Alberto Burri (1915-1995)
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Alberto Burri (1915-1995)


Alberto Burri (1915-1995)
signed 'Burri' (on the reverse)
oil, fabric collage, sand, glue and burlap on canvas
22 3/8 x 33 5/8in. (56.8 x 85.4cm.)
Executed in 1953
Allan Frumkin Gallery, Chicago.
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner in 1954 and thence by descent to the present owner.
E. Sottsass, 'Tele di sacco più preziose di Klimt', in Domus, March 1954, no. 292 (illustrated, p. 52).
C. Brandi, Burri, Rome 1963, no. 111 (illustrated, p. 195).
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini (ed.), Burri Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello 1990, no. 136 (29 x 43cm, illustrated in colour, p. 43).
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Beatriz Ordovas
Beatriz Ordovas

Lot Essay

Alberto Burri was one of the greatest artistic pioneers of the post-war period, and the influence of his use of 'poor' materials and unusual, often novel, techniques was to exert itself both in Italy and further afield, as is revealed both in the Combines of Robert Rauschenberg and in the entire Arte Povera movement. Bianco was created in 1953, an important stage in Burri's career when he had consolidated his new artforms and was creating some of his most important works. Indeed, it is from this early period that many of his greatest Sacchi date.

Bianco itself shows its relationship to the Sacchi, which incorporated sackcloth in their surface: this work too features a patchwork-like accumulation of textile fragments at its centre, several of them sporting different thicknesses of weave. Indeed, the surface of Bianco comprises a range of elements which reveal the novelty of Burri's artistic practice and also prefigure some of his later series of works. The white areas of the painting which lend it its name feature the deliberate craquelure which would come to feature in his later Cretto works while the charred portion of glue in the lower centre mark one of his earliest experimentations with fire, which would lead to his Combustioni during the following years. In Bianco, Burri has taken elements from the everyday world such as fabric, sand and glue and reconfigured them in such a way that, by being placed within the context of art, they are placed on a pedestal, viewed in a new light and treasured. There is a tactile range of textures to the surface of Bianco that invokes a raw sensuality. Meanwhile Burri explores and intensifies the contrasts of colour and texture through the dynamism of the composition itself.

Burri had turned to painting during his time as a Prisoner of War in Hereford, Texas, having been captured while serving as a medical officer in the Italian army during the Second World War. It was while he was a prisoner that Burri turned to art as a pastime; by the time he returned to his native Italy, he had decided that art, rather than medicine, was to be his vocation. However, that medical background remained woven into the very fabric of his work: the act of sewing together the deliberately poor materials that he has selected, especially in the maelstrom of forms and fragments that dominates the centre of this painting, recalls the stitches that he doubtless applied during his time as a medic.

The idea of healing appears to be central to Burri's work. The Italy to which he had returned at the end of the Second World War was a scarred and damaged place, dependent on the Marshall Plan and aid packets. It is no coincidence that SZ1, the first of Burri's paintings to feature burlap which was created only four years before Bianco, contained a fragment of sacking with the Stars and Stripes on it, part of an aid package sent to Italy. In the paintings that contain sacking, Burri was embracing the poverty of the tattered landscape of war-town Europe and elevating it, reconciling it, nursing it, and thereby celebrating it. While there is an existentialist angst discernible in the presence of the discarded and dilapidated fragments that comprise Bianco, there is also an affirmation in the fact that Burri has selected them and incorporated them within an artwork. They have no need to represent anything: they simply are.

The sheer variety of techniques that Burri has employed in Bianco reveal his thirst for innovation as well as his reinvention of the entire nature of painting. While there are areas of black, white and the glimpses of his much-loved red that have been painted, Burri has also applied fire to the glue, itself an innovation. He has also taken a domestic skill, sewing, and added it to his repertoire, a stark rebuke to the vigorous actions of his contemporaries in the United States amongst the Abstract Expressionists. He has affixed sand to the surface. And, in the swathes of white, he has deliberately controlled the range of craquelure effects by mixing the paint himself, resulting in the cobweb-like tracery of hairline cracks which recall the appearance of both parched landscapes and Old Master pictures alike. Burri had already experimented with craquelure effects during the late 1940s and had become a deft manipulator of its appearance, as would later be shown in his Cretti, where the entire surface was devoted to it. The cracks are a vivid reminder of the actual process of the paint drying, and thereby invoke the organic shift in the painting's appearance while also conveying the passing of time, an effect that is intensified by the contrast between the implied slowness of the white paint gradually taking its final form and the immediacy of fire conveyed by the scorch marks in the glue.

This catalogue of innovative and unusual techniques was to have a huge impact on the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who visited Burri's studio the year that Bianco was painted. Rauschenberg was in Rome at the time of an exhibition of his work at the Galleria dell'Obelisco, where Burri himself exhibited the previous year. The young American artist returned to visit Burri a second time, giving him one of his own works as a token of his admiration. It was on his return to the United States that Rauschenberg began working on his Combines, for instance his celebrated 1955 work Bed now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which bares clear parallels to Bianco and Burri's Sacchi in its use of a variety of techniques, its variety of textures and the simple fact that, rather than represent anything, it quite simply is exactly what it pertains to be.

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