Between Creation and Destruction: the Art of Alberto Burri
Alberto Burri is widely regarded as one of the greatest artistic pioneers of the post-war period both in Italy and internationally. Arguably the most original and radical painter of his generation, his influence can be seen coursing through Yves Klein’s fire paintings and Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, from the blank materiality of Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and the eloquent voids of Lucio Fontana to the entire Arte Povera movement. Yet prior to the Second World War it had seemed unthinkable that Burri would become an artist at all. As a young man he had trained to become a doctor and went on to serve as a medical officer with the Italian army in Africa. In 1943 he was taken prisoner by the Allies and sent to a POW camp in Hereford, Texas. It was there that Burri abandoned the medicine that had formerly been his vocation in favour of taking up palette and brush. Within a short time, the landscapes with which he had begun developed a codified form teetering on the brink of abstraction; later, upon his return home, those forms came to consist of collaged elements of burlap, painted canvas and gold, as well as the traces of flames and stucco. Burri had begun to explore novel materials and techniques that would set a crucial precedent for both his contemporaries and those that followed.
Burri’s adoption of ‘poor’ coarse materials such as torn and stitched sacking, wood, metal, tar and plastics flew in the face of all conventional notions of aesthetics and appeared to be forged from the hard existential truths about what mankind had learned during the war. His experiences had compelled him to think that humanity no longer merited his therapies, but the elemental images created by this reclusive man offered audiences a profound statement on the necessity of healing, as well as a new realm of creative possibility. Burri’s long-time friend Maurizio Calvesi has written that the artist pushed the exploration of matter ‘to a fundamental transformation: rejecting pictorial metaphors, he turned instead to brute material, to objects ravaged by time and discarded as waste, to sacks, rags, old shirts, tin-can tops scrap metal. These two operations – that of Pollock and Burri – were the two most significant acts in the genesis of Informal art and the most consequential for subsequent experiments of the avant-garde’ (M. Calvesi, Alberto Burri, New York, 1975, p. 9).
Both Pollock and Burri have been captured on film making artworks with a mesmerizing control over inherently unpredictable processes. Yet where Pollock chose the direct flow and drip of paint on canvas, Burri embraced an altogether more volatile and unconventional medium for his aesthetic arsenal. Alongside his remarkable manipulation of found industrial materials, Burri made fire a fundamental element of his creative practice, harnessing its energy and violence to craft dramatically melted or charred surfaces in artworks entitled Combustione. Burri first began to use fire in 1954-55, initially exploring the sumptuous changes of colour and texture that it evinced on paper, timber and metal. Within a short amount of time, fire had become one of the key techniques that he used to create works from plastic, which he heated until it draped, stretched and coagulated, or burned until it left blistering welts and large gaping holes.
These varied effects are evident in Combustione plastica (lot 17), a potent image of raw beauty where melted plastic is formed into sensuous craters and the surface has been blackened and burnished by fire. In this elegant and highly textural work, Burri has replaced the oil and canvas traditionally favoured in painting with a modern, man-made material and a force that is linked to destruction. His use of fire presented a stark contrast to the stitching employed in his celebrated Sacchi works, where the sewing of burlap elements was seen as a form of mending, hinting at rehabilitation for humanity following the crisis of the Second World War. Instead of bringing about the reincarnation of found materials, salvaging them from the scrap pile, fire heralds their doom, albeit partial. This is apparent in the gaping chasms of Combustione plastica, where the plastic has been burnt away, leaving a void, a portal through which one sees the background.
However, when one watches Burri on film, wielding a blowtorch before a vulnerable membrane of plastic, it is clear that the artist was engaged in a kind of dance with the fickle medium of fire. He moves swiftly to control the flames with a gust of his breath or to caress the melting surface into shape before it cools. In this act we see both the artwork and the artist moving towards a kind of transfiguration, whereby the composition arises phoenix-like from the ashes. Burri has therefore managed to turn a destructive power into an agency of creation. Fire is an inversion of painting’s typically additive processes, so the ruptures on the scorched surface of Combustione plastica have become a meditation upon the relationship between of absence and presence – where the negative space is a visible trace of a transient physical gesture, much like the slashed and punctured canvases of Burri’s contemporary, Lucio Fontana. This introduction of three-dimensional space brings the work to the verge of being a sculptural relief, but the balanced arrangement of planes and forms remains essentially pictorial, for Burri always considered himself a painter first and foremost, despite his experimental use of non-painterly matter.
Burri almost certainly sublimated his medical training and his wartime experiences into his art but he continually rejected biographical, socio-historical or emotive interpretations, insisting always on the purity of his formal concerns. In a 1994 interview, a year before his death, the artist asserted a simple reading of his life's work: ‘Form and Space! Form and Space! The end. There is nothing else’ (A. Burri quoted in L. Melandri, ‘Finding Alberto Burri's Place in America’, Combustione: Alberto Burri and America, exh. cat., Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2010, p. 19). A further Combustione in this collection (Lot 74) is a classic example of Burri’s ability to organise distressed materials into eloquent formal statements that need not be associated with exterior influences. This painting has a carefully considered relationship between figure and ground so as to maintain a sense of the flattened picture plane. It is an assemblage of torn and pasted paper, acrylic pigment and burnt elements held in perfect tension. The dark, asymmetric central mass straddles a ground divided in half by two neutral shades and is locked in place by white ovoid shapes protruding inwards from the edge. This is a sensual array of materials jostling together, their differences and textures accentuated but never competing for prominence, while the cracked surface of the Vinavil resin on the central zone anticipates the craquelure that would define Burri’s later Cretto paintings.
Maurizio Calvesi has observed that Burri’s mature oeuvre can be demarcated into two parts. In the first, the surfaces of the paintings are irregular and rough, emphasizing the fascinatingly expressive materials of sacking, wood, metals and melted plastic. In the second the surfaces tend to be smooth with painted zones of colour interwoven with a more carefully managed layout of the materials. Grande bianco plastica from 1969 (Lot 86) falls into the latter category as extreme materiality has been set aside for a subtle arrangement of broad planes. There is a stillness and breadth to this monumental painting that contrasts with the tortured forms of Burri’s earlier works, its finely tuned equilibrium conveying an almost a Zen-like calm. It is also a remarkably classical composition with a weighting of parts that appears informed by the golden ratio, a system that firmly places Burri in a continuum of painters that reaches back to the Renaissance masters.
In this vast painting, which recalls the simple geometry of Ellsworth Kelly canvases, Burri has combined plastic and acrylic paint with Cellotex, an industrial particleboard made of compressed sawdust and glue. Burri began using Cellotex in the 1950s as an invisible support for his paintings but it gradually came to the fore as a material in its own right. Using knives and various hand-made instruments, he began to scrape and scratch the board to create rich textural effects. Looking at this vast, landscape-format expanse, it is clear that Burri's interventions have granted this humble board a new status, allowing it an apotheosis. ‘I chose to use poor materials to prove that they could still be useful,’ Burri once said. ‘The poorness of a medium is not a symbol: it is a device for painting’ (Burri, quoted in Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View 1948-77, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1977, p. 72). By transforming such mundane materials into the elevated status of art object, Burri reveals their intrinsic aesthetic value, and by extension demands that we open our eyes to the beauty that is all around us, that is all too often overlooked.
Together with Fontana and Manzoni, Burri is undoubtedly one of the greatest Italian artists of the post-war period. The Combustione plastica (Plastic Combustion) seen here almost took our breath away when we saw it: imperious, dramatic, with a profound beauty for whoever is familiar with Burri's work. The burns caused by fire on the plastic leave indelible marks, like the memories of war on the mind of the artist, who during that time was a surgeon and prisoner in a military camp. The work is a cry of pain on the part of anyone who witnessed the horrors and the devastation of the conflict. The pain of a man in the face of the suffering and physical pain of other men who, as a doctor, he should have helped, but was unable to: because he, himself, is prisoner of this war. He can only express his suffering, starting to impress it on the canvas, initially as a witness and then, with greater awareness, as an artist.
A suffering and endless humanity, just as every war brings out: blood, wounds, death, life flooding back into a seemingly dead body. To me, all of this seems to be present in our Combustione plastica. The lacerations in the flesh, the deep wounds, the inside of the organs that a surgeon has to operate on to restore life: the depth of the work is provided by this mixture of elements, and by their symbolic transposition in Burri's cosmos.
The black craters, the marks of the fire, the creasing of the surface, gentle rather than deep, the black that embraces the surface in the upper part of the painting, almost as though allowing to emerge from the darkness of the memory all that one would have wished to remove forever. But it is impossible to erase the events that have "marked" you, that have prevented you from sleeping in the form of nightmares, which you will nevertheless carry inside you forever. This is the reason that Burri transmits a particular intensity in his works, a despair combined with the dedication he owes, against his will, to the memories of a tragedy experienced.
The language he adopts seems to be constructed from elements and materials that are entirely new, for his time: sacking, fabrics, plastics, cellotex, cardboard, tar. And above all, fire, with a masterly use that transforms the material and gives it a sort of internal energy. Pursuing an original, formal – I would say aesthetic – approach that is unmistakably his own, even unique on the Italian and international art scene of the 1960s.
This work has given us a great deal. Despite the dramatic nature of what we read in it, it has also transmitted to us elements of hope – a sense that man, through his best emotions, can survive pain and war. And since art is a particular world, this Combustione plastica fitted perfectly into the dialectic context we have pursued at home: for years it has conversed, entirely naturally, with Fontana and Manzoni (and this isn't surprising), but it has also conversed with Melotti, Twombly and Pascali, universes with decidedly different "assonances”.
A special mention: on the back of the work is a “hump”, coinciding with thecrater in the middle, the deepest. We only discovered this at home, when we were about to hang it on the wall. We no longer did so, until we had protected the hump on the back with a small plexiglas box, ensuring it remained intact. The frame is the original one provided by the artist, simple, like his materials: but for this work it would be impossible to imagine a different frame.