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Alberto Burri Photo

Alberto Burri

Italian Multi-media Artist

Born: March 12, 1915 - Città di Castello, Perugia, Umbria, Italy
Died: February 15, 1995 - Nice, France
Movements and Styles:
Art Informel
Body Art
Earth Art
"My works are not paintings but cuts of reality."
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Alberto Burri
"'Our stability is but balance, and our wisdom lies in masterful administration of the unseen'. These lines are striking to me because they are the essence of my way of making paintings. And even though it is a definition used by a scientist to talk about science, it is extremely well suited to the world of painting."
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Alberto Burri
"The words don't mean anything to me; they talk around the picture. What I have to express appears in the picture. With the other elements it is involved in a whole chain of pulls and tensions. But this is only the architectonic structure. For the rest I have nothing to add."
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Alberto Burri
"Form and Space! Form and Space! The end. There is nothing else. Form and space!"
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Alberto Burri
"For a long time I have wanted to explore how fire consumes, to understand the nature of combustion, and how everything lives and dies in combustion to form a perfect unity."
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Alberto Burri

Summary of Alberto Burri

Burri was, with Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, one of the pre-eminent Italian multi-media artist of the twentieth century. While the American avant-garde was headed in the direction of "Action Painting, Burri pursued a more studied approach to abstract art. His preference for raw materials, which carried the influence by Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut movement, saw Burri combine the domains of painting and relief sculpture. Commentators have been inclined to interpret his course canvases as symbolic of his gruelling experiences as a medical officer in the Italian army, and, subsequently, as a POW. But Burri, who had described himself as a "polymaterialist", always maintained that his art was about experimentation and process rather than personal experience. As his international reputation climbed, Burri turned to colored industrial materials and he developed the technique of "painting with combustion"; a process by which he created torched wood veneers, welded steel reliefs and compositions of melted and charred plastic. Burri also fostered an interest in cracked surfaces which reached its high point with his monumental Grande cretto project; an undertaking that, though only completed after his death, sits proudly on the Sicilian landscape as one of the largest Land Art works ever realized.


  • Burri made his first impact on the post war art world through his abstract Catrami (Tars) series for which he used tar resins both as a base and as a color (black). Though the works were non-figurative, Burri was unique amongst abstract artists because he was considered a "realist". He earned this distinction because he used real, or every-day, materials - such as hessian sacking, sand and crushed pumice stone - to bring his coarsely textured canvases to life.
  • Applying tar-like substances as one might apply impasto oils, Burri sought to explore what type of effects could be achieved by using a single monochrome color. By gorging and scraping his thick painted surfaces, Burri was effectively excavating the very medium he was working with, showing a way in which the artist could approach the canvas as a means of blurring the dividing line between painting and sculpture.
  • Unlike other post-war abstract painters who focused on spontaneity and self-expression, Burri adopted a strictly methodical approach to his work. His work was the first to explore the organic decay and hazardous destruction of materials and his sculptured canvases proved so innovative he made friends of two seminal American artists Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg, both of whom exchanged creative ideas with the Italian.
  • Through works such as Gobbi, Burri brought together painting and sculpture, inserting hidden, but protruding, objects behind the canvases as a means of disturbing and distorting the two-dimensional picture surface. His use of found objects to create collages saw him aligned with the methods of Synthetic Cubism but Burri's works went beyond synthesis by pushing the physical limits of the two-dimensional surface.
  • Burri developed a fascination with combustion and fire's power to consume materials. Having begun by using his flame to "stitch" metal plates together, Burri quickly turned his oxyacetylene torch on to surfaces of wood and plastic. He formed blackened and rippling textures that revealed how the skin of materials succumbed to the destructive force of fire. He had succeeded, therefore, in turning something destructive (fire) into something creative (art).

Biography of Alberto Burri

Alberto Burri Life and Legacy

An artwork, in Buri's view, must speak for itself. "The words" of the critics, he insisted, "don't mean anything to me; they talk around the picture", and as an artist, "what I have to express appears in the picture [and for] the rest I have nothing to add".

Important Art by Alberto Burri

Catrame 2 (1949)

The Catrami, or tars, were Burri's first series of paintings that explored the properties and tones of the color black . Covering his canvas with tar, and tar-like substances, Burri, in the description offered by the Guggenheim, "gouged and scraped the dense, viscous material into rich relief topographies of cavities and scabs, incising the surface with grid lines, sometimes adding pumice stone for texture or drips of black enamel paint".

Here the image appears like a collage, juxtaposing the manmade biomorphic shapes with the scaly, apparently random, impasto textures within them. Close inspection reveals a sense of movement and incongruity, displaying Burri's ability to transform the mundane into something fascinating, primeval and alive. Though abstract, the Catrami helped define a new sense of realism. Curator, Emily Braun, observed that Burri's "early compositions look like a collage. It's as if he cut out shapes and glued them onto a flat plane [...] He's focusing our attention on the materials themselves: all of their innate qualities, what makes them alive or what makes them seemingly abject or unpleasant but ultimately quite beautiful. And this focus on what they're made of and how he makes them is what we call a material - and process -based realism".

It is an interesting footnote to record that beneath Catrame 2's thick tar surface, conservation scientists working at the Guggenheim in New York "discovered a colorful figurative painting from an earlier period" and another on the verso, or reverse, of Burri's canvas.

Biancho (White) (c.1949)

Following immediately on from his black tar Catrami works, Burri turned his attention to exploring the properties of white. His new project was rooted in his fascination with Renaissance art, the white ground of frescoes, and the gesso layer underlying paintings. This example, one of his first Bianchi, explores the variety of shades, textures and effects that can be achieved with white alone (and small traces of black from the base of a paint can). Burri swirls and drips the pigment, mixing it with sand or crushed pumice stone, spreading it with his fingers, a knife or a trowel, leaving the expressive, physical process of making the image exposed. Braun suggests that with this piece, Burri "makes us aware of all of the different applications of the white paint" and that Burri turns his painting into "this scruffy, eloquent thing [with] lumpy, paint trickled, lathered, smeared, dripped, and transferred".

While it was never been formally acknowledged by the American artist himself, the Bianchi seems likely to have made an impact on the development of the art of Cy Twombly, who visited Burri's studio during this period and saw his works at Rome's Obelisco Gallery. Twombly later returned to live in Rome where he recreated, in works that carried echoes of Burri's Bianchi, the effects of the Mediterranean sun on crumbling, bleached surfaces.

Rosso Gobbo (Red Hunchback) (1953)

In the series labelled Gobbi (Hunchbacks), Burri wedged objects - such as tree branches or metal rods - behind the canvas, causing distortions to the image surface and straining the canvas to create a prominent hump. The taut picture plane is thus put under physical stress, bent out of shape and thrust forward towards the viewer. Burri termed this the "invasive space" technique. In this fine example of painting merging with sculpture, two fabric scraps stuck to the vermilion background and three punctured circles accentuate the protrusions created by the unseen curved metal rod. The damage that Burri inflicts upon his materials places him at odds with the flatness and aspirations towards purity of much modern painting. The Gobbi seem to continue a logical progression from Burri's earliest abstract works in which he was arranging his colours and forms so that they appeared to exist on different levels. One might call this as a philosophical reversal of Synthetic Cubism's attempt to capture multiple planes from a single viewpoint, despite the similar use of collaged scraps and printed materials.

It has often been suggested that the contrasting elements - stitched sacking so prevalent in its use for sandbags and carrying supplies, the black reminiscent of charred buildings, and red with its connotations of blood - reference Burri's training as a doctor and the traumatic experience of front line military service. According to curator James Johnson Sweeney, Burri "transforms rags into a metaphor for bleeding human flesh, breathes life into the inanimate materials which he employs, making them live and bleed". For Sweeney, the "picture is human flesh, the artist a surgeon". It was not, however, a reading endorsed by Burri who said "I have worked with a big red space that is expanding forward and in all directions. With the other elements it is involved in a whole chain of pulls and tensions. But this is only the architectonic structure. For the rest I have nothing to add". Burri may (unconsciously) also be referencing a rich tradition in Italian art, translating the red, black and gold of Renaissance drapery into a meditation upon the trauma of post-War Italy. However one wishes to interpret it, the work, like so much of Burri's output, is a merging of both painting and sculpture; the abstract and the figurative. "It is a picture, or better yet, the fiction of a picture", wrote the critic Giulio Carlo Argan, "a sort of reversed trompe l'oeil in which the picture no longer imitates reality but reality imitates a picture".

Still struggling to garner the approval of the Italian critics or public, Burri's fortunes received a welcome fillip from Lucio Fontana who was the first significant figure to endorse Burri's work by purchasing a piece from the same series. Indeed, in the 2000 exhibition, "Against Nature", featuring Burri, Fontana and Pierre Manzoni, New York's Sperone Westwater Gallery stated in their press release that the three men formed an informal group of Italian artists who were "searching for truth in new places" and that, between them, the men located this "truth" in "materials that came from urban and industrial refuse". It was "through these new materials - polyester, cotton fibers, cut canvas, burlap, glue, neon, glass etc. - [that] the canvas became a theatrical place where a new pictorial space could emerge".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Alberto Burri
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Alberto Burri Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 09 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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