From a series initiated in 1957 comprising nearly sixty works in total, Combustione Legno, executed during the same year, is the very first combusted wooden piece produced in this large scale by the immensely influential Alberto Burri. Preceded only by a small experimental work significantly smaller than the present Combustione, this piece stands as the most compositionally resolved of these formative examples. Appearing early on in numerous exhibitions, this work was first shown within the highly significant group show, Pittoresci tedeschi e italiani contemporanei at the Museum of Valle Giulia, Rome in 1958, thereafter exhibited in the remarkably early retrospective of Burri's work held at the Castello Cinquecentesco, L'Aquila in 1962. Boasting an impressive provenance in previously belonging to the influentially renowned Italian art collector, Gugliemo A. Cavallini, Combustione Legno accompanies the greatest examples of Burri's combusted works held in museum collections internationally. Directly comparable to examples in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts, and the Burri Foundation in Perugia, this work stands out for its pioneering use of red acrylic therein anticipating the focus on molten red plastic as his principle and most celebrated subject from 1961.
In subversively employing matter as the subject of his painting from the late 1940s, Alberto Burri looked to the limitless potential of materiality as a vehicle for artistic expression. Having previously gained recognition for his works of coarsely stitched burlap Sacchi, and wooden Legno pieces, Combustione Legno represents a remarkably early and resolved example dated to the very moment Burri truly committed combustion as an artistic procedure; a procedure moreover that would yield the most dynamic and celebrated of Burri's works ever to be created. A notoriously silent artist, Burri has provided critics and art historians with a considerable freedom of analysis, invoking a host of multivalent interpretation across the rich ground of his oeuvre. At once, Burri's surfaces allude to an existential but living body, lacerated and tortured in the wake of war's atrocities, whilst simultaneously opening up the realm of the real, operating on the threshold between art and life.
The vicissitudes of the artist's biography and political climate of Italy in the immediately post-war years, locate Burri's practice as a visceral response to the Second World War – Burri himself suffering detainment in an American Prisoner of War camp from 1944-45. Having qualified as a doctor before turning to art during his incarceration, biological and even surgical comparisons have been made, enlikening Burri's gaping apertures of molten plastic, scorched wood, and stitched burlap sacking as redolent of a living and bleeding body; a metaphor for the existential wound of the European collective-consciousness. As James Johnson Sweeney has remarked in his influential analysis: "Burri transforms rags into a metaphor for bleeding human flesh, breathes fresh life into the inanimate materials which he employs, making them live and bleed; then heals the wounds with the same evocative ability and the same sensibility with which he first inflicted them. What for Cubists would have been reduced to the partial distillation of a painted composition... in Burri's hands becomes a living organism: flesh and blood... The picture is human flesh, the artist a surgeon." (James Johnson Sweeney, in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, L'Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.). In the present work, the sensitive play of molten shapes and burnt-out voids implores the viewer's eye to scan the surface like an eviscerated landscape, taking in the violence and pathos redolent in the decaying forms of wood, fabric and acrylic subject to the elemental destructivity of fire. As a result, this work conforms to the edict of Informel art from the period, which stipulated that angst that can be "expressed but not described". (Carolyn Christov-Bakargriev, 'Alberto Burri: The surface at Risk', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Palazzo delle Espozioni, Burri: 1915-1995 Retrospektive, 1997, p. 79).
Psychically, Burri's nihilistic methodology has been read as a primal regression, psychoanalytically interpreted to represent an elemental conflict between consciousness and the ego. As Maurizio Calvesi has outlined: "Burri's poetic is resolved in a radical stripping of primary psychical structures...directly from a meeting on a psychological level of vital, primordial unconscious tendencies; a play of forces that could also take him back to the wider scope of the basic conflict between the forces of the instinct and the responsible consciousness of the ego." (Maurizio Calvesi, Le due avanguardie. Dal Futurismo alla Pop Art, Milan, 1966, pp. 228-229). Thus, while psychically reductive, Burri's surfaces simultaneously evidence a physical act of regression via an operation of the Tabula Rasa. Compounded by the repetitive tautological titling, Burri's combustion works evince drastic reduction via an agenda of minimal artistic intervention as a means of exposing the primary naturalness of materiality. This reductive autonomy stands in correlation to the contemporaneous work of Lucio Fontana, whilst inspiring and pre-figuring Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani in their quest for a dematerialization of the artwork as substantive of the real. In this respect Burri's work, alongside that of Fontana, can be posited as the most radical of the 1950s in Italy; combining formal composition and random processes to bridge the generation of the Informel to the 1960s innovation of Arte Povera.
Combustione Legno stimulates mental and physical engagement with the viewer. The precise structure of its composition and the tension of the constructive-destructive gesture exploit the expressive/reductive possibilities of fire to transform and push everyday materials to the very limits of the picture plane. Reaching a perfect equilibrium between the sensuality of texture, the balance of composition and the vitality of materials, the present work epitomises Burri's revolutionary methodology and his transformation of the concept of painting. An exceptionally early consummation of his most celebrated and important work, Combustione Legno stands as a work of pivotal innovation within the highly acclaimed oeuvre of Alberto Burri.
Wood, plastic, vinavil and combustion on fabric
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.
Rome, Villa Giulia, Pittori tedeschi e italiani contemporanei, 1958, p. 45, no. 16, illustrated
L'Aquila, Castello Cinquecentesco, Alternative attuali. Omaggio a Burri. Retrospettiva antologica 1948-1961, 1962, p. 30, no. 13, illustrated
Rome, Galleria Sprovieri; Cologne, Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Recent Acquisitions, 1984, p. 75, illustrated
Venice, Chiesa di San Samuele, Antiquariato di domani. Antologia della Pittura Italiana dagli inizi alla metà del '900, 1984, p. 150, no. 80, illustrated in colour
117 by 97cm. 46 by 38 1/4 in.
Enrico Crispolti, 'Burri, Rome', in: Aujour-d'hui, no. 19, Paris, 1958, p. 60, illustrated
Cesare Brandi, Burri, Roma 1963, p. 206, no. 14, illustrated
Maurizio Calvesi, Alberto Burri, Milan 1971, p. 43, illustrated
Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, Palazzo Grassi, 2° Salone Internazionale dei Mercanti d'Arte, 1984, p. 85, illustrated
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Eds., Burri. Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello 1990, p. 140, no. 578, illustrated in colour
Galleria Zen, Brescia
Guglielmo A. Cavellini, Brescia
Antonio Braga, Piacenza
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1985