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

Sacco e Bianco

Details
Alberto Burri (1915-1995)
Sacco e Bianco
signed and dated ‘Burri 53’ (on the reverse)
fabric, burlap, oil and Vinavil on fabric
27 x 22½in. (68.5 x 57cm.)
Executed in 1953
Provenance
G. David Thompson Collection, Pittsburgh.
Galleria Blu, Milan.
Galleria Gissi, Turin.
Private Collection, Italy (acquired from the above in 1969).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Literature
Appunti sull’interpretazione critica di Burri, in Arte Oggi, a. III, no. 10, 1961.
C. Brandi, Burri, Rome 1963, no. 34 (illustrated, unpaged).
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini (ed.), Alberto Burri, Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello 1990, no. 109 (illustrated in colour, p.37).
Nella materia, la perfezione, in Gazzettino del lunedì, Venice 1996.
G. Serafini, Burri. La misura e il fenomeno, Milan 1999, p. 48 (illustrated), no. 50 (p. 242).
Marca-Relli l'amico americano; sintonie e dissonanze con Afro e Burri, exh. cat., Galleria d'Arte Niccoli, Parma 2002 (illustrated in colour, p. 289).
G. Celant, Manzoni and his Time, in Piero Manzoni. A Retrospective, New York 2009 (illustrated in colour, p. 19).
A.A., V.V, Gastone Novelli Catalogo Generale 1. Pittura e scultura, Cinisello Balsamo 2011 (illustrated in colour, p. 18).
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini (ed.), Alberto Burri, General Catalogue, Città di Castello 2015, vol. I, no. 203 (illustrated in colour, p. 108), no. 203, p 296; vol. VI, no. i5314 (illustrated in colour, p. 67).
Exhibited
Pittsburgh, Museum of Art Carnegie Institute, Paintings by Alberto Burri, 1957-1958, no. 4 (illustrated and titled With striped material from Castello, unpaged). This exhibition later travelled to Chicago, The Arts Club of Chicago; Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery and San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art.
Lucerne, Kunstmuseum, Italienische Maler der Gegenwart, 1960 (with titled Con materiale di Castello, p. 9).
Turin, Galleria Gissi, Epica della vitalità, 1969, no. 5 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Turin, Galleria La Bussola, Antologia Internazionale, 1969.
Acqui Terme, Palazzo “Liceo Saracco”, “Amate sponde” Pittura di paesaggio in Italia dal 1910 al 1984, 1984 (illustrated in colour with incorrect medium, unpaged).
Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Burri opere 1944-1995, 1996-97 (illustrated in colour, p. 172). This exhibition later travelled to Munich, Lenbachhaus and Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts.
Acqui Terme, Palazzo “Liceo Saracco”, I “neri” di Burri, 2003 (illustrated in colour, p. 53).
Milan, Museo della Permanente, Filoluce. Da Balla a Boetti, da Fontana a Flavin, 2005 (illustrated in colour, p. 46); p. 106.
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Lot Essay

‘In sacking I find a perfect match between shade, material and idea that would be impossible to paint’
Alberto Burri

‘In his encounter with his materials, Burri recognized that he was dealing with independent entities. Obviously he chose his materials, but then he came under the spell of their expressive possibilities. The artist’s hand was activated by something happening in real life, and the result was a direct interchange between the artist and his materials’
Maurizio Calvesi

‘Up to this point the warp and woof of the canvas had only been a rhythmic texture in the painting. Burri took a step further: he established the texture of the canvas as the painting itself. An unpainted painting, in its pre-natal state’
Cesare Brandi

Created in 1953 and included in a wide range of international exhibitions over the following five decades, Sacco e Bianco is a seminal early example of Alberto Burri’s Sacchi (‘Sacks’) – arguably the most important and innovative body of works in his career. One of the first ten Sacchi in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, the work is a stunning display of his compositional boldness and radical use of material. A broad swathe of richly textural white paint to the left meets an angular slab of black above; to the right, a zone of raw burlap is adorned with delicately sewn fragments of both finely and coarsely woven sacking, and enlivened by subtle blushes of blue, red, green, and yellow pigment, which bloom across the surface like delicate bruises. The work’s echoes of surgery, injury and healing create a surface of profoundly corporeal drama. With Sacco e Bianco, Burri furthered his revolutionary exploration of new and alternative modes to the traditional mark-making that had been favoured throughout Western art history. Burri accorded the direct use of material the urgency of a moral imperative. His art was far more technically radical – and no less expressive – than the gestural painting pioneered by his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, such as the European proponents of Art Informel and the Abstract Expressionists in America. Sacking was among the first of many humble materials that Burri began to employ in the decade after the Second World War, in a career that would utterly transform conceptions of how art could be made.
For Burri, sacking was a medium that hung heavy with the ghosts of conflict. In his Sacchi, the torn, worn and blemished material itself becomes a body of contusions and scars, hinting at his original medical vocation as a military surgeon in the Italian army, first in the mid-1930s and later in the Second World War, during which he was captured and interned in Hereford, Texas for almost three years; the works can also be seen to reflect the ravaged Italian landscape to which he came home after the war was over in 1946.
It was in Texas that Burri had first begun to make pictures. Unable to practice medicine inside the camp, he turned his hand to art, working with materials provided by the YMCA. As supplies dwindled in the spring of 1945, Burri began to collect empty burlap sacks from the mess hall. He treated these first sacks like canvases, covering them with a ground layer before painting upon their surfaces; however, his return to the medium in 1950 brought with it the realisation that this coarse, prefabricated material could in many ways transcend the expressive capabilities of pigment. ‘Up to this point the warp and woof of the canvas had only been a rhythmic texture in the painting’, wrote Cesare Brandi in 1963. ‘Burri took a step further: he established the texture of the canvas as the painting itself. An unpainted painting, in its pre-natal state’ (C. Brandi, Burri, Rome, 1963, p. 26).
In the Marshall Plan years of the late 1940s, American-supplied sacks of grain, sugar and other essentials filled many Italian cities, and it was these that Burri employed in his very earliest works, collaging scraps of the fabric into oil paintings such as SZ I (1949, Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello). The majority of the Sacchi, however, were composed from burlap fragments that Burri received in an agreement with the owner of a flourmill in Città di Castello, the Umbrian town in which he had been born and raised. The American critic Milton Gendel, who visited Burri in his studio in Rome in 1954, described the bare, white-washed studio with, ‘an island of the heap of rags and scraps that Burri consults like a reference library of shapes and textures as he works’ (M. Gendel, ‘Burri Makes a Picture’, ArtNews, December 1954). With some burlap pieces coarser, finer, more worn, sun-bleached, stained or patterned than others, Burri exploited the innate textural and chromatic qualities of this evocative material with painterly virtuosity. He methodically tore, stretched or ripped these fragments, fraying their edges or pulling at their seams, and by turn, stitched, sutured, tacked or glued the varying pieces together to create the richly textured patchwork effect that makes the Sacchi so distinctive.
In the present work, Burri – so adept and dextrous at sewing that one of his Roman neighbours named him ‘The Tailor’ – has created a richly textured patchwork-like surface made up of distinct pieces of variously textured sacking. The large plane on the right-hand side of the composition is patterned with faded stripes – a feature rarely seen in the Sacchi. It was only on a few occasions that Burri integrated pieces of sacking with labels, typeface, or patterns. Burri’s integration of this piece within his composition is reminiscent of Picasso and Braque’s cubist papier-collés. The pair often incorporated pieces of found paper – floral wallpaper, textured faux-bois, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera – into their compositions, exploiting the appearance or the original function of these papers to impart various levels of meaning to their cubist compositions. In addition, the integration of these found materials allowed the artists to blur the boundaries between the real and fictional space of a painting in a way that had never before been seen.
Burri significantly expanded this collage technique by using real materials as the sole components of his works. 'Burri also speaks the language of collage. But with a vast difference from any of [his] predecessors’, James Johnson Sweeney has written. ‘His expression is primarily sensual in its approach to surface textures, colours and psychological associations in contradistinction to any primary cerebral, witty, or literary interest. Nevertheless this sensuality in Burri's approach does not in any way preclude an elegance or intellectual organisation in the final product. As a matter of fact these are both striking characteristics of all that is most characteristic of Burri… This ability to play unselfconsciously with his medium, combined with an unashamed, natural sensuality – both controlled and refined by an intellectual ideal for his work, a delicate sensibility, and a technician’s competence and conscience – has made it possible for Alberto Burri to give one of the most individual and refreshing expressions of the past ten years and at the same time one directly in line with the soundest traditions’ (J. Johnson Sweeney, ‘Paintings by Alberto Burri’, in Burri 1915-1995, Retrospektive, exh. cat., Rome, Munich & Brussels, 1996-97, p. 270).
As the title implies, Sacco e Bianco is a fusion of the Sacchi and also the Bianchi, one of the artist’s most radical and rare early series. The title of the work follows the general logic of Burri’s œuvre: the dominant material, colour or process is generally given first, followed by the secondary element. Begun in 1949, the Bianchi saw Burri create a new form of monochrome painting. Using a combination of naturally white textiles, thick impastoed white oil paint and often pieces of neutral brown sack cloth, these large, symphonic compositions feature sweeping monochrome fields of colour. Yet, with their often gestural, richly textured surfaces, these are a far cry from the austere, depersonalised surfaces of Fontana or Klein or their American counterparts, Reinhardt or Newman. In the present work, the white pigment becomes a material in its own right, contrasting dramatically with the black painted burlap that spans the upper register of the composition. Applied in lavish, thick swathes, likely with a palette knife, this white segment has a sensuous, sumptuous opacity, rich in texture and glowing with a beguiling luminosity amidst the patch-work surface.
Overturning the primacy of paint and its usual decorative function in artmaking, Burri here offers a new conception of the medium. In a world that had witnessed unspeakable destruction, a painted canvas no longer seemed apt to convey the experience of humanity. Instead, Burri forged a new form of material realism, one which was, as Emilio Villa described, ‘In no uncertain terms: painting, but ones nourished by matter that conserves only a tragic reminiscence of painting, almost as if it were asphyxiated; a material that is devitalized, impoverished, rotted, consumed, and already wasted away’ (E. Villa, in E. Braun, op. cit., p. 37).

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