On the third floor is a hall devoted to Alberto Burri and Art Informel by major Italian masters: Emilio Vedova, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Gastone Novelli, Tancredi, Carla Accardi, and Osvaldo Licini. The exhibition devoted to the Fifties and Sixties displays artwork by Piero Manzoni and the artists from the Azimuth group, from Enrico Castellani to Agostino Bonalumi.
Alberto Burri (12 March 1915 – 13 February 1995) was an Italian visual artist, painter, sculptor and physician based in Città di Castello. He is associated with the matterism of the European informal art movement and described his style as a polymaterialist. He had connections with Lucio Fontana’s spatialism and, with Antoni Tàpies, an influence on the revival of the art of post-war assembly in America (Robert Rauschenberg) as in Europe.
He was born in Città di Castello (Perugia) on March 12, 1915, the eldest son of Pietro, a wine merchant, and Carolina Torreggiani, elementary teacher.
After graduating from the Annibale Mariotti high school in Perugia, in 1934 he enrolled in the faculty of medicine at the University of the same city, graduating on June 12, 1940.
On October 9, 1940, with the rank of complementary second lieutenant, he was recalled to arms and soon dismissed to follow the internship at a hospital, for the purpose of qualification to practice the profession. After graduating, he returned to the army and, in early March 1943, assigned to the 10th legion in northern Africa. In the days of the Italian surrender in Africa, he was captured by the British on 8 May 1943 and, passed into the hands of the Americans, he was imprisoned, together with Giuseppe Berto and Beppe Niccolai, in the “criminal camp” for non-cooperators of the Hereford concentration camp (in Texas) where he stayed for 18 months. In the spring of 1944 he refused to sign a proposed declaration of collaboration and was cataloged among the “irreducible” fascists. It was in this period that the conviction of dedicating himself to painting matured.
From abstraction to matter
Once Burri returned to Italy on 27 February 1946, his decision collided with the severe post–World War II recession and his parents’ dissatisfaction. He moved to Rome as a guest of the violinist and composer Annibale Bucchi, his mother’s cousin, who encouraged his activity as a painter.
While in Rome, he had the chance of establishing a contact with the few but very active institutions dedicated to painting, which were creating a new platform for visual arts after the war.
He remained a reserved artist, ceaselessly working and creating, initially in a small studio in Via Margutta but frequently moving out. As a matter of fact, Milton Gendel – an American journalist who visited Burri’s studio in 1954 –, later reported: “The studio is thick-walled, whitewashed, neat and ascetic; his work is ‘blood and flesh,’ reddened torn fabric that seems to parallel the staunching of wounds that Burri experienced in wartime.”
Burri’s first solo figurative artworks exhibition took place on 10 July 1947 at the gallery-cum-bookshop La Margherita, in Rome, presented by the poets Leonardo Sinisgalli and Libero De Libero. However, Burri’s artistic production flowed definitively into abstract forms before the end of the same year, the use of small format tempera resulting from the influence of such artists as Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró, whose studio was visited by Burri during a trip to Paris in the winter of 1948.
Tars, Molds, Hunchbacks
Burri’s artistic research became personal in short time, between 1948 and 1950 he began experimenting with using unusual, ‘unorthodox’ materials such as tar, sand, zinc, pumice, and Aluminium dust as well as Polyvinyl chloride glue, this last material being elevated to the same importance as oil colors. During this artistic transition, the painter showed his sensitivity to the mixed-media type of abstraction of Enrico Prampolini, a central figure in Italian Abstract art. Nonetheless Burri went one step further in his Catrami (Tars), presenting tar not as a simple collage material, but as an actual color which – by way of different lucid and opaque shades in monochrome black–, blended itself with the totality of the painting.
His 1948 “Nero 1” (Black 1) was later taken by the artist as initial milestone of his painting and established the prevalence of the black monochrome, which will be maintained as close identity throughout his career, alongside white, since Bianchi (Whites) 1949–50 series, and red.
The following series of Muffe (Molds) literally presented the spontaneous reactions of the materials employed, enabling matter to ‘come to life’ in drippings and concretions which reproduced the effects and appearance of real mold. In some artworks of the same period which he called Gobbi (Hunchbacks), Burri focused on the painting’s spatial interaction, achieving another original outcome due to the incorporation of tree branches on the rear of the canvas which pushed two-dimensionality towards Three-dimensional space.
In 1949 the critic Christian Zervos published the photo of a Catrame (exhibited in Paris the previous year) in the renowned Cahiers d’art.
Despite Burri’s affinity with informalism and his friendship with Ettore Colla, which brought Alberto close to the Gruppo Origine (established and disbanded in 1951 by Colla himself, Mario Balocco and Giuseppe Capogrossi), the painter’s artistic research appeared more and more solitary and independent.
Sacchi and the American emergence
Starting in 1952 Burri achieved a strong, personal characterization with the Sacchi (Sacks), artworks directly obtained from jute fabric widely distributed by the Marshall Plan: color almost entirely disappeared, leaving space for the surface material so that painting coincide with its matter in its total autonomy, as it was no more separation between painting surface and its form.
The formal artistic elegance and the spatial balances obtained through aeroform steams, craters, rips, overlapping color layers and different forms, differentiated Burri’s art, founded on attentive reflections and precise calculations, from the impulsive gestures that characterized Action painting during the same period.
Burri offered an initial view of these peculiar elements in 1949, with SZ1 (acronym for Sacco di Zucchero 1 meaning Sack of Sugar, 1): the presence of a portion of the american flag contained in the artwork anticipated the use of the same subject made by pop art. In Burri’s case, however, there were no social or symbolic implications, the painting’s formal and chromatic balance being the only real focus.
Censorship and success
Burri’s Sacchi did not win the public’s understanding and were instead considered as extremely far from the notion of art. In 1952, year of his first participation at the Venice Biennale exhibition, the Sacks titled Lo Strappo (The Rip) and Rattoppo (Patch) were rejected.
Again, in 1959 a point of order of the Italian Parliament asked for the removal of one of the painter’s works from the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome.
Burri’s work received a different and positive consideration in 1953, when James Johnson Sweeney (director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) discovered Burri’s paintings at the Obelisco Gallery in Rome, and subsequently introduced the artist’s work to the United States, in a collective exhibition representative of the new European artistic tendencies. This encounter subsequently led to a life-long friendship with Sweeney becoming an active a proponent of Burri’s art in leading American Museums and writing the very first monogrph about the artist in 1955. During the same year Robert Rauschenberg visited the painter’s studio two times: despite the linguistic differences between the two artists prevented them to talking to each other, Rauschenberg’s visits provided substantial input for the creation of his Combine Paintings.
Burri’s strong relationship with the United States became official when he met Minsa Craig (1928–2003), an American ballet dancer (student of Martha Graham) and choreographer whom he married on 15 May 1955 in Westport, Connecticut. They stuck together through thick and thin, for the rest of their lives.
Adoption of fire
After a few sporadic attempts, in 1953–54 Burri conducted a carefully planned experimentation with fire, through small combustions on paper, which served as illustrations for a book of poems by Emilio Villa. The poet was one of the first to understand the painter’s revolutionary artistic potential, writing about it since 1951 and working with him to artist’s books. He later recalled a common visit to an oil field (for a 1955 reportage for the magazine “Civiltà delle Macchine”) as a strong influence for the artist’s interest on the use of fire.
Combustions, Woods, Irons, Plastics
The procedure adopted for the Combustioni (Combustions) passed from paper to the Legni (Woods) around 1957, in thin sheets of wood veneer fastened to canvas and other supports.
In the same period Burri was also working on the Ferri (Irons), creations made out of metal sheets cut, and welded by Blow torch, to aim the general balance of the elements. The best known application of this procedure was reached in the Plastiche (Plastics) during the Sixties, when a gradual critic openness towards Burri’s art showed up in Italy as well.
The blowtorch was only apparently a destructive device. Indeed, the craters modeled by the flame on cellophane, black, red or transparent plastic or on the Bianchi Plastica (White Plastic) series, in which the transparent plastic is laid on a white or black support, were lightly directed by the painter’s blowing. The balances of the matter were thus highlighted once again, in a sort of ‘defiance’ towards of flame’s randomness on the one hand, and in a sort of attempt to ‘dominate chance’, intrinsic to Burri’s philosophy, on the other.
From Cretto to Cellotex
From 1963 on, Burri and his wife started spending their winters in Los Angeles. The painter progressively detached himself from the city’s artistic community, deeply focusing on his own work. During his recurrent trips to Death Valley National Park, the artist found in the natural cracking of the desert the visual spur which led him, starting from 1973, to create Cretti (Cracks) developing the use of the crackled paint effect of his 1940’s artworks.
Employing a special mixture of kaolin, resins and pigment, the painter dried its surface with the heat of an oven. Burri arrested the heating process at the desired moment using a PVA glue layer, thus obtaining greater and lesser cracking effects, which were always balanced thanks to the painter’s extensive knowledge of chemistry.
Grande Cretto at Gibellina
Burri reproduced the procedure used for the Cretti, either black or white, also in sculpture, on large extensions in the University of California, Los Angeles and Naples (Museo di Capodimonte) Grandi Cretti (Large Cracks) made of baked clay (both 49 x 16) and, most importantly, in the vast cement covering of the Grande Cretto at Gibellina, upon the ruins of the old small Sicilian town destroyed by the 1968 earthquake. Began in 1984 and interrupted in 1989, the work was completed in 2015, for the artist’s centenary of birth. It is one of the largest works of art ever realized, extending over an area of approximately 85,000 square meters. Its white concrete covering expands over the town, following the old street map in long arterial roads and corridors, which are walkable, thus symbolically bringing the devastated town back to life.
Cellotex and the large cycles of paintings
During the Seventies Burri’s art saw a gradual transition towards wider dimensions, while retrospectives followed one another around the world. The great solo exhibition crossing the United States in 1977–78 and ending at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is one example.
In the 1979 cycle of paintings called Il Viaggio (The Journey) Burri retraced, through ten monumental compositions, the key moments of his artistic production.
The privileged material during this phase is Celotex (the author added an l to its name), an industrial mixture of wood production scraps and adhesives, very often used in the making of insulating boards. Up to then, the painter had used this material in his previous works since the early 1950s as a support for his acetate and acrylic works.
After that Cellotex was used for cyclical series conceived as polyptych on a dominant and clear geometrical structure, through extremely thin scratched shades or juxtapositions of smooth and rough portions like Orsanmichele (1981), or in black monochromes variations like Annottarsi (Up to Nite, 1985), as well as in multicolored forms like Sestante (Sextant, 1983) or the homage to the gold of Ravenna mosaics in his last Nero e Oro (Black and Gold) series.
Sculpture and set design
Burri’s entire artistic production was conceived by the author as an inseparable whole of form and space, both in painting and in sculpture. An example is the recurrent motif of the archivolt, viewed in its plain form in painting and in perspective in such iron sculptures as Teatro Scultura – a work presented at 1984 Venice Biennale –, and in the 1972 Ogive series in ceramics.
The strong continuity of Burri’s sculptural works with his paintings can also be seen in the Los Angeles UCLA and Naples Capodimonte ceramic Grandi Cretti (with the help of the long collaborator ceramist Massimo Baldelli), or in the Grande Ferro (Large Iron) exhibited in Perugia on the occasion of the 1980 meeting between the artist and Joseph Beuys.
The Large Cretto at Gibellina doesn’t properly fall under the category of land art, but it has features combining architecture, sculpture and space. Other sculptures on iron are permanently held in Città di Castello museums, Ravenna, Celle (Pistoia), Perugia and Milan, where the rotating wings of the Teatro Continuo (Continuous Theatre) is both real scenic space and sculpture, employing the Sforza Castle park as natural backcloth.
Theater had a privileged role in Burri’s artistic production. Though in isolated interventions, the painter worked in the fields of prose, ballet and opera. In 1963 Burri designed the sets for Spirituals, Morton Gould’s ballet at La Scala, in Milan. The painter’s Plastiche emphasized the dramatic force of such plays as the 1969 Ignazio Silone stage adaptation in San Miniato (Pisa) and Tristan and Iseult, performed in 1975 at the Teatro Regio in Turin.
In 1973 Burri designed sets and costumes for November Steps, conceived by his wife Minsa Craig, with a score by Toru Takemitsu. The ballet was interacting with an early example of visual art by a film clip depicting how the Cretti progressively came into being.
Burri never considered graphic art of secondary importance to painting. He participated intensively in the experimentation of new printing techniques as the 1965 reproduction of the Combustioni – in which the brothers Valter and Eleonora Rossi perfectly succeeded in mimicking the effect of burning on paper –, or the irregular Cretti cavities (1971) with the same printers.
Further innovative developments can be found in the silk screens Sestante (1987–89) – with the help of Burri’s old friend and collaborator Nuvolo – to the Mixoblack series (1988), created in Los Angeles with printers Luis and Lea Remba on marble dust and sand in particular three-dimensional effects.
A telling fact is that Burri used the money from the Feltrinelli Prize for graphics – awarded to him in 1973 by the Accademia dei Lincei – to promote and support the restoration of Luca Signorelli’s frescos in the small oratory of San Crescentino, only few kilometers far from Burri’s country house in Città di Castello; a further example of how modern and contemporary are mentally close in Burri’s art.
Alberto Burri died childless on 13 February 1995 in Nice, in the French Riviera, where he had moved for the ease of living and because of a pulmonary emphysema.
Just before his death, the painter was awarded the Legion of Honour and the title Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, besides being named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His graphic series Oro e Nero (Gold and Black), was donated by the artist among others at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence 1994, by which time he was already beginning to be considered more of a ‘classical’ than a ‘contemporary’ artist.
Alberto Burri’s art captured the interest of many contemporary artist colleagues, from Lucio Fontana and Giorgio Morandi to Jannis Kounellis, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Anselm Kiefer, who recognized Burri’s greatness – and, in some cases, influence – time and time again.
Foundation and the museums
In accordance with the painter’s will, the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini was established in Città di Castello in 1978, in order to copyright Burri’s own work. The first museum collection, inaugurated in 1981, is the one situated inside the Albizzini Renaissance apartment building. The 15th century Patrician house, belonged to the patrons of Raphael’s Wedding of the Virgin, was refurbished by the architects Alberto Zanmatti and Tiziano Sarteanesi in accordance with Burri’s own plans.
The second collection is that of the Città di Castello former tobacco drying sheds, an industrial structure gradually abandoned during the 1960s and inaugurated in 1990, expanding over an area of 11,500 square meters. At present, the structure features the totality of large cycles of painting by the artist, monumental sculptures and, from March 2017 on, the painter’s entire graphic production.
The structure’s black exterior and the particular space adaptations represent one last attempt by Burri to create a total work of art, in continuity with the idea of formal and psychological balance he constantly pursued.
Alberto Burri is currently recognized as a radical innovator of the second half of the twentieth century, as a precursor of the solutions found by such artistic movements as Arte Povera, Neo-Dada, Nouveau réalisme, Postminimalism and process art, leaving open many critical interpretations and methodological interpretations of his work.
In his 1963 monograph, Cesare Brandi highlighted the essentialness of Burri’s painting and his rejection of both decorative detail and the historical avant-gardes’ (e.g. Futurism) provocations, favoring a new approach through an ‘unpainted painting’ concept.
On the other hand, Enrico Crispolti interpreted Burri’s employment of material from an existential point of view – as James Johnson Sweeney similarly had in the very first monograph on Burri published in 1955 – implying a criticism towards a certain post-war ethical drift.
Pierre Restany considered him as a “special case” in the Minimalism history, having been “the monumental outsider and genial precursor at the same time”. Maurizio Calvesi adopted a psychoanalytic reading during the years, finding “ethical values” in his art, identifying at the same time the Renaissance origins of Burri’s homeland: Piero della Francesca would have inspired in Burri the sense of space and solemnity of the masses which the painter then transferred on the combusted woods or the worn-out sacks.
More recently, Burri’s position has been reevaluated thanks to the 2015 major retrospective exhibition Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting curated by Emily Braun for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and to the 2016 collective exhibition Burri Lo spazio di Materia tra Europa e USA edited by the current Foundation chairman Bruno Corà, which foregrounded the radical change in traditional Western painting and modern collage brought about by Burri, while also focusing on his ‘psychological’ recovery of classical painting’s formal balances alive.
Among the many historical readings, Giulio Carlo Argan’s judgment (written in the 1960 Venice Biennale catalogue) remains emblematic: “For Burri we must speak for an overturned Trompe-l’œil, because it is no more painting to simulate reality, but it is reality to simulate painting.”
On 11 February 2014 Christie’s established the artist’s record with the work Combustione Plastica, sold for £4,674,500 (estimate range of £600,000 to £800,000). The work (signed and dated on the back) in plastic, acrylic and combustion (4 ft x 5 ft) was made between 1960 and 1961.
The artist’s record was established in 2016 in London when, during the evening dedicated by Sotheby’s to the 1959 contemporary Sacco e Rosso, the artwork was sold for over £9 million, thus doubling the previous record.
Alberto Burri’s art has inspired many Italian directors, among which Michelangelo Antonioni, who drew inspiration from the painter’s material research for his 1964 Red Desert.
Composer Salvatore Sciarrino wrote an homage to commemorate the painter’s passing in 1995, commissioned by Città di Castello’s Festival delle Nazioni. For the same festival the former tobacco drying sheds became the setting of a composition by Alvin Curran in 2002.
The Large Cretto at Gibellina has functioned several times as a set for the Orestiadi Festival and as set for a 2015 performance by artists Giancarlo Neri and Robert Del Naja (Massive Attack). The 1973 ballet November Steps, with Burri’s sets and costumes, was proposed again in 2015 by the Guggenheim Museum, New York. In 2016 choreographer Virgilio Sieni created the work Quintetti sul Nero, inspired by the Umbrian master. In 2017 John Densmore (The Doors) performed in front of the Grande Nero Cretto (Large Black Crack) at ucla, Los Angeles during the event Burri Prometheia.
Throughout the years, fashion designers have drawn inspiration from Burri, from Roberto Capucci, with his 1969 item of clothing Omaggio a Burri which has asymmetric features recreating the Cretti effects, up to Laura Biagiotti for her (last) 2017 collection.
In 1987 Burri created the official 1990 FIFA World Cup posters. The Umbria Jazz Festival used the Sestante series for the 2015 edition poster, celebrating the artist’s centenary of birth.
Museum of the twentieth century in Milan
The Museo del Novecento in Milan is a permanent exhibition of 20th century works of art housed in the Palazzo dell’Arengario and the adjacent Royal Palace in Milan. The museum absorbed the collections of the previous Civic Museum of Contemporary Art (CIMAC) which was located on the second floor of the Royal Palace and which was closed in 1998.
The Museo del Novecento, located inside the Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo, hosts a collection of over four thousand works that catalyze the development of 20th century Italian art.
The Museo del Novecento was established on 6 December 2010 with the goal of spreading knowledge of 20th century art and offering a more comprehensive insight into the collections that the city of Milan has inherited over time. Beside its core exhibition activity, the Museum is active in the conservation, investigation and promotion of 20th century Italian cultural and artistic heritage with the final aim of reaching an ever wider audience.
Apart from a single room housing works by foreign artists including Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, Léger, Matisse, Mondrian and Picasso, the majority of the works exhibited in the museum are by Italian artists. A major section is devoted to the Italian Futurists, with works by Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Fortunato Depero, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini, Mario Sironi and Ardengo Soffici. Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s large canvas Il Quarto Stato (1902) is also exhibited in a room on its own.
Other sections of the museum are dedicated to individual artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana and Morandi. There are also sections devoted to art movements of the twentieth century, including Abstractionism, Arte Povera, the Novecento Italiano, Post-Impressionism and Realism, and to genres such as landscape and monumental art.