‘The matter of which we speak has no need to explain itself ... it is a presence that becomes an object of art’ (V. Nocchi, Estetica e ontologia in Alberto Burri, Città di Castello 2006, pp. 85-86).
Composizione (1950) deftly displays Alberto Burri’s attention toward form, matter and space, in an elegant, novel deployment of artistic media. In Composizione the artist employs the traditional medium of oil paint, overlapping shimmering varnished and matte layers in order to create an earthy impasto, reminiscent of industrial coal tar. Even though the present work only evokes the use of unconventional materials, it is a significant anticipation of Burri’s experimentation with alternative media. As he once stated: ‘I have chosen poor materials in order to demonstrate that they can still be useful. The poverty of the material is not a symbol; it is a pretext for painting’ (A. Burri, quoted in G. Serafini, Burri, Milan 1999, p. 124). With this fresh approach to art, Burri paved the way to Italian Arte Povera, influencing the entire generation of artists who followed him. The term, coined in 1967 by Germano Celant, literally means ‘poor art’, referring to the use of ‘poor’ materials beyond traditional oil paint. Burri worked with a wide range of media, such as tar, dust, sacks, rags and plastic. In using such elements, he questioned and unsettled the existing status quo of visual language in the 1950s. In Composizione rectangular and ellipsoid shapes unite areas of shiny and matte black across the canvas, suggesting chemical processes such as of combustion and oxidation. The colour is densely laid, emphasising the viscous shine of the craters scattered across the surface, while the lustreless black shapes act as counterpoints. The layers of different colour create a drama of abstract lines and form, while the brushstrokes and the texture of the canvas seem to be absent, the surface impenetrable: it is the materiality of the medium that dominates the image.
Composizione echoes the formal framework that characterised Burri’s early abstract works, Sacchi or Plastiche, in which the artist worked with found materials like burlap sacks and plastic in order to re-examine their potential. Composizione is still rooted in the classical tradition of painting, yet it anticipates Burri’s groundbreaking ideas regarding the transformative potential of everyday materials, paving the way for an exchange between art and reality. With this approach, Burri dictated formal expression in the 1950s to such a degree that his monochrome black-on-black paintings not only informed the work of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, but also anticipated the famous blue monochromes of Yves Klein by seven years.