Alberto Burri

The Italian painter Alberto Burri (1915-1995) worked in the collage tradition of Schwitters and the Dadaists. His art is characterized by a love for textural effects and by evocative images of war and industrial waste.

Alberto Burri was born in Città di Castello. He studied medicine and served as a surgeon in World War II. Captured by the Allies, he began painting in 1944 in a Texas prisoner-of-war camp. There he developed his surgeon's skill into artistic creation. He sewed together scraps of burlap, metal, and wood to create metaphors for torn and bleeding flesh.

When Burri returned to Rome in 1945, he gave up medicine. His early paintings, with their images of gashes, wounds, and torn and putrefying flesh, recall his wartime impressions. He ripped his materials, burned them, and then deftly stitched them together, working both as a soldier, mutilating, and as a surgeon, lovingly healing. He often discretely spattered the composition with red paint, black oil, or small touches of yellow or white.

Burri's work recalls in form cubist collages, Kurt Schwitters's Merzbild, and surrealist fantasy constructions. Burri's collages, however, lack Schwitters's nihilism and anger and become poetic metaphors for suffering. Burri resurrected the wastes and excretions of technology, war, and time, and with a sure sense for texture and composition he evolved a work both sensual and brutal.

In the late 1950s Burri enriched the early textile, wood, paint, and plaster collages with metal scraps. In these "ferris" (from the Italian word for iron, ferro) he subjected the metal to the same mutilations, burnings, and healings to which he had subjected the previous materials. He combined the corroded and oxidized metal with ashes, burlap, wood, and paint. The works thus blend natural colors and textures with burned, oxidized, welded, and painted surfaces.

The ferris were perhaps less organic, less directly evocative of injured flesh and increasingly a comment on industrial, technological ravages and wastes. The beauty of the early works was replaced by an inorganic presence, the carnal by the technological: a commentary on modern industrialization.

The ferris of the late 1950s gave way in late 1963 to the "plastiche." Here Burri stretched transparent plastic sheets over the canvas, then perforated, shriveled, and charred them. The plastic, with its evocations of the supermarket, of packaging, of life in the technological society, was subjected to the same mutilation, the characteristic slashing, charring, and healing, to create shriveled, scarlike edges and gaping craters revealing the painted canvas beneath, punctuated by reflections from the translucent surfaces. Burri experimented with wood in the same manner. The 1970s marked a stylistic shift as Burri began painting large, brightly-colored abstracts on monumental sheets of particle board.

Burri scrupulously avoided the spotlight, rarely granting interviews and dividing his time between homes in Città di Castello and Los Angeles. In 1981, he settled in Beaulieu, France, near Nice, and shuttled between there and Italy. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Burri chose Cellotex, a compound derived from the scission of cellulose, as his preferred medium. In a series of black on black abstracts, he employed the Cellotex to support pigment to create subtle variations in the tone and texture of the paint. Showing the influence of trompe l'oeil, the geometric shapes thus created morph into stylized letters that form an anagram of the series' title.

Burri lived to enjoy his reputation as one of the pre-eminent figures of post-war Italian art. He was the subject of a major retrospective in Milan in 1985, and his work was displayed at the 1988 Venice Biennale, the survey of twentieth-century Italian art mounted in London in 1989, and as part of an overview of post-war Italian art organized in 1994 by New York's Guggenheim Museum. In his last years, he suffered from emphysema. He died of respiratory failure at Pasteur Hospital in Nice on February 13, 1995.

The essence of Burri's work is a sensitivity to texture and a compassion for the wastes of civilization. He subjected these wastes to further humiliations before he healed them, but out of the whole there emerges a poetic, esthetic metaphor for suffering, and the compositions themselves become evocative objects of compassion.

Further Reading on Alberto Burri

James Johnson Sweeney, Burri (1955), in Italian, has many good color reproductions, though the text is inadequate. Cesare Brandi, Burri (trans. 1963), includes color reproductions, text, and a short biographical note. Burri receives brief mention in William C. Seitz, The Art of Assemblage (1961). Alberto Burri: Prints 1959-1977 (1977) is a worthwhile retrospective. A more recent study of the artist is G. Butterfield, Alberto Burri (1982). A comprehensive English/Italian edition of his works from Art Books is Alberto Burri (1997). His obituary ran in the New York Times on 16 February 1995.