First Exhibition in the United States in Over 35 Years Devoted to the Italian Artist
From October 9, 2015, to January 6, 2016, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum ( 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York) will present a major retrospective—Alberto Burri: The Trauma Of Painting–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.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Guggenheim Museum led an in-depth conservation study of the artworks assembled for the retrospective as well as numerous other works from the various series. The study, which involved the efforts of a multidisciplinary team of curators, conservation scientists, and painting, paper, objects, and textile conservators, analyzed the wide variety of original and complex materials and working methods Burri used.
Burri launched his career in Rome but exhibited his work regularly in the United States, beginning in the early 1950s at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, Chicago, the Stable Gallery and the Martha Jackson Gallery, both in New York. In 1953, Guggenheim Museum director and curator James Johnson Sweeney included Burri in the landmark exhibition Younger European Painters: A Selection, and he wrote the first monograph on the artist (1955). His awards include a third prize at the Pittsburgh International, Carnegie Museum of Art (1959); Premio dell’Ariete in Milan (1959); UNESCO Prize at the São Paulo Biennial (1959); Critics’ Prize at the Venice Biennale (1960); Premio Marzotto (1965), and Grand Prize at the São Paulo Biennial (1965). Burri’s first U.S. retrospective was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1963). Other major exhibitions include retrospectives at the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris (1972), and the University of California’s Frederick S. Wight Gallery, Los Angeles (1977), which traveled to the Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, Texas, and the Guggenheim Museum (1978). In 1994, his work was included in The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968, also at the Guggenheim.
Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting will be accompanied by a series of public programs, including exhibition tours, Italian neorealist films, and two Theater of War productions that feature readings of classic Greek plays to serve as a catalyst for discussion about visible and invisible wounds inflicted by war. Additionally, the Guggenheim will present a reinterpretation of November Steps, a 1973 dance piece choreographed by Burri’s wife Minsa Craig with set design and costumes by the artist and music by Tōru Takemitsu. Tom Gold Dance will perform the piece in the museum’s rotunda on November 12. Full information will be released in the coming months at guggenheim.org/calendar.
Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting is accompanied by a 280-page, richly illustrated scholarly exhibition catalogue that includes a five-chapter essay by Emily Braun, a text by Megan Fontanella on Burri’s collectors in the United States, and essays on each of Burri’s series, authored by Braun and Carol Stringari, which analyze his methods and materials in depth. The publication is the first major English monograph on Burri, contains a wealth of new research and interpretation, and will be the standard reference on the artist for years to come. The catalogue will be available for purchase at guggenheim.org/store.
Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting is organized by Emily Braun, Distinguished Professor, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Guest Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with support from Megan Fontanella, Associate Curator, Collections and Provenance, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the collaboration of Carol Stringari, Deputy Director and Chief Conservator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, stated: “Through the scholarship of our curatorial team led by Emily Braun, we are bringing to light new aspects of Alberto Burri’s experimental and innovative practice. By revisiting the Guggenheim’s postwar exhibitions and publications on Burri, we are further deepening our history with this important artist. We are pleased to honor the centennial of Burri’s birth with this major retrospective.”
Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting is made possible by Lavazza. Support is also provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
The Leadership Committee for the exhibition, chaired by Pilar Crespi Robert and Stephen Robert, Trustee, is gratefully acknowledged for its generosity, with special thanks to Leonard and Judy Lauder and Maurice Kanbar as well as to Luxembourg & Dayan, Richard Roth Foundation, Alice and Thomas Tisch, Isabella Del Frate Rayburn, Larry Gagosian, Sigifredo di Canossa, Dominique Lévy, Daniela Memmo d’Amelio, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Pellegrini Legacy Trust, ROBILANT+VOENA, Alberto and Stefania Sabbadini, Sperone Westwater, Samir Traboulsi, Alberto and Gioietta Vitale, Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo, and those who wish to remain anonymous.
Additional funding is provided by Allegrini Estates, Mapei Group, E. L. Wiegand Foundation, Mondriaan Fund, the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, La FondazioneNY, and the New York State Council on the Arts. The Guggenheim Museum is also grateful for the collaboration of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri.