b. 1915, Città di Castello, Italy; d. 1995, Nice
Alberto Burri was born on March 12, 1915, in Città di Castello, Italy. Burri began his career not as an artist but as a doctor, earning a medical degree in 1940 from the Università degli studi di Perugia and serving as a physician in the Italian army during World War II. Following his unit’s capture in northern Africa, he was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas, in 1944, where he started to paint on the burlap that was readily at hand. After his release in 1946, Burri moved to Rome, where his first solo show was held at the Galleria La Margherita the following year.
Like many Italian artists of his generation who reacted against the politicized realism popular in the late 1940s, Burri soon turned to abstraction, becoming a proponent of Art Informel. Around 1949–50 he experimented with various unorthodox materials, fabricating tactile collages with pumice, tar, and burlap as in his sacchi (sacks), which were initially considered assaults against the aesthetic canon. At this time, he also commenced the muffe (molds) and the gobbo (hunchback) paintings; the latter were humped canvases that broke with the traditional two-dimensional plane. This preoccupation with the ambiguity of the pictorial surface and with non-art materials led Burri to help form the group Origine (Origin, 1950–51) in opposition to the increasingly decorative nature of abstraction. The artists in Origine exhibited their work together in 1951 at Aurora 41, Rome.
In 1953–54, Burri garnered attention in the United States when his work was included in the group exhibition Younger European Painters: A Selection at the Guggenheim Museum and was shown as well at the Frumkin Gallery, Chicago, and Stable Gallery, New York. In the mid-1950s Burri began burning his materials, a technique he termed combustione (combustion). These charred wood and burlap works were first exhibited in 1957 at the Galleria dell’Obelisco, Rome. In 1958 his welded iron sheets were shown at the Galleria Blu, Milan, and in 1960 at Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, the latter show including Grande Ferro M-4 (1959). That same year, Burri was awarded Third Prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh. In 1959 he won the Premio dell’Ariete in Milan and the UNESCO Prize at the São Paulo Biennial. There was a solo show of Burri’s art in 1960 at the Venice Biennale, where he was awarded the Critics’ Prize.
Persevering with the combustione technique, Burri started to burn plastic in the early 1960s and exhibited these works at the Marlborough Galleria d’arte, Rome (1962). Burri’s first U.S. retrospective was presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1963). His art was selected for the traveling exhibition Premio Marzotto (Marzotto prize, 1964–65), for which he won the award in 1965, the same year in which he was given the Grand Prize at the São Paulo Biennial. The art historian Maurizio Calvesi wrote a monograph on Burri in 1971. The subsequent year, the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, mounted a retrospective of the artist’s work. In the early 1970s he embarked on his “cracked” paintings, creviced earthlike surfaces that play with notions of trompe l’oeil. In 1977 a retrospective was presented at the University of California’s Frederick S. Wight Gallery, Los Angeles, and traveled to the Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, Texas, and the Guggenheim Museum (1978).
In 1979 Burri turned to another industrial material, Celotex, and continued to use it throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, he took part in The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968 at the Guggenheim Museum. The artist died on February 15, 1995, in Nice, France.