Biography of Alberto Burri
Childhood and Education
Alberto Burri was born in 1915 in Città di Castello, Perugia in the Umbria region of Italy. His father, Pietro, was a wine merchant and his mother, Carolina, was an elementary school teacher. From an early age, Burri demonstrated a passion for drawing and a desire to understand the works of the great Renaissance masters, and especially Piero della Francesca, whom he admired above all others. He also studied geometry and Greek, a language in which he became fluent. He continuing to read classical Greek literature throughout his life.
Between 1934 and 1939, Burri trained at the University of Perugia, specialising in tropical medicine and graduating as a doctor in1940, shortly before Italy entered the Second World War. He volunteered for the Italo-Ethiopian war, and then in October 1940, he was called up for frontline service as a combat medic, serving in campaigns in the Balkans, Ethiopia and Libya. Even though he was a man of few words, it is known that the effects of war, and especially the death of his younger brother Vittorio on the Russian front in 1943, left him with deep psychological scars.
On 8 May 1943, Burri's unit in Tunisia was captured by the British. Once turned over to the Americans, he was transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas, which housed some 3000 Italian officers. Among his fellow prisoners were academics, architects, and the artist Dino Gambetti, founder of the Sintesi group. It was Gambetti who encouraged Burri to take up art as his chosen leisure activity as offered by the YMCA. He said later, "I painted every day [...] it was a way of not having to think about the war and everything around me". Restricted in his access to arts materials, Burri made use of objects he found in the camp including sackcloth and recycled industrial and commercial canvas. He was a resourceful man who, when he ran out of white paint turned to toothpaste, for instance. Among his early works were views of the desert captured from behind the wire fences that contained him and his compatriots.
Following his repatriation in February 1946, Burri, prompted by his musician cousin, set up a studio in Rome. This went against the wishes of his parents who urged him to practice medicine and paint as a pastime ("I will not be a Sunday painter", he protested). Burri created figurative paintings through thick chromatic marks and, having made contact with institutions that were dedicated to reviving the visual arts after the war, his first solo exhibition took place at Galleria La Margherita in Rome during July 1947. His move into abstraction burgeoned following a visit to Paris where he was inspired by the tar-paper collages of Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet's paintings on coarse bitumen backgrounds. During this period Burri also showed works with the Rome Art Club where he was exposed to arte polimaterica (multi-media art).
Milton Gendel, the American critic, described Burri as "a funny character". He was a reserved, solitary and intensely private person who rarely gave interviews or socialized with other artists. Details of his life are thus limited to the progression of his work dating from the late 1940s. Between 1948 and 1950, he continued experimenting with unorthodox materials such as tar, sand, zinc, pumice, Aluminium dust and Polyvinyl chloride glue. In 1948 he produced Nero 1 (Black 1); for the artist himself, a career milestone and the first in a series of important monochrome works.
For his first collection of 1949, Burri employed a jute sack; a lasting memento of his incarceration. Burri himself emphatically rejected the idea, put by several commentators, that his Sacchi (Sacks) were a metaphor for violated flesh, with the stitching representing the surgeon's art of suture: "In reality, there is no relation whatsoever between my work as a doctor and my work as an artist," he insisted, "I never had, as some have hypothesized and written, flashbacks of any kind about gauze, blood, wounds or other stuff". The Curator Natasha Kurchanova observed indeed that "Burri's awareness of the dominant currents in contemporary art led to a visible transformation in materials themselves and in the way he used them, despite the fact that the focus on the physicality of the painting's support [remained the] constant throughout the artist's career. In the immediate postwar period", she continued, "his art reflected the strong influence of Jean Dubuffet and art brut in the use of raw or shapeless materials, such as tar, pumice stone or burlap bags whose unformed and uncontrolled quality was manifest in the work".
Taking inspiration from the mixed-media abstractions of Enrico Prampolini, Burri developed his Catrami (Tars) series in which he used tar both as a base and as a color. Evaluating his Catrami for the Guggenheim, curator Emily Braun argues that though "there are no figurative images or descriptive realism in his work", Burri still ranks as a realist because his work "intends the realism of facts - factual materials, things in the real world that he brings together and puts before our eyes". Indeed, he would also combine sacking and cloth, roughly stitched together against a black or dark red ground, visible through tears and burn holes, creating, in his own words, "a whole chain of pulls and tensions".
Further explorations of this type followed with materials including bark, linen, corrugated cardboard, sheet and rusty metal, crushed stone, charred wood, and artificial packaging material. These items were often deliberately damaged to endow them with an expressive quality. In his Bianchi (Whites) (1949) series, meanwhile, Burri brought white "into its own"; that is, as a color, a process and as a material. Varying tones, textures and finishes were created with the artist's fingers, a palette knife, or a trowel on cotton duck, muslin, or linen fabric. The Sacchi and Bianchi pieces started to bring Burri acclaim. His incorporation of a portion of the American flag in SZ1 Sacco di Zucchero (Sack of Sugar 1) (1949) was thought by some to have anticipated Pop Art though, once more, Burri rejected the idea that one should read any social or symbolic meaning into his work (and that somehow the work was a commentary on contemporary America).
As his career developed, Burri's synthetic approach became more pronounced. The dripped and concreted Muffe (moulds) series resemble bacterial invasion, soil, or mould, with Burri recreating the organic materials by mixing ground pumice stone with paint, mineral particles, and synthetic resins. Thick in relief, the Muffe also suggest aerial views, maps or the dry landscapes familiar to him from time spent in Africa and the Texas Panhandle (though presumably the artist would have rejected such a hypothesis). Retreating for several months to a shepherd's hut at an isolated spot in the mountains near his hometown of Perugia, Burri began to create his first "swellings" by inserting two small branches between the stretcher and the canvas. In these works, which he called Gobbi (Hunchbacks), Burri was able to distort the picture plane by creating a protruding surface. He developed this technique by replacing the branches with bent metal rods.
By 1950 Burri was creating assemblages out of burlap sacks and white household linens. His work was not met with public approval in Italy, however. He was rejected by the Venice Biennale in 1952, but his fortunes changed when the founder of the Spatialism movement, the Argentine-Italian Lucio Fontana, endorsed his work by purchasing the first piece Burri ever sold, Studio per lo Strappo (Study for the Rip) (1952).
His assemblages started to bring him recognition on the international stage and Burri held his first solo exhibitions in the United States in 1953 at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, Chicago, and the Stable Gallery, New York. His work also featured in Younger European Painters: A Selection (1953-54) at the Guggenheim Museum, while his Gobbi series was featured in the influential ARTnews magazine in 1954. Burri's close relationship with the US was cemented when he met Minsa Craig, an American ballet dancer and student of Martha Graham. They married on 15 May 1955 in Westport, Connecticut.
Around the same time, Burri started to experiment with fire as a means of creating original works. His controlled burnt paper works were used as illustrations for a book of poems by Emilio Villa while Burri's Legni (Woods) series (1955) saw him develop a new technique of scarring birch or oak, which was buckled and distorted by an oxyacetylene torch. In 1957 he went on to modify the surface of plastic with a blowtorch to create a painterly, mark-making technique which he called Combustioni (Combustions). Kurchanova suggested that the artist's subconscious was at work and these pieces were the direct result of Burri's experiences of war and his subsequent incarceration. She remarked that the series "reveals that trauma never ends. The charred, burnt, pierced and otherwise violated pieces of plastic were made into painting by a creative act of a man who was never trained in this profession, but turned to it by default: there was simply no better way for him to live through the end of the world as he knew it".
Also in 1957, Burri was subject of a midcareer retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh by which time his work had attracted the interest of Robert Rauschenberg. The American made two excursions to Burri's studio in Rome and took inspiration from the Italian's transformation of found materials into dynamic compositions. The two artists exchanged works and, on his return home, Rauschenberg reportedly threw some of his own works into the Arno River so he could start painting afresh. It is thought that Burri had given Rauschenberg the impetus to begin work on his famous "Combines" series. For his part, Burri, who was fond of shooting and hunting, used Rauschenberg's works as targets for skeet (clay pigeon) shooting, mischievously claiming he intended to increase the level of art in Rauschenberg's paintings.
A series of reliefs, made from cold-rolled steel called Ferri (Irons), saw Burri cutting and welding his materials. With works such as Grande Ferro M5 (1958), Burri transformed steel sheets into imposing reliefs by "stitching" his metal planes together with a welding torch. Art critics Enrico Crispolti and Nello Ponente interpreted the Ferri as representing in some way Burri's (humanity's) struggle with life but the artist preferred to see them as purely materialistic. The Ferri, said Burri, were "also sculpture. What I have sought to draw out of them is only their property. Iron, for example, suggested a sense of hardness, weight, sharpness. I was not interested in representing iron. It was immediately obvious that the material was iron. I wanted instead to explain what iron was capable of".
Burri also created compositions from melted and charred plastic known as Combustioni plastiche (Plastic combustions), exposing various materials to different speeds of flame from torches and lamps. Holes were burned to open up a rich spatial network within the layers of plastic. This hybrid of painting and sculpture represented a very physical form of creative destruction: "He used fire to penetrate material, to go through it and transform it. It was a violent act comparable to birth", said one critic. But generally speaking the Italian public was slow to warm to him. A major exhibition of Burri's work at Rome's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in 1959 was so controversial - reviews carried derogative titles such as "Burri Patches a Picture" or "The Doctor-Painter Sticks to Sutures" - it prompted a government investigation. One Italian art collector reacted to the suggestion that he might purchase a Burri with horror: "Painting? Filthy sacks! Mould! Garbage!".
Burri and Craig wintered in Los Angeles every year between 1963 until 1991. He developed a fascination with the mud flats of Death Valley National Park and was inspired specifically by the naturally fractured floor of the desert. This led him to create the Cretti (Cracks) series using a special mixture of kaolin, resins and pigment which he then dried the surface of the painting in front of an oven. The series, usually painted entirely white or black, highlighted the sculptural relief caused by the cracking with the surface of the works recalled the glaze deterioration of Old Master paintings.
Burri also created stage sets for La Scala, Milan and other theatres, working on designs for plays, ballet and opera. The most important of these was Spirituals, Morton Gould's ballet held at La Scala in 1963. Later, in 1973, Burri designed sets and costumes for November Steps, a production conceived of by his wife with a score by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. In it, the dancers interacted with a film excerpt of Burri's Cretti being created. His Plastiche were also used to dramatic effect in plays such as Tristan and Iseult, performed in 1975 at the Teatro Regio in Turin.
Towards the end of 1970s, Burri featured in a number of retrospectives, one of which, in 1977-78, made its way across the United States and culminated with an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. Burri's art grew in scale too with the 1979 cycle of paintings, Il Viaggio (The Journey), retracing, through ten monumental compositions, the key moments of his artistic development.
In 1985, 27 years after the Sicilian town of Gibellina was reduced to a pile of rubble in an earthquake, the mayor of the town invited artists and architects to the area with the aim of creating commemorative installations. Burri proposed compressing the old city's remains and covering them with iron and cement. Grande Cretto Bianco (Great White Crack) extended over an area of some 85,000 square meters making it one of the largest works of art ever realized. Effectively covering most of the flattened town with white concrete, the cracks between the slabs of concrete are large enough to walk between - thereby creating an expansive labyrinthine structure. The curator Rita Salerno explained that the "80 thousand square meters [sic] of white concrete and detritus recounts the tale of a city wiped from the world's maps" and that the "white lanes that today can be walked - much like deep wounds in the Earth - are the same that were once found in the historic town before the earthquake".
In the final series of his life, Burri paid homage to the decorations in the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Through the combination of gold and black, Burri evoked the glass mosaics of the Byzantine monument. Gold, Burri said, "is the perfect material. In Chinese the same character, chin, means both gold and metal. Gold shines resplendent as the light. In India it is called 'mineral light'. The sign of enlightenment and absolute perfection, the images of Buddha are made of gold, just as the flesh of the pharaohs is gold". The resultant series, Oro e Nero (Gold and Black), was donated to The Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
In 1981, Burri acquired a home in Beaulieu, near Nice in the south of France. In his final years, he began to make use of Celotex, an industrial mixture of wood production scraps and adhesives, used for insulation boards, creating works based on a clear geometrical structure. As part of the foundation he established in 1978, Burri designed his own museum in Città di Castello's Palazzo Albizzini, which opened in 1981. In 1990 Burri produced his last public art when works painted on flayed fiberboard went on permanent display in a complex of former tobacco-drying sheds known as the Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco. Burri died February 15th, 1995 in Nice.
The Legacy of Alberto Burri
Burri had a profound influence on artists of his own time and of later generations. His penetration of the canvas into three-dimensions paved the way for the Spatialist slashes of Lucio Fontana, while the Arte Povera movement took on Burri's use of everyday materials, leaving traces of the physical and chemical transformations of nature in their works. Burri's use of fire connects him to Yves Klein and the Zero Group while photographs of him shooting at a beer-can, and the subsequent exhibition of the punctured can, link Burri to Niki de Saint Phalle. His desire to transform materials also resonated with Joseph Beuys, who met with Burri in Città di Castello in 1980 (Beuys himself had a traumatic experience during the war). Anselm Kiefer's highly textured surfaces, meanwhile, incorporate cracks and branches to reflect societal trauma - and certainly remind the viewer of Burri (although no documentation of formal link exists).
His contribution to the arts was acknowledge in his own lifetime both by Italy and America through, respectively, the Legion of Honour and the title Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and as honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The difficulty in defining Burri in terms of the major trends in modernism has resulted in him being dismissed by some as "an artist of the periphery". But most recently, his indelible contribution to late-twentieth-century abstraction was confirmed through the 2015 major retrospective exhibition Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting curated by Emily Braun for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and, in the following year, Burri Lo spazio di Materia tra Europa e USA at Città di Castello (his place of birth). Both exhibitions celebrated the radical changes in traditional Western painting, collage and sculpture initiated by Burri.
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 09 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly