Bianco Plastica, 1966, plastic, acrylic, combustion on Celotex, 100x75cm, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina
12 March 1915|
Città di Castello, Italy
|Died||15 February 1995
|Known for||Painting, Sculpture|
|Awards||Italian Order of Merit in 1994|
Early life and career
Alberto Burri was born in Città di Castello, in Umbria in 1915 to a wine merchant and an elementary school teacher. He earned a medical degree from the University of Perugia specializing in tropical medicine. On 12 October 1940, two days after Italy entered World War II, Burri was called up as a medic and sent to Libya. On 8 May 1943 after the Axis forces were defeated at El Alamein, his unit was captured in Tunisia. He was interned in Camp Hereford prisoner of war camp in Hereford, Texas, where he began to paint.
Impact of World War II
World War II had wreaked havoc on Italy. The country's resources had bled dry, defeat had made it old and bitter and years of fascism had imposed an agonizing cultural narrow-mindedness. A sort of modern Renaissance however swept through the country with the end of the Second World War. Artists began to use their work as a way to reexamine the past and the future of a country trying to find confidence in itself. Painters, poets and intellectuals formed new groups, cultural associations and drafted specialized periodicals and invited new theories, paving the way for a brand new platform for art.
The 1950s were also a time when much cultural exchange was encouraged between Italy and the United States. Many American artists like Kooning, Matta, Rauschenberg, Rothko and Twombly visited and lived in Rome for brief intervals of time. Rome also emerged as a favorite venue for meetings amongst critics like Herbert Read, Willem Sandberg, James Johnson Sweeney, second director of the Guggenheim Museum, and Michel Tapié. It was during this time that the works of Afro Basaldella, Burri and Lucio Fontana emerged as pioneers of post-war Italian art. While Burri experimented with the material wounds inflicted by war through his symbolic pieces of art, Afro entered a neo-cubist phase and Fontana experimented with the traditional idea of space.
The POW experience
Burri, a young Italian doctor and a member of the Fascist Party, was transformed by the dramatic and painful experience of being a prisoner of war in an American camp. Even though his political views changed dramatically after the war, he remained mute on the subject. Instead, he embarked on a lifelong creative journey. He used the limited materials available to him at the camp, converting them into pieces of art marked by his experience of turmoil and violence.
The POW camps offered a much easier life to Italian prisoners compared to their German and Japanese counterparts. They were allowed to mix with the local Italian-American community, were offered recreational activities such as building religious altars, playing soccer or tending to vegetable gardens. As an officer, Burri was exempt from manual labor, but he was not permitted to practice medicine; like many of his fellow officers, he took up painting. He became a part of a group of Italian detainee-artists assigned to repaint a local church. In many ways Burri's increasing involvement in art, allowed him to resign completely from medicine upon his return to Italy.
Burri's first paintings were views of the desert he could see from the prison camp and still life with paints and canvases supplied by the YMCA. He primarily painted "nostalgic Umbrian landscapes and figures", as Milton Gendel described in an ArtNews issue published in 1954. He collected old burlap sacks and brought them with him upon his return to Italy and continued to use them in place of canvas. Burlap, a symbol of the war itself was a cheap and durable material used for tents, supplies, sacks, sandbags and camouflage netting during the war. He continued to use burlap, having a supply from the local miller. For many Italian critics these burlap canvases provided a historical link to international modernism and prewar movements, such as the collage tradition, that could obscure the specificity of Italy's recent fascist past, yet their innovative use of non-art material set them apart, making them symbols of progressiveness of Italian culture.
After his release in 1946, Burri moved to Rome to pursue a full-time career as painter, despite the disapproval of most his friends and family. He joined his cousin, a musician and sole supporter in his decision, who helped to connect him with the Roman art circles. However, he was a very private and solitary artist, working incessantly. Milton Gendel, an American critic living in Rome, visited Burri’s studio in 1954 and described the atmosphere: “The studio is thick-walled, whitewashed, neat and ascetic; his work is ‘blood and flesh,’ reddened torn fabric that seems to parallel the staunching of wounds that Burri experienced in wartime.”
Burri was influenced by his contemporary Enrico Prampolini, whose involvement in Dada and Surrealism shaped Burri's approach to art. Prampolini's use of color, abstraction in painting and techniques in stage-design can be seen markedly in the works that Burri created. Burri had also been attracted to the Italian concept of "poly materialism" or the ability of a single work of art to contain a variety of material effects. In order to push the limitations of a flat painting, Burri travelled to Paris in 1949 to meet artists like Paul Klee, Jean Arp, and Joan Miró. Arp's lifelong experimentation with relief sculpture and painting must have had a lasting impression on Burri who started experimenting with large-scale wall reliefs after his return from Paris.
Burri started investigating the use of non-traditional materials such as burlap, wood, tar, plastic, zinc oxide, pumice, kaolin, PVC adhesives, cellotex and fabric in the late 1940s. In the mid-1950s, Burri introduced charred wood into his burlap works, followed by scrap iron sheets fixed onto the wood, as well as colored and transparent sheets of plastic. In the 1970s he began his "cracked" paintings, or cretti. He created a series of works in the industrial insulating material, Celotex, from 1979 through the 1990s.
In part, the use of these materials reflects Burri's tendency as a scientist, creating results that he desired in a controlled environment and his extensive knowledge of chemicals. Burri was obsessed with the materiality of his works. It is no surprise then that he chose to title his works on the name of the substance used to make the piece of art or the method used to create the desired effect. In one of his public reflections on his own work, Burri said that whatever he found to work with "must function as a surface, material and idea." The Italian translations of these materials have often stuck to refer to Burri's art. So, Burlap is referred to as Sacchi, Iron became Ferri, Catrami was the translation of Tars, Plastics were called Plastichi, Muffe were Molds, Legni was Wood, Cretti were Cracks, works created by using fire were tagged under Cumbustioni and Gobbi or Hunchbacks were pictures shaped by inserting a foreign element between the canvas and the stretcher.
According to Helen Molesworth there is a type of artwork that hangs on the wall like a picture but acts more like an object. Conventions of pictorial composition, even abstract composition, are ignored in favor of the literal materiality of a thing that refuses to behave as a picture should, even though it is attached to a wall. Molesworth points out that unconventional materials might literally jut out from the wall into the viewer's space. This move from picture to object was enacted once by the historic avant-garde (the Russian Constructivists Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, for example) and then again in Italy in the 1950s by the neo-avant-garde, in particular by artists like Burri, Fontana and Manzoni.
In 1973 he designed the Teatro Continuo for the “Contatto Arte-Città” section of the XV Milan Triennale. Demolished in 1989, the work has been reconstructed in 2015.
In the 1980s, Burri created a form of land art project on the town of Gibellina in Sicily. The town was abandoned following the 1968 Belice earthquake, with the inhabitants being rehoused in a newly built town 18 km away. Burri covered an area of over 120,000 square metres (1,300,000 sq ft), most of the old town, and an area roughly 300 metres by 400 metres with white concrete. He called this the Grande Cretto.
Burri experimented with a unique methodology with the Sacchi, his first creations. His techniques included cutting, tearing, and stitching the burlap's membrane-like surface, often riddled with holes. The cut and torn Sacchi, stitched together, was understood by many contemporaries as an allusion to Italy's recent traumatic past – the disasters of the Second World War; some also saw it as reflecting the crisis of painting in the postwar period.
The surface of the Sacchi were also read as wounds, cut and torn, then stitched and sutured. Burri's experience as an army doctor informed this dynamic wounding and repair of the burlap's surface. The artwork in many ways assumed the metaphor of skin, that went through a process of scarring and healing simultaneously. But on the other hand the artwork was also transformed because of the sheer materiality of the rough burlap. Burri's works were also covered by different kinds of stitches. Sometimes they could be hand-stitched in the style of a surgeon, on other occasions the machine drilled through the surface of painting to stitch parts of the burlap together.
The techniques that Burri mastered with Burlap were later applied to cut, stitch or glue together other materials like wood tar, cellotex and plastic. Burri also started burning or torching the surface of different materials to introduce distortions, or welding them to bring them together (especially in the case of iron and wood), and puncturing them through obvious cuts and holes drilled into the canvas. He often discretely spattered the composition with red paint, black oil, or small touches of yellow or white.
In 1953–54, Burri garnered attention in the United States when his work was included in the group exhibition Younger European Painters: A Selection at the Guggenheim Museum'. His first U.S. retrospective was presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1963. A traveling Burri retrospective made a stop at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1978. In the fall of 2015, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will present Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, the first major retrospective of Burri's work in the United States in over thirty-five years.
In 1960, Burri was awarded Third Prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh. In 1959 he won the Premio dell’Ariete in Milan and the UNESCO Prize at the São Paulo Biennial. There was a solo show of Burri’s art in 1960 at the Venice Biennale, where he was awarded the Critics’ Prize.
In 1973, the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei awarded Burri the Premio Feltrinelli per la Grafica in recognition of the importance of his graphic work and of its complimentary nature to his painting.
Burri was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1994.
John Sweeney, an American critic who had produced the first monograph on Burri in 1955, played a prominent role to bring his work and style to focus in the international art community. It was because of Sweeney's criticism, intuition and support that Burri's art was taken note of by international critics, showcased in prominent anthological exhibitions in leading American museums, and held in high esteem by the American public.
Burri's birthplace of Città di Castello has memorialized him with a large permanent museum of his works. The first museum opened in the 15th-century Palazzo Albizzini in 1981 with a representative collection of 130 paintings that Burri arranged and hung. The Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini was founded because of Burri's wish to open such an institution and its name comes from the building housing it. In 1989, a much larger space of Ex Seccatoi del Tobacco, the former tobacco factory, became the permanent exhibition venue of 128 works, including large cycles of paintings and monumental sculptures made in more recent years. Burri donated his artworks and thousands of dollars to the museums. He also left a number of paintings that were to be sold at auction to finance the administration and maintenance of the museum.
Burri was married to American dancer Minsa Craig. In 1963, they began spending winters in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles and the remainder of the year in Italy. In 1991, they settled in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, and moved between there and Italy. The couple kept two houses in Città di Castello, one in the city center, another in the countryside, so that Burri could pursue one of his favorite pastimes, hunting.
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