Alberto Burri's Biography
Alberto Burri (Città di Castello, 12 March 1915 – Nice, 13 February 1995) was an Italian artist and painter. After having obtained the classical high school diploma in Perugia, in 1934 he enrolled in the faculty of medicine at the University of the same city, graduating on 12 June 1940.
On 9 October 1940, with the rank of secondary medical lieutenant, he was called to arms and soon discharged to follow the training at a hospital, for the purpose of qualifying for the profession. Upon graduation, he returned to the army and, in early March 1943, assigned to the 10th legion in North Africa. In the days of the Italian surrender in Africa, he was captured by the British on May 8, 1943 and, passed into the hands of the Americans, was imprisoned, together with Giuseppe Berto and Beppe Niccolai, in the “Criminal camp” for non-cooperators of the Hereford concentration camp (in Texas), where he remained for 18 months. In the spring of 1944, he refused to sign a declaration of collaboration proposed to him and was listed among the “irreducible” fascists. It was in this period that he developed the conviction to devote himself to painting. He returned from American captivity long after the end of hostilities, arriving in Naples on February 27, 1946 and living for a short time in Città di Castello, before moving to Rome, where he shared a studio near piazza of Spain, with his friend the sculptor Edgardo Mannucci.
The first personal exhibition, favoured by the architect Amedeo Luccichenti, took place in July 1947, at the La Margherita gallery by Gaspero del Corso and Irene Brin, and was presented by the poets Libero de Libero and Leonardo Sinisgalli. The works exhibited were still figurative in nature with some debt to the tonal painting of the Roman School of the 1930s. During the days of the exhibition, he met the sculptor Pericle Fazzini, vice president of the Art Club, an important Roman artistic association also open to the novelties of abstract-concrete art: already in December 1947 he took part in the second annual exhibition of the association and continued to exhibit with the ‘Art Club until the early 1950s, both in Italy and abroad.
In his second solo exhibition: Bianchi e Catrami, also at the La Margherita gallery, in May 1948, he proposed for the first time abstract works which, with their now amoebic and organic forms, now filiform and reticular, revealed some affinities with language by Jean Arp, Paul Klee and Joan Miró. Subsequently he began to elaborate the first Catrami (Tars) a group of around thirty works that date to 1948–52. pitch-black tar in which the qualities of the materials – they were made with heated oil paint, oil, tar, sand, vinavil (PVA glue), black enamel, ground pumice stone and other materials on canvas – began to take over the simple formal organization of the composition. He scored and gouged through the dense, sticky paste, and poured liquid tar into gooey puddles or forced it to dry in crusty patches. Burri chose a medium that originates in the bowels of the earth and exploited its primordial and infernal connotations. Tar and the related substances asphalt, bitumen, and pitch are derived from petroleum products and coal. Humans have used them for thousands of years: for mummification, to seal wounds, and as artists’ glazes. With the Catrami, Burri created a “material monochrome” that emphasizes the processes of accretion, layering, and blackout.
At the end of 1948 he went to Paris where he visited Miró’s studio, saw the most recent abstract works by the Italian Alberto Magnelli and learned about what was exhibited at the René Drouin gallery, which was establishing itself as one of the most important centers of the new artistic season, later called “informal“. In 1949 he created SZ1, the first Printed Sack.
In 1950 he began with the series Le Muffe e i Gobbi (molds and hunchbacks) and used for the first time the worn material in Sacchi (Sacks). 1950 was a year of great experimentation, during which he painted various Molds, exploiting the efflorescence produced by pumice stone combined with traditional oil painting, mineral particles, and synthetic resins., they display mud-coloured lumps and layers of sludge that resemble bacterial invasion, soil, or excrement. The clusters appear to fester in a state of simultaneous growth and decay, wreaking havoc on the painting surface. Cubist and Surrealist painters enriched the textures of their works with sand and gritty granules of pumice that disrupt illusionistic imagery. The fully abstract Muffe are more like dirt paintings: the agglomerations of pumice visibly weigh down the canvas without poetry or existential drama. Piled high in relief, certain Muffe bring to mind topographical maps or the arid landscapes familiar to the artist from his time in East and North Africa and the Texas Panhandle.
It also the year of the first Hunchback, with the characteristic swelling obtained with wooden branches placed on the back of the canvas, the picture plane is bent out of shape and thrust into the viewer’s space. He soon began using curved metal rods to prod the fabric support. While at medical school, Burri had conducted his research thesis on rickets, a disease causing bone deformation, and he was familiar with kyphosis, or severe curvature of the spine. The Gobbi show physical distress, as the canvas threatens to split at the maximum exertion points. At the tips of the swells, the artist typically applied a film of glutinous synthetic resin: polyvinyl acetate (PVA), a product manufactured for adhesives and coatings. Burri used PVA—usually the Vinavil brand—throughout his career as a glue, sealant, fabric stiffener, and glossy varnish. In the Gobbi, it appears in blobs and thin membranes that mimic mucus or the pulpy edges of healing flesh. With their covert spaces and unsettling references to the body, the “hunchbacks” presage aspects of 1960s feminist art.
And is the year of the first Sack too, made entirely of jute, patched and stitched up. from a cast-off burlap bag mounted on a stretcher. During his time in a Texas prisoner-of-war camp (1943–46), the artist had used found gunnysacks as canvases for figurative paintings. In the Sacchi series, the unpainted burlap functions as both support and ground. Form, line, colour, and tone emerge from the textile’s warp and woof, stains, patches, and stitches. Burlap is produced with jute, a coarse fibre related to the finer linen used for artists’ canvases. As a result, the worn and tattered material looks like a traumatized version of a traditional canvas. When the Sacchi were first exhibited in Rome in 1952, one critic described them as paintings but “impoverished, rotted, consumed, and already wasted away.” Lacerated and threadbare, the material evinces anger and shame but also vulnerability and dignity. Also in 1950, he made the large “Fiat Panel” (a square of almost 5 m on each side) for the exhibition hall of a Roman car dealership.
In January 1951 he participated in the foundation of the Origine Group, together with Mario Ballocco, Giuseppe Capogrossi and Ettore Colla. 1952 opened with the personal exhibition “Neri e Muffe” at the Obelisk gallery in Rome. In April, at the Origine Foundation of his friend Colla, the exhibition “Homage to Leonardo” was held in which he exhibited, among others, “Lo Strappo“, one of the first sacks that only a few months later was rejected by the jury of the Venice Biennale. Instead, in the “Black and White” section of the Venetian exhibition, the drawing “Studio per lo strappo“, purchased by Lucio Fontana, was accepted. On May 17 Burri was among the signatories of the “Manifesto of the space movement for television“, promoted by Fontana himself. During the year he moved in a studio close to the painter Franco Gentilini and the Pincio. In the same year, Robert Rauschenberg, while spending almost a year in Rome, visits Alberto Burri’s studio, thus being able to see the Sacchi.
The great international success begins with the 1953 exhibitions in Chicago and New York. The first American solo exhibition (Alberto Burri: paintings and collages), set up at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in Chicago, took place between 13 January and 7 February 1953; it was then moved to Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in New York at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Burri had met the critic James Johnson Sweeney, then director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, who decided to promote his work through critical support, which resulted in the first monograph dedicated to him (1955), and the inclusion of some of his works in the museum’s exhibition activity. A month later, between 18 and 30 April, a new solo exhibition was set up at the Origine Foundation, presented by the poet Emilio Villa, with whom the collaboration continued into the following years.
Year 1954 was characterized by the transfer to the studio in via Salaria Rome and the entry into the group of artists supported by the French critic Michel Tapié, father of Art autre. Towards the end of the year, he began to use fire in his works, making the first small combustions on paper.
On May 15, 1955 he married, in Westport (California), the American dancer of Ukrainian origin Minsa Craig (1928-2003), known in Rome the previous year. In the same period, he opened the collective exhibition “The new decade: 22 European painters and sculptors“, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (May-August), where five of his works were exhibited; one of the few statements of the artist’s poetics, which can be found in the relative catalogue, dates back to that exhibition. The participation in the Roman Quadrennial and the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil was successful.
Despite the successes and support of his friend Afro Basaldella, at the 1956 Venice Biennale he was allowed to exhibit only two works. However, in September, while the Biennale was still in progress, the Venetian Galleria del Cavallino dedicated an exhibition to him with many of his now well-known sacks. Meanwhile, Burri continued to carry out numerous Combustioni (combustions with wood, canvas and plastic) and experimented with the characteristics of wood.
Year 1957 was characterized by numerous personal exhibitions in Italy and the United States. Towards the end of the year, he made the first Ferri (Irons), in which he exploited the possibilities offered by the welding technique within a two-dimensional pictorial discourse. The first of these works maintained compositional analogies with sacks, woods and plastics, while later Burri developed a more rigorous layout that was in keeping with the characteristics of the new material used.
The exhibition activity was quite intense in 1959 and in the early months of 1960. In June Burri obtained a room at the Venice Biennale, where he also received the prize of the International Association of Art Critics. In the same year, during which he moved his residence to via Grottarossa, outside Rome, Giovanni Carandente made the first documentary of his work by him. A long journey between Mexico and the United States and the after-effects of a delicate surgery slowed his production, although he continued to exhibit in solo and group exhibitions.
At the beginning of the Sixties, the first anthological recapitulations were reported in close succession, in Paris, Rome, L’Aquila, Livorno, and then in Houston, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Pasadena, which, with the new contribution of Plastiche (Plastics), will become real historical retrospectives in Darmstadt, Rotterdam, Turin and Paris (1967-1972).
At the end of 1962, the year in which he bought the villa of Case Nove di Morra, near Città di Castello, he returned to the public with the results of the last months of work. Between December 1962 and January 1963, the Marlborough gallery in Rome hosted an exhibition dedicated to plastics which, after the irons, represented a new, and unexpected, turning point. Perhaps reworking some mid-1950s plastics, he decided to focus his attention on clear plastic film. The new season of plastics lasted throughout the decade and Cesare Brandi was its main exegete: he introduced many exhibitions and wrote a fundamental monograph on Burri (1963).
In 1963 he designed, before a long series of ideas in this sector, the scenography and costumes for five ballets of the American pianist, conductor and composer Morton Gould at the Scala in Milan. in the same year one of his works was exhibited at the Contemporary Italian Paintings exhibition, set up in some Australian cities. In 1963-64 he exhibited at the Peintures italiennes d’aujourd’hui exhibition, organized in the Middle East and North Africa. In 1964 he won the Marzotto prize for painting. In the late 1960s he bought a house in Los Angeles (California) where he spent the winter months until 1990; in this period and in the following early seventies he still devoted himself to theatrical productions.
The seventies recorded a progressive rarefaction of technical and formal means towards monumental solutions, from Cretti (cracks soil and vinavil) to Cellotex (fibreboard compressed used in construction as an insulator and made with a mixture of glues and wood sawdust), while historical retrospectives followed one another: Assisi, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Milwaukee, New York, Naples.
He worked throughout the decade on I Cretti, a traditional artist’s pigment which forms a brittle paint film prone to cracking originating from a measured mixture of acro-vinyl adhesives with other materials used to cover the support (clay, kaolin, zinc white), and were exhibited for the first time in October 1973 in Bologna (San Luca gallery). The concrete shroud with which he covered the remains of Gibellina earthquake in a famous example of Land Art is placed on the cycle of the Cretti. Exploiting what other artists consider a limitation, Burri deliberately prompted some of the widest and deepest craquelure in the history of art. He encouraged the soil to fissure in disordered patterns and helter-skelter episodes over a period of hours or days, depending on the amounts of water and binder in the admixture and the thickness of its application. In some respects, the Cretti are self-making artworks that “perform” their compositions as they dry.
In 1973, Burri received the “Feltrinelli Award” for Graphics from the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, with the following motivation: “for the quality and the invention, despite the apparent simplicity, of a graphics created with very modern means, which integrates perfectly to the artist’s painting, of which it is not a collateral aspect, but almost a vivification that couples extreme rigor with incomparable expressive purity “.
An anthological exhibition set up at the convent of San Francesco d’Assisi, in May 1975, also offered the public a Cellotex recently built, material used in construction as an insulator and made with a mixture of glues and wood sawdust. In same year he participated in Operation Arcevia, a project coordinated by the architect Ico Parisi, for the construction from scratch of a community to be built in Arcevia, in the province of Ancona, with the contributions of artists, musicians, critics, writers, filmmakers, psychologists, local institutions. Burri creates the sketch for the Theater, now kept in the Palazzo Albizzini Collection. In 1976 Alberto Burri created (with the “technical” help of the ceramist Massimo Baldelli) an imposing Cretto, the ‘Great Black Cretto’ exhibited in the Franklin D. Murphy sculpture garden of the University of Los Angeles (UCLA). Another similar work, in terms of style, expressive force and imposing dimensions, is exhibited in Naples, in the Capodimonte museum. The most spectacular evolution was, however, represented by that of Gibellina (Trapani) of almost 90,000 m² on the rubble of the old Gibellina. The works, which began in August 1985, were interrupted in December 1989 due to lack of funds with the work not yet completed.
In 1977 he exhibited an important anthology at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York entitled “Alberto Burri. A retrospective View 1948-77“. The Cycles date back to 1979, which will dominate all of his subsequent production, consisting of ten monumental compositions that retraced the most significant moments of his artistic production. In the same year he inaugurated the season of the great pictorial Cycles, also made in the following years and permanently exhibited at the Ex-Tobacco slaughterhouses in Città di Castello. He will present other cycles in Florence (1981), Palm Springs (1982), Venice (1983), Nice (1985), Rome, Turin (1989) and Rivoli (1991)
In 1981 the Burri Foundation was inaugurated in Palazzo Albizzini in Città di Castello, with a first donation of 32 works. In 1984, to inaugurate Brera’s activity in the contemporary sector, an exhaustive exhibition by Burri was hosted.
In 1994 Burri took part in The Italian Metamorphosis 1943-1968 exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. From 11 May to 30 June ’94 at the National Picture Gallery in Athens, the series Burri il Polittico di Atene, Architecture with Cactus, is presented, which will later be exhibited at the Italian Cultural Institute in Madrid (1995). On December 10, 1994, Burri’s donations to the Uffizi in Florence are remembered: a black and white painting from 1969 and three series of graphics dated 1993-94.
The Master’s works are mainly exhibited in two museums in Città di Castello. The first, in “Palazzo Albizzini”, seat of the homonymous Foundation, established at the behest of Burri himself in 1978, has an area of 1660 m² inaugurated in 1981. The second hosts the artist’s “great pictorial cycles“, inaugurated in 1990, it is an unused industrial area, the “Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco” architecturally recovered. Through the museum itinerary organized in these two locations and the systematic catalogue of his works, matured at the end of the Eighties and created under his careful direction, he thus offered a precise interpretation of his production in which the sculptures of great dimensions, to which he began to devote himself simultaneously to the great pictorial cycles.
At the beginning of the nineties, Burri, despite his advanced age, continued experimenting with new materials: his last work was Metamorfex, a cycle of nine works presented by his friend Nemo Sarteanesi, in the Ex Seccatoi.
Burri died in Nice on February 13, 1995, a month before his 80th birthday. Known in life for his confidentiality, he had finally just finished a long autobiographical recording with Stefano Zorzi who collected its contents in the volume Parola di Burri.
His works are exhibited in some of the most important museums in the world: the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, the Castello di Rivoli, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto, the Gori Collection in Santomato di Pistoia.