Alberto Burri (1915–1995), a pivotal figure in the history of 20th-century art, established his career in Rome and New York in the early 1950s. He developed a new art of assemblage at a time when the gestural painting of American Abstract Expressionism and European Art Informel prevailed.
Burri created surfaces and supports out of humble and prefabricated materials. In the immediate postwar years he worked with tar, ground pumice stone, and cast-off linens and burlap sacks; as Italy entered the economic boom of the 1950s he turned to wood veneer, cold-rolled steel, and plastic sheeting straight from the factory.
He made his “unpainted paintings” by tearing, stitching, welding, melting, and burning. In their large scale and affective power, these artworks are distinct from earlier modernist collage. Unlike later assemblages with found objects, they neither celebrate nor critique mass culture. Instead, Burri’s materials- and process-based art anticipated currents of the 1960s such as Arte Povera and Post-Minimalism.
Born in the Italian town of Città di Castello, Umbria, Burri grew up in a region renowned for Renaissance art. His background in medicine, experience of making do with little as a prisoner of war, and lack of formal artistic training—but deep familiarity with painting traditions—all contributed to his distinctive approach. He worked in series, each defined and titled by a dominant material, procedure, or color.
Certain themes reoccur throughout his oeuvre: the merging of painting and sculptural relief; an artistic repurposing of industrial products; and a precarious balance between disintegration and cohesion. Burri also redefined the monochrome with peeling and creviced fields of color that find analogies in things that mottle and crack over time, such as the body, land, walls, and old paintings. This retrospective, the first in the United States in almost 40 years, is organized around the artist’s ten major series and unfolds in roughly chronological order.
Burri belongs to a generation of artists who experienced the suffering inflicted by World War II. Attacking fine-art traditions had long been a creative principle of the modernist avant-garde. After the catastrophes of totalitarianism and genocide, however, traditional means of representation seemed especially inadequate and even the value of art or poetry appeared questionable.
For painting to be credible again, Burri intuited, it had to present itself as a salvaging operation. In his unprecedented material realism, ruin and repair compromise the integrity of the picture plane; surfaces are coarsened and defiled. Yet the work remains “painting” by virtue of its relationship to the wall, pictorial effects, and buried art historical references. Defiantly silent on the subject of his art, Burri claimed it had an “irreducible presence” that could not be conveyed through words. This presence makes itself felt through an overtly tactile quality that stimulates the sense of touch and engages us in a visceral encounter with the work of art. Burri traumatized the body of painting if only to hold it together, transforming the negligible and damaged into something worthy, sensuous, and full.
Alberto Burri: The Trauma of painting
The catalogue for this exhibition features an essay on Alberto Burri and his work; an examination of his reception in the United States; and an analysis of his materials and processes across various series, informed by a detailed conservation study. More than 250 images illustrate Burri’s diverse artistic production, which both demolished and reconfigured the Western pictorial tradition.