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Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner.
By the late 1950s, Alberto Burri's influence on the artistic avant-garde was being felt directly and indirectly through much of Europe and even in the United States. It is therefore surprising to find that only years earlier, he had been a professional doctor who had shown little interest in art. His captivity in Tunisia during the Second World War and his subsequent captivity in a camp in Hereford, Texas have become the stuff of legend within the realms of the history of art. For it was in Texas that Burri first refused to practise as a doctor (it was as an army doctor that he had been serving in North Africa), and then turned to painting.
Burri made sure that few of his early efforts remain. It would seem that the pictures from 1944 and 1945 were initially nostalgic landscapes. But within a very short time, these landscapes developed an intense expressionistic energy, visible both in their colours and in the textured paint surfaces. On his return to Italy in 1946, Burri continued painting, leaning more and more towards abstraction. Indeed, by the late 1940s, Burri was using tar, sand and collage elements in his abstract compositions, prefiguring his celebrated Sacchi. Like the Informel movement, Burri was increasingly interested in materiality. The materials that came to comprise Burri's artistic arsenal included plastic, metal, wood, gold, and of course sackcloth.
To some extent, it was this last element that had prompted the turning point in his art as it evolved from abstraction towards collage and the interest in the material. SZ1, executed in 1949, clearly shows fragments of a sack that had been decorated with the Stars and Stripes of the flag of the United States of America, whose unwilling guest Burri had been for some years. This sack was one of the many aid packages that the United States sent Italy in the wake of the Second World War. For Italy was racked with poverty during this period. The Informel appearance of Burri's works was in part related to the tattered and used-up appearance of the artist's own home country. The indignity of this dependence on the help of other nations hurt Burri, a proud man and a proud Italian. However, his art does not show resentment. Instead, the optimistic Burri transforms the faded, torn and humble materials that made up the new landscape of his nation into artworks that have an internal beauty and dignity of their own. His Sacchi are celebrations not only of materials, but also of the materials that now underpinned life in Post-War Italy.
Burri's interest in materiality came to eclipse everything else, and it was only a small matter of time before these 'paintings' ceased to be any such thing in the strictest sense, and became objects in their own rights, often containing no paint at all. By placing everyday materials in an artistic context - on a pedestal, as it were - Burri was bringing the viewer's attention to its inherent qualities, beauty and dignity. The lurid red of one type of plastic, the transparency of another, the natural detailing in wood or the pattern and texture of sackcloth... These humble, sometimes modern materials became the sensual heroes of Burri's art, appearing defiantly in galleries and museums and demanding due recognition from the modern world. His use of plastic especially, which had only become widely available during the Post-War period, posed a deliberate challenge to the hegemony of traditional artistic materials. This was a man-made substance, lurid, common, garish, chemical and industrial. And yet in Burri's Plastico works of the late 1950s and particularly of the 1960s, it becomes an object that inspires appreciation and even awe.
Burri showed a poet's wonderment in his celebration of the raw, fundamental matter of the Twentieth Century. His love of the materials is infectious, reflected in the sensuality of his works of the 1950s and 1960s and the increasing monumentality of those of the 1970s and 1980s. There is also a poetry in the transformations that allowed him to chart, capture or stop time, depending on the work. In his Cretti of the 1970s, he created strange organic worlds, actual landscapes that grew with their own gentle, miniature tectonic shifts, whereas his Combustioni bear the sudden scars of the flames with which Burri had burnt them. In some works, he even managed to capture smoke within transparent plastic, making this ungraspable element a part of his art. The clouds of landscape painting have been reincarnated as the smoking plastic of Burri's modern vision. In this sense, it is not only in terms of the material that each work is unique, but also in terms of its being the precise product of a certain moment or length of time, a factor that Burri himself stressed: 'For each of these paintings, always a bit unexpected, we can always say: this is a work that could only have been done today, this is an action that could only have been performed today, not yesterday and not tomorrow' (Emilio Villa, 1953, quoted in G. Serafini, exh. cat., Burri: La misura e il fenomeno, Milan, 1999, p. 141). These are the products and symptoms of the world around us, however much they may stand alone as artworks within that world.
Burri's self-contained picture-objects presented an intriguing Third Way to the artistic avant-garde during a period when there was a debate between the purveyors of abstract art and the purveyors of figuration. Burri's art is exactly what it is, and in this sense introduces a new realm of realism. This is even reflected in the titles that he gave to most of his works, which tended to describe what they were: Sacco, Catrame, Cellotex, Plastico, Combustione, Ferro and so on. The title is the final hermetic seal on the self-contained artwork, capping the unity of each object. Likewise, it brings further attention to the material itself, which is the subject and the medium of each example. It was this unified sense of objecthood that was Burri's greatest legacy. As early as 1951, he founded the Gruppo Origine alongside Giuseppe Capogrossi, Ettore Colla and Mario Ballocco. This short-lived alliance between artists already sought to create autonomous art objects that did not rely on representation or on any reference to the outside world. Even then, Burri's works were marked by the same self-containment and self-sufficiency that would see him influencing Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni in Europe, and Robert Rauschenberg in the United States in the1950s and remaining a modest godfather of modern art even at his death.
The example of Rauschenberg is much discussed in relation both to him and to Burri. Some people like to view the Italian as the progenitor, via Rauschenberg, of every pertinent conceptual movement in the United States from that period onwards, be it in the form of Jasper Johns' work, Minimalism, or any other incarnation. Defenders of Rauschenberg point out that the young American artist's ideas regarding objecthood were already ripe by the time he managed to visit Burri's studio. In this context, it was seeing the collaged works and Sacchi that had the biggest impact on him, leading directly to his Combines. But Rauschenberg undeniably gained an affirmation of his ideas and the moral encouragement to continue along the path he had chosen. In this way, Burri became a sort of guardian angel overlooking the developments of art in the United States, a role that was cemented when his works were shown there in the Guggenheim Museum in 1953, and whose impact was felt in almost every conceptual development from then onwards.
The idea of objecthood, with the artwork existing in its own right without any reliance on the outside world and devoid of signs and signifiers, would continue to exert its influence throughout the subsequent decades. The consistency of Burri's artistic output made him a rock and a paragon in the world of modern art. His influence was still felt at his death, almost half a century after it had been initially displayed. His lasting legacy was summed up in his radical and revelatory insistence that 'Everything is already present in the painting' (Burri, quoted in Serafini, op.cit., 1999, p. 114).
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
C. Brandi & V. Rubiu, Burri, Contributo al catalogo generale, Rome, 1963, no. 57 (illustrated p. 189).
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini (ed.), Burri, contributi al catalogo sistematico, Città di Castello, 1990, no. 60 (illustrated p. 25)