'In sacking I find a perfect match between shade, material and idea that would be impossible in paint'.
A. Burri, quoted in F. D'Amico, Roma 1950-59. Il rinnovamento della pittura in Italia, Ferrara 1996, p. 138.
Sacco is an historical, frequently-published early work in hessian by Alberto Burri, one of the most important and influential Italian artists of the Twentieth Century. In many ways, it was with the Sacchi such as this that Burri's influence initially spread: these were works in which humble materials from the real world around us were enshrined within the context of art, an act that was both transformative and that pushed beyond realism. In Sacco, Burri has deliberately juxtaposed canvases of different colours, textures and weaves in order to create a composition that is abstract, collage-like and yet ontologically sound: Sacco does not represent, but instead shows.
Sacco dates from the period when Burri's works were gaining an increasing audience both at home and abroad. He was enjoying group and one-man shows both in Italy and in the United States, where he was championed by the legendary director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, James Johnson Sweeney. Burri had visited Paris half a decade earlier, and been exposed to the works of the various artists associated with Art Informel; however, Michel Tapié only brought major attention to the artists linked to Informel in 1952 - and Burri was by then considered one of the lead protagonists. Similarly, it was in 1953 that Robert Rauschenberg, an artist - like Burri - who was showing at the Galleria dell'Obelisco in Rome, begged an audience in his studio in via Margutta and drank in his works, especially a group of three large Sacco which relate closely to the present work.
While Rauschenberg's subsequent production would differ a great deal thematically from Burri's, many critics have nonetheless stressed the importance of the encounter for the young American artist. Indeed, Rauschenberg himself appears to have shown his own awe by presenting Burri with one of his 'personal fetishes', containing sand and a fly. Certainly, Rauschenberg's use of materials from the world around him proliferated upon his return from Italy, as is demonstrated, for instance, in his Combines. Looking at Factum II, from 1957, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the combination of compositional balance and real materials echoes that of Sacco, even if the finished effect is very different. Burri's espousal of simple hessian in works like Sacco, and his later use of plastic and other such 'poor' materials from the landscape of everyday life, would eventually see him being hailed as a key predecessor of Arte Povera. Already in 1960, Piero Manzoni had revealed his own admiration for Burri, declaring:
'... the truly vital thing that great artists like Burri, Fontana, Picasso, and Pollock give us is not so much material, a gesture, or a mark. It is an attitude toward life, the will and power to make art, the freedom to invent. This is the only lesson we can assimilate, the only one that regards us' (Manzoni. quoted in Azimuth, 1960, quoted in Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni, exh.cat., Milan & London, 1998, p. 312).
Burri's works would become incredibly influential because of their trailblazing novelty. This was all the more apparent at the time that Sacco was created: with their emphasis on autonomy, these canvas-based pictures took simple abstraction to a whole new dimension. Instead of taking a readymade and presenting it as something else, as had been done by the Surrealists, Burri was allowing the material he selected to stand alone, representing nothing other than itself. In an Italian art scene that was, in the post-war period, divided between figurative and abstract artists, Burri appeared to be a bannerman for the absolute extreme fringe, appearing to avoid subject matter itself. However, looking at Sacco, it becomes clear that his works are celebrations of matter and of life itself. This is a sensual work, filled with a variety of textures and colours, and adheres to the strict notions of compositional equilibrium which he never abandoned.
The importance of composition in Sacco and the other works in this series reflects the evolution of Burri's entire practice. For the Sacco in fact had had figuration at their roots. Burri had been serving as a medical officer in Africa during the Second World War when he was captured by the British and then interned as a Prisoner of War in Hereford, Texas. While there, he abandoned his medical vocation and instead took up art, creating compositions that were influenced by his surroundings, often using thick, jute-like materials as his supports. On his repatriation after the cessation of hostilities, Burri had the Red Cross ship across his works from this period; he subsequently destroyed many of them, keeping only a few key examples. In those, the seeds of the composition of a picture such as Sacco can already be seen in the swathes of colour balanced in order to depict the scene, perhaps most famously in his painting Texas from 1945. Like Texas, Sacco appears to feature large tranches of a couple of colours articulated by other jutting details. In Texas, these are the fence and the windmill; in Sacco, they are the meandering, sometimes frenzied stitches which swirl then dash across certain areas of the composition.
The link between Sacco and Burri's figurative compositions is far from coincidental. There was still a great deal of cross-germination between his painted works and his collage-like compositions from the mid-1940s until around the time Sacco was created. Indeed, some of his collaged compositions were apparently based on the painted works with which he was increasingly dissatisfied, revealing the fact that he was seeking a new means of expression more suited to the total image he had been creating. It was now, though, that the artist could be seen to be pulling away from the use of sacking as a simple compositional device, echoing his earlier paintings, and instead putting the material to the fore in its own right, rather than as mere elements, as was more the case in his SZ1 of 1949, often considered a watershed work.
With that in mind, the stitching itself can be seen as a development in its own right: it serves a compositional purpose, but is also a riposte to the traditional methods of 'drawing' still being espoused by so many artists in Italy and the wider world at the beginning of the 1950s. There was a sea-change in attitudes towards material and form, spearheaded largely by Burri and by Fontana, and this extended to the realms of process and technique. Burri essentially took the traditionally feminine discipline of needlework and used it to create pictures. He was breaking the traditional relationship between the painter and the canvas in a manner that had a parallel in Jackson Pollock's dripping. However, Burri was emphatically using a domestic technique in order to create the stitched lines in Sacco. These recall the sometimes jagged sense of line which infused the works of Paul Klee, an artist whose had a crucial posthumous influence on a number of Italian artists. At the same time, the transformative power evident in Burri's elevation of simple canvas elements to an artwork recalls Joan Miró (the comparisons with both artists' works were in fact mentioned by Cesare Brandi in his 1963 monograph, C. Brandi, Burri, Rome, 1963, p. 21). Indeed, the act of moving sections of canvas, of reconfiguring the building blocks of easel painting, adds an intriguing dynamism to the entire process, while also underscoring Burri's revolutionary reappraisal of the entire discipline. As Milton Gendel, the American photographer and journalist, would write the year after Sacco was created:
'Burri's paintings are seen most clearly as manipulated objects while he is working on them. He rejects the usual formal relationship between painter and painting, where the canvas remains fixed and the painter moves around. With Burri, both he and the canvas are in movement' (Milton Gendel, 'Burri Makes a Picture', ArtNews, December 1954, reproduced at www.miltongendel.com).
Burri's use of stitching in his art has often been linked to his original, abandoned vocation as a doctor. Certainly, there is a dimension of healing, rather than merely creating, in Sacco. This work, which recalls the poverty that was near-endemic in post-war Italy, which survived the aftermath of conflict in part thanks to aid programmes, shows a path of redemption and rehabilitation reached through art. Burri was keen to point out that his abandonment of medicine as a career was not an act of protest - initially, his equipment was taken from him when he was transferred as a PoW, but he continued to dispense advice. However, he saw art as another outlet; his incredible determination to remain an artist, first in captivity and then on his return to Italy, where many of his friends and family expected him to take up medicine once more, reflected his devotion and determination. Looking at Sacco, which comprises elements of sacking and material stitched together to achieve a balanced composition, one perceives the fruit of this single-mindedness.