Alberto Burri @Guggenheim

From October 9, 2015, to January 6, 2016, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will present a major retrospective—the first in the United States in more than thirty-five years and the most comprehensive in this country—devoted to the work of Italian artist Alberto Burri (1915–1995). Exploring the beauty and complexity of Burri’s process-based works, the exhibition positions the artist as a central protagonist of post–World War II art and revises traditional narratives of the cultural exchanges between the United States and Europe in the 1950s and ’60s. Burri broke with the gestural, painted surfaces of both American Abstract Expressionism and European Art Informel by manipulating unorthodox pigments and humble, prefabricated materials. A key figure in the transition from collage to assemblage, Burri barely used paint or brush, and instead worked his surfaces with stitching and combustion, among other signal processes. With his torn and mended burlap sacks, “hunchback” canvases, and melted industrial plastics, Burri often made allusions to skin and wounds, but in a purely abstract idiom. The tactile quality of his work anticipated Post-Minimalist and feminist art of the 1960s, while his red, black, and white “material monochromes” defied notions of purity and reductive form associated with American formalist modernism. Bringing together more than one hundred works, including many that have never before been seen outside of Italy, the exhibition demonstrates how Burri blurred the line between painting and sculptural relief and created a new kind of picture-object that directly influenced Neo-Dada, Process art, and Arte Povera.

Francesca Lavazza said: “Alberto Burri’s birth date of 1915 represents a major moment in Italian history, marking the nation’s entrance into World War I, but also the establishment of Lavazza’s longstanding headquarters in Turin. This year, Lavazza is proud to celebrate its own 120th birthday with support for this sweeping exhibition of one of the pioneers of modernism, and by joining the Guggenheim in showing Burri and his enduring influence upon the art world on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Burri is best known for his series of Sacchi (sacks) made of stitched and patched remnants of torn burlap bags, in some cases combined with fragments of discarded clothing. Far less familiar to American audiences are the artist’s other series, which this exhibition represents in depth: Catrami (tars), Muffe (molds), Gobbi (hunchbacks, or canvases with protrusions), Bianchi (white monochromes), Legni (wood combustions), Ferri (irons, or protruding wall reliefs made from prefabricated cold-rolled steel), Combustioni plastiche (plastic combustions, or melted plastic sheeting), Cretti (induced craquelure, or cracking), and Cellotex works (flayed and peeled fiberboard). The exhibition unfolds on the ramps of the Guggenheim both chronologically and organized by series, following the artist’s movement from one set of materials, processes, and colors to the next. Throughout his career, Burri also engaged with the history of painting, reflecting his deep familiarity with the Renaissance art of his native Umbria. The exhibition also reveals the dialogue with American Minimalism that informed Burri’s later Cretti and Cellotex works and features a new film on his enormous Grande cretto (Large Cretto, 1985–89), a Land art memorial to the victims of a 1968 earthquake in Gibellina, Sicily.

Born in Città di Castello, Italy, in 1915, Burri trained to be a doctor and served as a medic in the Italian army in North Africa during World War II. Following his unit’s capture in Tunisia in 1943, he was interned at a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas, where he began painting. After his return to Italy in 1946, Burri devoted himself to art—a decision prompted by his firsthand experiences of war, deprivation, and Italy’s calamitous defeat. His first solo show, at Rome’s Galleria La Margherita in 1947, featured landscapes and still lifes. After a trip to Paris in 1948–49, he began to experiment with tarry substances, ground pumice, industrial enamel paints, and metal armatures and formed accretions and gashes that destroy the integrity of the picture plane. He then traumatized the very structure of painting by puncturing, exposing, and reconstituting the support. Instead of using the traditional cohesive piece of stretched canvas, Burri assembled his works from piecemeal rags, broken wood veneer, welded steel sheets, or layers of melted plastic—stitching, riveting, soldering, stapling, gluing, and burning his materials along the way. His work demolished and reconfigured the Western pictorial tradition, while transforming the scale and affective power of modernist collage.

Though considered an Italian artist, Burri married an American dancer, Minsa Craig, and, beginning in 1963, resided annually in Los Angeles during the winter months. In 1978 the artist established the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri in Città di Castello. The Fondazione Burri today operates two museums in his hometown that present artwork he personally installed, the Palazzo Albizzini and the Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco. The Fondazione is lending two pictures pulled directly from its permanent collection exhibition: Grande bianco (Large White, 1952) and Grande bianco (Large White, 1956). The former is one of three large textile collages that Robert Rauschenberg saw in Burri’s Rome studio in early 1953. Those three grand works will be reunited in the exhibition.