The Collection of Chiara and Francesco Carraro
The surface of Alberto Burri’s Rosso Combustione Plastica is an enticing study in contradictions. Whether tarry black paint or the fleshy slickness of melted plastic—shiny or matte; smooth or schorched with burn marks—the build up of materials on the canvas reveals a carefully choreographed interplay of opposites. Emily Braun, art historian and curator of Burri’s 2015 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, succinctly summarizes the core of Burri’s artistic practice: “Burri made medium, not form, the content of his pictures” (E. Braun, “The Red and the Black, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, New York, 2015, p 61).
The artist used alternative materials in lieu of the traditional oil on canvas in his very first works. It was during his internment at a prisoner-of-war camp in Texas through the end World War II that Burri took up painting, using only the limited materials available to him. As Cesare Brandi reported in an early portrait of the artist’s life, “It was then that painting, which until then had stood at the remotest horizon of his life, suggested itself to him. Painting was a leisure occupation and amusement at first. Little by little, however, it became a substitute for action, then action itself, involving an ethical position in which his past and present converged. Originally painting thus signified for Burri as catharsis through action…Painting, by intruding into this compulsory situation, opened a completely new path for him: it was as though he had walked into a mirror” (C. Brandi, “Burri,” in G. Norland, Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View, 1948-1977, Los Angeles, 1977, p. 12). Soon after returning to Italy in 1946, Burri abandoned his studies in medicine to pursue painting full time. Conversations with Robert Rauschenberg in the winter of 1953, when the American artist sojourned with Cy Twombly in Rome, proved mutually beneficial for both artists who would go on to develop material innovations in postwar art with their Combines and Combustions, respectively.
Burri began his Combustione Plastica (Plastic Combustions) after first applying fire to paper, wood, and iron in works from other series. As the artist himself said of his materials, “Wood, iron, burlap—for me, these are the most direct and easiest materials, because they do not require the use of color or brushes” (A. Burri, quoted in E. Braun, “The Red and the Black, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, New York, 2015, p 60). In the late 1950s, Burri turned to plastic. As Braun explains, “Burri’s choice to work in plastic sheeting may not be as surprising as it initially seems, for here he found his signature red and black pigments already embedded in the mass-production state. The highly saturated yet reflective color fields came straight from the factory. The black Plastiche, churned and carved out of molten polyethylene sheets, fuse the painterly and the sculptural in baroque undulations. …The thick black substance confounds in a surreal comingling of opposites, it is hard and polished to the eye like obsidian, yet pliant to the touch like a soft rubber tire. The red and transparent Plastiche have entirely different effects. When they were first exhibited in 1962, critics identified the material as supermarket cellophane, and noted how Burri exploited the ‘look but don’t touch’ seduction of diaphanous packaging that both protects for hygienic reasons and lures with the shiny promise of something new” (E. Braun, ibid., p 67).
Essential to Burri’s work is that, for the artist, “combustion” refers not to the fire from the torch itself, but rather to the process of burning, which transforms a flammable material into another. Listed as a material and reinforced by the title of Burri’s works from this period, ‘combustion’ is more suggestive of the act of metamorphosis than of the agent of change. As Gerland Norland, the curator of Burri’s 1977 retrospective in San Francisco, has explained, “Burri’s first Combustione works were made in response to a visit to an oil field with Emilio Villa. He had been as interested as most educated persons in the ancient’s four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The idea of using fire, a terrible force of nature as a creative property excited him. …There is an element in Burri’s fire paintings that reach backwards to primordial feelings and speaks to every person’s experience of watching fires and of knowing the danger and pain in burning. The Combustione series is an aggressive statement which communicated to all but on the basis of simple materials and common experiences” (G. Norland, Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View, 1948-1977, Los Angeles, 1977, p. 44).
The artistic landscape of Burri’s childhood home in Cittá di Castello, located in northern Umbria in central Italy, was also home to magnificent frescos by Piero della Francesca and Luca Signorelli. Braun explains, “Though he never admitted to it publicly, his compositions were deeply influenced by Renaissance art and by the grand fresco cycles that had surrounded him since childhood. The same may be said of his colors, a narrow range of deep black, vermillion, ocher, and ocher’s glittering twin, gold. Along with blue, these are the sacred hues of Trecento and Quattrocento altarpieces” (E. Braun, op. cit., p 60). Continuing, she writes, “In Burri’s Plastiche, especially in the red examples, the venal qualities of the material subsides as other, more carnal associations materialize. Following on his earlier allusions to blood, wounds, and punctured flesh, these abstractions turn the body inside out, as if probing beneath the skin and into the tissues and membranes. Stretched and distended, they provoke the image of subcutaneous ‘organs without a body’” (E. Braun, referencing G. Deleuze and F. Guattari in ibid., p 67).
Burri first exhibited his Combustions at the Galleria dell’Obelisco in Rome in 1963. His work would be introduced to the United States in an exhibition that traveled to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Arts Club of Chicago, Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A large-scale reconsideration of his work as an artist over fifty years was presented at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in the fall of 2015.
The Collection of Chiara and Francesco Carraro
Rosso Combustione Plastica
signed and dated 'Burri 57' (on the reverse)
Alberto Burri (1915-1995)
Rome, Rome-New York Art Foundation, Rome – New York Art Foundation, July–September 1957, n.p. (illustrated).
Bologna, Galleria La Loggia; Turin, Galleria La Bussola and Brescia, Galleria Alberti, Opere di Alberto Burri, October 1957–January 1958, n.p. (illustrated).
Turin, Galleria Gissi, Marini, Burri, Moreni epica della vitalità, March 1969, p. 43, no. 10 (illustrated).
Venice, Giardini di Castello, La Biennale di Venezia 1978, July-October 1978, p. 57, no. 3.
Prato, Museo Pecci, Burri e Fontana 1949-1968, April-June 1996, pp. 24 and 124, no. 29 (illustrated in color).
Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni; Monaco, Lenbachhaus and Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Burri: opere 1944-1995, November 1996-August 1997, p. 202 (illustrated in color).
H. Read, "Prima mostra a Roma della 'Roma-New York Foundation,'" i 4 Soli, no. 4-5, Turin, July-October 1957, p. 21 (illustrated).
L. Priori, “I sacchi di Burri e il saio di Jacopone,” L’Avvenire, Bologna, 5 November 1957.
M. Bernardi, “La pittura con gli stracci,” La Stampa, Turin, 28 November 1957.
F. Arcangeli, “Alberto Burri,” Le Arti, Milan, no. 5-6, May-June 1960, p. 5.
M. Seuphor, Pittori astratti, Milan, 1962, pp. 210-211, no. 302 (illustrated in color).
C. Brandi, Burri, Rome, 1963, pp. 27, 31, 33 and 38, no. 31 (illustrated in color).
L. P. Finizio, "Un saggio su Burri," Arte oggi, Rome, April 1964, p. 12 (studio view illustrated).
G. Carandente, “L’ottava biennale di San Paolo del Brasile,” Segnacolo, year VI, no. 6, Rome, November-December 1965, no. 6 (illustrated in color on the cover).
C. Giacomozzi, “Alberto Burri o della materia,” Il Poliedro, Rome, fasc. IX, no. 1, January 1972, p. 30 (illustrated).
F. Arcangeli, Dal Romanticismo all'informale, v. II, Turin, 1977, no. 80 (illustrated).
M. Gervasoni Salvetti, Annuario 1979, Eventi del 1978, Venice, La Biennale di Venezia, 1982, p. 275, no. 185 (illustrated in color).
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, ed., Burri. Contributi al catalogo sistematico, Cittá di Castello, 1990, pp. 120-121, no. 491 (illustrated in color).
M. Pancera, “Il lungo viaggio nella materia di Alberto Burri,” Arte, Milan, no. 267, November 1995, p. 93 (illustrated in color).
Combustion and the Environment. 24th Event of the Italian Section of the Combustion Institute, Santa Margherita Ligure, 2001 (illustrated in color on the cover).
M. De Sabbata, Burri e l'informale, Milan, 2008, pp. 58-59 and 61, no. 36 (illustrated in color).
Alberto Burri Opera al nero cellotex 1972-1992, exh. cat., Verona, Galleria dello Scudo, 2012, pp. 159c, 169 and 232.
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, ed., Burri. Contributi al catalogo sistematico, Città di Castello, 2015, v. I, pp. 278-279 and 314, no. 678 (illustrated in color); v. IV, p. 114, no. i.5734 (illustrated in color).
Jeanette R. Markus, Chicago
Silvia Martelli, Rome