Welcome to the May edition of my ‘Artist of the Month’ series. You would think that I would be sick of even contemplating art considering that I’m posting this the day after the final exam of my 3-year long History of Art degree. Well, I guess one can never consume too much art! I actually stumbled across this month’s artist late in my History of Art education, only studying him in depth this year when I took a class entitled ‘The Italian Avant-Garde’.
So without further ado, I present to you the work of Alberto Burri. Burri has been a crucial figure in the history of 20th-century art for many reasons. He was a creative protagonist of post–World War II Italy, and arguably revolutionized the ways in which materials and tactility were viewed, creating his own self-invented medium that bordered between painting and sculpture. Burri’s work both demolished and reconfigured the Western pictorial tradition, while reconceptualising modernist collage. Using unconventional materials, he moved beyond the painted surfaces of American Abstract Expressionism and the European Art Informal. Burri’s novel approaches to manipulating humble substances also profoundly influenced the Arte Povera, Neo-Dada, and Process art movements.
Burri is best known for his series of Sacchi; colouristic devices that look like the doodling of graphic tracery made of patched remnants of torn burlap bags, often combined with fragments of discarded clothing. These works, and in fact most his oeuvre, blurred the boundaries between painting and relief sculpture, redefining the concept and the making of the monochrome. He challenged the spectrum of surfaces by deforming their picture plan, using unorthodox pigments and resins to produce his Catrami (tars) and Muffe (moulds), as well as protruding sculptural canvases that he called Gobbi (hunchbacks). By 1950 he was making assemblages out of burlap bags and household linens—Sacchi (sacks) and Bianchi (whites)—which garnered him international acclaim.
Burri has been a really important figure in my understanding of art because he (truly) introduced me to the concept of materiality; an idea that I never quite grasped before I saw his lacerated red plastics and giant sacks. Looking at this “cretto” series particularly exposed me to what it means to have a truly visceral reaction to an artwork. And it’s not always an appealing reaction, it’s often loaded with a heavy physicality. Personally, Burri’s feat for me was his ability to transform mediums as humble as wood and plastic into artworks evoking such inward feelings that they are able to simultaneously push and pull its viewer.
Alberto Burri, Sacking and Red, 1954
Alberto Burri, Wood and White 1, 1956
Alberto Burri, Large White Plastic, 1964
Alberto Burri, Cretto, 1978