri’s unit in La Marsa, Tunisia, in May 1943. After being transferred to different prisoner-of-war camps in North Africa, where he continued to work as a physician to the wounded and sick, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war facility for Italian soldiers in Hereford, Texas. Disaffected by war and by his internment, Burri took up painting in an autodidactic, figurative style and never practiced medicine again.

In August 1945, a local U.S. Army chaplain assisted the Hereford prisoners in organizing Mostra d’arte dei prigionieri di Hereford (Art exhibition of the Hereford prisoners) in the empty officers’ barracks. More than 200 works were displayed, from original compositions to impressive copies of old masters. Burri submitted only one work, a chess set, which he carved from wood with a razor blade and presented in the craft section. Burri’s artistic output in Hereford otherwise consisted of still life and landscape oil paintings. The YMCA provided art supplies to some prisoners, and others ordered paints, canvases, and easels from Sears, Roebuck and Company. When supplies dwindled in spring 1945, Burri salvaged empty burlap sacks from the mess hall to paint on.

In February 1946, Burri was repatriated to Italy and set up a modest studio in Rome; he traveled back and forth from there to Città di Castello, where he also maintained a studio. Rome was home to a vibrant art community after the war; Mussolini had permitted avant-garde styles during his regime, and many artists who worked during the Fascist period provided continuity with European modernism. Futurism left a strong legacy of abstract art and collage practices such as Tactilism and arte polimaterica (“multimaterial” art). Burri exhibited with the Rome Art Club, run by former Futurist Enrico Prampolini, and was briefly affiliated in 1950–51 with Ettore Colla and Giuseppe Capogrossi, the artists associated with the Fondazione Origine. He also befriended the American painter Nicolas Carone (who had been a student of Hans Hofmann) and the Chilean-born Surrealist Matta (Roberto Antonio Sebastián Matta Echaurren), both of whom had settled in Rome and were at the center of an international network of artists.

After his first solo exhibition at the Galleria La Margherita in 1948, Burri visited Paris in the company of Sandra Blow, a young English artist with whom he remained close throughout his life. There he was influenced by Joan Miró’s collages and Jean Dubuffet’s and Jean Fautrier’s thickly painted hautes pâtes (high impasto) works incorporating tar and pumice stone. Surrealist automatism undoubtedly helped shape Burri’s own creativity with materials, but his work always entailed a precarious tension between chaos and control.

He and Blow traveled throughout Italy on an artistic pilgrimage, viewing masterpieces of Renaissance and baroque art. In these works, Burri perceived modernist abstract elements of form and space and the push-and-pull dynamic between depth and surface flatness. The splendid detail with which the old master artists rendered garments, drapery folds, and sartorial details such as ruching and lacing also deeply influenced Burri, as seen in his burlap Sacchi (sacks). The intonaco or white ground of peeling frescoes, and the cracked surfaces of oil and panel painting, weathered by the years, would be elaborated in his series, such as the Bianchi (whites) and Cretti, which explored the processes of time and decay.

Upon his return to Rome, Burri embarked on a radical redefinition of painting. Experimenting with tarry substances, ground pumice, desiccated pigments, and Vinavil (a brand of polyvinyl acetate or PVA resin), he produced his Catrami (tars) and Muffe (molds) series. Christian Zervos featured one of Burri’s Catrame in the January 1950 issue of the influential French art magazine Cahiers d’Art. Burri was the first to create protruding, sculptural canvases, which he called Gobbi (hunchbacks); one of these was exhibited as early as 1951 in the important postwar show Arte astratta e concreta in Italia (Abstract and concrete art in Italy), organized by the Rome Art Club and held at the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna.

In 1950 Burri pieced together his first true Sacco made from pieces of cast-off burlap bags. These assemblages reformulated modernist collage practices; they also represented a new type of natural monochrome. Instead of constructing a work out of disparate substances or found objects, Burri fashioned his pictures out of a dominant material that formed a sheath-like membrane, which he worked from the front and the back. In the early 1950s he developed the Sacchi, incorporating preexisting seams, stains, patches, and holes, as well as adding his own. He also introduced his Bianchi at this time, which explored the different qualities of white as a color and used bits of paint-swiped rags and soiled household linens.

The Catrami, Gobbi, Muffe, Bianchi, and especially the Sacchi garnered him national and international acclaim—and scorn. He exhibited his Neri (blacks) and Muffe at the Galleria dell’Obelisco in 1952, a center for the international avant-garde in Rome, run by Gaspero del Corso and Irene Brin. The latter was the Rome correspondent for Harper’s Bazaar, which featured a fashion spread set against Burri’s show at the Stable Gallery, New York, in the September 1955 issue. Exhibitions at the Fondazione Origine in 1953 and the Galleria dell’Obelisco in 1954 pushed Burri and his Sacchi into the forefront of the Italian art scene. His first solo exhibitions in the United States took place in 1953 at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, Chicago, and the Stable Gallery, New York; that same year his work appeared in Younger European Painters: A Selection organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In 1955 The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, also set the stage for the American reception of postwar European art when it, like the Guggenheim show, traveled to venues across the country. While such exhibitions were critical to Burri’s early success, they also pigeonholed him incorrectly, in the company of his peers, as an artist of the Informel style of gestural abstraction.

In fact, by the early 1950s, Burri’s new material realism provided an antidote to the overly subjective and existential angst of postwar painting, specifically the work of the American Abstract Expressionists and the practitioners of European Tachism. He and his compatriot Lucio Fontana, though very different in their approaches, engaged in a dialogue as they punctured and sliced through their painting supports. Their work influenced a younger generation of European artists such as those affiliated with Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) in France and the Zero group in Germany. Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly also took note: they visited Burri’s studio and the Galleria dell’Obelisco when they resided in Rome in the fall of 1952 and spring of 1953.

Burri neither set out to destroy painting nor to provoke; instead he expressed the trauma of recent history, his personal experiences, and the ruined condition of postwar Europe by working with and through materials in such a way that they present actual damage, repair, and vulnerability. He “wounded” art in order to emphasize a basic humanity and the dignity in salvaging even the most forlorn and negligible things. References to painting––its structure, supports, and surfaces––and painterly effects such as chiaroscuro modeling, texture, form, and composition are paramount to Burri’s “unpainted painting” even as they are manifested in nontraditional mediums. What disappeared was illusionism and fictive space, as Burri ripped through the picture plane and created multiple layers of relief with interstitial spaces and hidden recesses. In contrast to his contemporaries, Burri focuses the viewer’s attention on the tactile, or the sense of touch, inviting him or her to probe the picture, resulting in a more acute multisensory experience. In this way, his work anticipated process art and Post-Minimalism of the 1960s.

In 1955 Burri began a new technique using combustion to create small collages made of charred bits of paper that landed in chance arrangements on a sheet of paper coated with PVA, where they were extinguished and congealed. He then used an oxyacetylene torch to burn, melt, and scorch industrial materials in prefabricated colors on a large scale. These series included the Legni (woods) made of wood veneer and the Combustioni plastiche (plastic combustions) wrought from plastic sheeting used for packaging and tarps. The latter series developed his themes of the monochrome in new directions, with solid red, black, and colorless plastic melted and modeled into viscous membranes and undulating baroque reliefs. His combustion technique was on full view in 1956 at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris in a show with sculptor César (Baldaccini) presented by the French critic Michel Tapié. Burri also enjoyed a solo exhibition the following year at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, which traveled to venues throughout the United States. The Combustione plastiche were first shown at the Marlborough Galleria d’arte, Rome, in 1962, and then at the gallery’s London and New York locations.

Welded metal reliefs of sheared cold-rolled steel, straight from the factory, comprised Burri’s Ferri (irons) series. These materials often incorporated factory inscriptions and oxidized surfaces, and the overall effect of the works could feel threatening to the viewer, with their imposing physicality and jagged edges. The series debuted at the Galleria Blu in Milan in 1958. Two years later, Burri was the only artist to have work displayed in both the historic section (a Sacco) and in the installation of contemporary art (a Ferro) in the pivotal exhibition New Forms––New Media I, organized by the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, which signaled the shift from Abstract Expressionism to Neo-Dada and Pop. In 1961 he was one of the key artists included in William Seitz’s The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art.

Throughout his career Burri was championed by James Johnson Sweeney, the second director of the Guggenheim Museum, who authored the first monograph on Burri in 1955, published by the Galleria dell’Obelisco, among other texts on the artist. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Burri’s works were regularly seen in the Venice Biennale, the Pittsburgh International exhibitions at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, and in Documenta II and III in Kassel, Germany.

In 1955 Burri married the American dancer-choreographer Minsa Craig, who had been in Rome in the early 1950s touring with the Martha Graham Dance Company. From 1963 until 1991 they wintered in Los Angeles, where the artist began a dialogue with Minimalism, working with increasingly reductive and serial abstract imagery. His Cretti, monochromatic (black or white) fields of induced craquelure, which date from the 1970s, were formed by a fast-drying mixture of zinc white, PVA, and water; the ratio of pigment to binder ensured the surface would form thin or deep fissures, over hours or days, depending on the thickness of the paste.

A video projection of a Cretto in formation served as the backdrop for the ballet November Steps, set to the music (of the same name) by Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu with choreography by Craig, and set design and costumes by Burri. It premiered at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in June 1973. Burri also created the stage design for productions of Ignazio Silone’s L’avventura d’un povero cristiano (San Miniato, Piazza del Duomo, 1969) and Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (Teatro Regio, Turin, 1975). The Grande cretto (Large Cretto, 1985–89) for Gibellina, Sicily, is Burri’s monumental work of Land art. It was built to commemorate an earthquake’s destruction of the town in January 1968. The Cretto was constructed by a team of local workers, who macerated the ruins and heaped them into blocks of white cement separated by walkways. It covers the old urban plan of the town, built on a hill, like a white shroud.

The last two decades of Burri’s life were dominated by his Cellotex works, in which he flayed and gouged the fibers of Celotex insulation board. Many of these were conceived of as cycles with modular images in biomorphic or geometric shapes that evolved over multipartite panels. Several of these cycles were rendered in black-on-black monochromes and installed by the artist on painted black walls.

Sweeney organized Burri’s first retrospective in the United States, which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1963. Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View, 1948–77, accompanied by an important exhibition catalogue by Gerald Nordland, commenced in Los Angeles in 1977 at the Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery and traveled the country, ending its tour at the Guggenheim in 1978. Burri belonged to no movement or artist’s network and did not court the press in a period when publicity increasingly became a creative medium. He did, however, carefully manage the market for his work, bought back key pieces when possible, and held on to others, which his financial stability allowed him to do. He ensured his posthumous reputation by establishing his own foundation and museum, completed in 1981, in Città di Castello in the 15th-century Palazzo Albizzini. He selected and installed the works to be on permanent view. In 1978 he set up another studio in the abandoned spaces of a giant complex of tobacco drying sheds, also in his native town. There he produced several of the Cellotex cycles, which were installed inside the cavernous hall. He purchased the site in 1989, and established the Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco, his second museum, which opened to the public in 1990. Burri died on February 15, 1995, in Nice, where he had moved for health reasons in the last years of his life.