The origins of the late Alberto Burri’s career feel like unfortunate happenstance, a kind of serendipity by way of tragedy: the Italian painter’s earliest pieces depicted his view of a desert from the interior of a prison camp. A former member of the Fascist Party, the Umbrian-born Burri lived in the town of Città di Castello from his birth in 1915 until he commenced medical studies at 19. A doctor at the time of his detainment—he worked as a medic during World War II and surrendered to the British while in Northern Africa, in 1944—Burri was placed in a camp in Hereford, Texas, where he utilised available materials, such as burlap, to create his afflicted landscapes. Upon his 1946 release and eventual move to Rome, Burri continued to experiment with material and form, employing wood tar, Celotex, and still burlap in his work, stitching and tearing and applying paint delicately. His Sacchi works, forged from torn burlap, and Gobbi series, might best encapsulate a common understanding of his oeuvre: multidimensional, textural and defined by its varying mediums.
Transcending the traditional canvas without abandoning it, his entire portfolio contains traces of Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—Burri fairly sits in the tradition of Art Informel, Europe’s answer to the latter—but it is both the work’s unwitting poetry and Burri’s firm distance from definition and dialogue (a notoriously quiet figure, his interviews or public declarations are few) that remove him from any particular movement. Combined, his former politics, dark palette (even his early figurative pieces hint at an apparent sadness, emanating either from their colour or somewhere deeper within), and intrinsic understanding of texture can elevate it all to metaphor. What is this metaphor? In philosopher Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, he states: “Let us then go down into our own inner selves: the deeper the point we touch, the stronger will be the thrust which sends us back to the surface. Philosophical intuition is this contact, philosophy this impetus.”
Excavating Burri’s work will send you directly back to the abstracted surface. Indeed, he once noted: “I [chose] to use poor materials to prove that they could still be useful. The poorness of a medium is not a symbol: it is a device for painting.” Later, in a rare interview with Stefano Zorzi, he stated “Form and space! The end. There is nothing else.” Burri stood coolly against the search for signifier, metaphor, or symbolism in his process-based collages; slashed, scarred and punctured as they were. But like water, a layer of soil upon seeds or the human body itself, the visual power of surface alone generates meaning. Are form and space—and providing testament to the usefulness of humble materials—not meaningful achievements? “I see beauty and that is all,” he once stated—ironically enough, as if beauty itself was simple, devoid of magnitude.
A winner of the UNESCO Prize at the São Paulo Biennal (1959), the Premio Feltrinelli per la Grafica from the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei (1973), and the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (1994)—among others—Burri gained recognition in the US after inclusion in a group exhibition at the Guggenheim. Now, the late artist will be on display at the Guggenheim again, in an upcoming retrospective celebrating the centenary of his birth. To coincide with this, long-time collectors Mazzoleni London are holding their own exhibition, which will be staged in October. Ahead of this cross-country retrospective, we spoke with Luigi Mazzoleni about Burri’s profound influence on artists from Yves Klein to Rauschenberg and his sensitivity to form, space, and their ultimate harmony.
MONICA USZEROWICZ Can you tell me the story—so to speak—of how and why the Mazzoleni family initially got involved with Alberto Burri’s work?
LUIGI MAZZOLENI Our family has amassed one of the most important private collections of Alberto Burri’s work over several decades, many purchased whilst the artist was still alive. My parents, Giovanni and Anna-Pia Mazzoleni, collected his works since the 60s along with artists such as Afro Basaldella, Enrico Castellani, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Paolo Scheggi and Agostino Bonalumi. Our gallery has evolved from years of private collecting—post-war Italian masters as well as surrealists such as Magritte, Chagall, de Chirico, futurist artists [and those working within the arte povera discipline]. The first step for us was the opening of our gallery in Turin in 1986. This is where we exhibited those artists my parents had developed personal relationships with over the years, including Burri … We opened our London gallery in 2014, aiming to expand the gallery’s network and profile internationally.
USZEROWICZ In my research, I keep coming across the idea that Britain is unfamiliar with Alberto Burri. This feels outdated—after all, Mazzoleni Art is based in London! In your understanding, how true is this statement?
MAZZOLENI This is not completely true but has some [validity] … Though Burri has reaped attention in the USA, in the UK he has only had one notable show posthumously—at the Estorick Collection in 2012. There are very few works by Burri on public display in the UK and, if I am not mistaken, the Tate only has one [Sacking and Red]. In the USA, Burri was included in numerous group shows since the late 50s … We hope our exhibition will raise awareness of Burri as the pioneer he was.
USZEROWICZ Burri is quoted to have said “Form and space! The end. There is nothing else.” The implication here is that Burri’s goal was always, at its core, to achieve balanced harmony—despite his diversity of medium and material … Was it always about simply obtaining and working with form? Was there no larger statement to be gleaned? I know we’re just making assumptions and guesses here, but how do you feel about this?
MAZZOLENI Burri’s work is abstract and experimental for the time it was conceived. He subverted the classical perceptions of the pictorial surface of a painting by, for example, creating humped canvases. Working with form was integral to his art, but there is a conceptual approach to his work that has to be identified. His works have an intense presence, informed by the colours, textures, the sacking, the burns and all the unconventional materials [he employed] in curious combinations.
USZEROWICZ In that same vein, there are many autobiographical assumptions projected onto Burri, but he refused to speak about such topics … In 1955 he said, “Words are no help to me when I try to speak about my painting.”
MAZZOLENI A more articulated position is provided in one of his last interviews given in 1994: “With every painting I make, and every material used, I aim for it to be perfect in shape and space, the two essential qualities that are for me of outmost importance.” As Cesare Brandi wrote in a seminal essay on Burri in 1963, which is to be republished in our exhibition catalogue, Burri’s experience and training as a doctor is present in his works and acts as the basis “from which arises the need for transcendence in a direct and unrepeatable experience.” For Burri, the only objective was to place the observer in direct contact with art in its perfection of shape and space.
USZEROWICZ I understand that after his release from prison he destroyed much of his work. What still exists from that time period and what has made its way into the exhibition?
MAZZOLENI During the 18 months in the Hereford camp, Burri refused to work with the American commanders. He did not work as a doctor and started to paint, comparing his works with [artist] Captain Dino Gambetti. Burri had to make sacrifices to buy brushes and colours, yet he never complained. He painted using industrial and commercial canvas, and invented new techniques to reach his artistic objectives. At the end of his imprisonment, his paintings were sent to Italy via the Red Cross … One specific work, titled Texas, was published as the frontispiece of the catalogue Contributo al Catalogo Generale, curated by Vittorio Rubiu in 1963. Cesare Brandi identified this painting as impactful to Burri as “a new born interest to a movement inside the material.” The closest work to this first period to be exhibited at the show is Pittura (1948), a painting that shows the abandonment of the subject and mimicry, placing the focus strongly on colour, shape, and composition. The work was realised in an important period when Burri started to frequent the artistic milieu in Rome and when he visited Paris for the first few times, between 1948 and 1949.
USZEROWICZ Burri made figure drawings between his 1946 release and 1949, when he returned to more abstract expressionism. These figurative works are very stark and feel quite moody. There’s some information about them available online, but they’re not given nearly as much attention as the rest of his oeuvre. Perhaps I am wrong about this! But if not—why do you think this is? Are any of these figure drawings in the exhibition?
MAZZOLENI After his imprisonment, Burri communicated to the family his decision to pursue a career as an artist and to move to Rome. Life in the Italian capital city, the chosen home by many intellectuals thanks to its rising cultural centre … led Burri to change his artistic language within a few months, moving straight to painting that was detached from figuration … It is worth underlining the importance of the abandonment of the figurative as a radical aspect of his oeuvre comparable to other contemporary artists, as well as the discovery of the intrinsic properties of the materials he used.
USZEROWICZ In your own opinion, where does Burri ‘fit’? He seems, to me, to belong to a singular realm entirely.
MAZZOLENI Burri’s paintings covered a period of exactly 50 years, from 1945 to 1995, and he can be defined as one of the protagonists of the so-called ‘informal period’: abstract expressionism in USA and art informel in Europe. His abstract paintings could be divided into two groups: the first considering the paintings’ rough and irregular surface, showing the life of the different materials (burlap, wood, iron, plastic) with their brutal surfaces. The second group highlights the opposing surface, smoother and even, often mixed with colours, and having a singular impact focusing on the texture of materials. With Burri, painting does not imitate materials, but the material imitates the painting. Burri used the canvas as if to physically plow a field, sow, water, and dig.
USZEROWICZ Burri’s work has long been understood to exist in a liminal space between painting and sculpture or object. How do you think the works are perceived, physically, today?
MAZZOLENI The reason why our understanding of painting, sculpture and drawing is not more blurred, is thanks to the post-War Italian artists such as Alberto Burri and Bonalumi. Personally, I like to think of his works as real paintings … Rather than the traditional brush, he used alternative instruments such as the blowtorch in his plastic works.
USZEROWICZ In a similar vein, in what ways does Burri remain relevant?
MAZZOLENI I believe the two most revolutionary and impactful Italian artists who have shaken the art world on an international scale are Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri. Burri is now appreciated as a classic, timeless contemporary, which is why the interest by the public and collectors is continuously invigorated. I do however believe that, until now, he has not reached the peak of recognition he deserved in the art market. Our exhibition wants to push his art towards this goal. I may argue that no other artistic practice in the 50s in Europe, and in the world, has shown more qualitative resilience … For example, Gobbi, with their canvases pushed forward from their metal support or padded with leaves and branches, anticipated the ‘shaped canvas.’ Rauschenberg was inspired in many ways after his visit to Burri’s studio and his exhibition at the Galleria dell’Obelisco in Rome … In 1958-59, Yves Klein started with his ‘fires’ which literally repeated the Burri combustions.
USZEROWICZ In a beautiful New York Times article about Burri, Souren Melikian notes that like Picasso, Burri transformed all his influences. Can you tell me about the common threads—visual, conceptual, emotional, or otherwise—in the huge span of his artistic output?
Alberto Burri runs from 2 October to 30 November 2015 at Mazzoleni London.
MAZZOLENI Picasso has been a benchmark for Italian art. Think about Picasso’s Guernica—thanks to the fragmentation of the layers that are twisted, cut and broken, the work is able to express at the same time [a state of] reality … Equally in his Sacchi, Burri is able to create formal and spatial relations with the intrinsic qualities of the burlap texture, and also add expressive and metaphorical values thanks to the [loaded historical backgrounds] the material inevitably bring with them.