Alberto Burri is often considered the great pioneer of Post-War art in Italy, and indeed his influence was felt far and wide amongst the artists of the day, despite the relative lack of critical attention that he received. Of all his works, it was the Sacchi, created first in 1949 and then reprised later in the same decade, that best encapsulate the various aspects that led to his vast impact.
In its strangely cobbled together array of textiles, plaster and paint, Sacco, executed in 1953-- one of the vintage years for these works-- has a texture perfectly suited to the atmosphere of the Post-War Italy of which it is a product. The progenitor of all these Sacchi was named SZ1 and contained within it a fragment of sacking that showed the Stars and Stripes. This was from an aid parcel from the United States to the depleted and destroyed Italy, which, like so much of Europe in the wake of the Second World War, relied on aid and supplies from other parts of the world and most of all from prosperous America.
With this as a pointed and poignant predecessor, it is clear that the fabric of Post-War Italy is present in Sacco as well. Its array of rough-weave canvases, contrasting with various other elements (plaster-covered, green, more tightly-weaved black material), conjure up the rag-tag atmosphere of a country, and indeed a world, that was still being mended, healed, stitched back together. In its refutation of any obvious, Modernist sense of beauty and aesthetics too the Sacco manages to convey a new sense of the realities and rigours of existence in the Nuclear Age. By incorporating these materials, by celebrating their base splendour and allowing the viewer to bask in their sheer, humble and simple beauty, Burri has created a means of creating art that addresses Adorno's famous maxim that to create poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. In its absolute and raw honesty, Sacco does not represent life, but instead contains it, and in this way celebrates it.
In this way, Sacco is not a representative work, but instead is an object in its own right. It does not refer to the outside world, to the life of the artist, to the politics of the time but instead demands to be looked at in its own right and on its own terms. As Burri stated, 'Everything is already present in the painting' (Burri, quoted in G. Serafini, Burri: The Measure and the Phenomenon, Milan, 1999, p. 114). This sense of objecthood and self-containment would become one of the several aspects of Burri's work that would come to influence other artists, and from it one can derive, directly or indirectly, the Achromes of Manzoni, the IKBs of Klein and even Minimalism itself.
Burri's influences can be seen to be direct and indirect, and many are still the source of controversy. How important, for instance, were the visits that the young Robert Rauschenberg made to Burri's studio in 1953? Advocates of the Italian artist see his impact as total on the young American, tracing to those visits the entirety of the Combines and, by extension, an entire branch and development of art in the United States. Of course, another crucial aspect of Burri's influence was the embracing of poor materials, incorporating the everyday into the picture plane in a new and original manner that is at once democratic and poetic. In this sense, Burri was the pioneer of the tradition of the use of original materials that would form the basis of the entire Arte Povera movement. He was, years before Boetti would begin to create his own distinctive art, mettendo al mondo il mondo.
This was exemplified by the presence in SZ1 of the Stars and Stripes. On the one hand, it is a true indicator of the political situation at the time in Italy. It is very much a relic or fragment of the age in which it was made. Yet it must also have had an extra dimension of personal resonance for the artist, who had been a prisoner-of-war under the Americans during the Second World War. One wonders too if the arrows in Sacco are deliberately meant to be reminiscent of the clichéd images of prison outfits in another potential reference to autobiography. Importantly though, Burri's captivity was also the birth of his becoming an artist, a phoenix-like resurrection that itself has parallels to the glorious salvage and rebirth of the distinctly povera materials in Sacco. Much is made of Burri's discovery of art as an occupation during his captivity in the early 1940s in Hereford, Texas. During his confinement, Burri had refused to practise as a doctor, the field in which he was qualified, and instead took up the brush. The expressionistic landscapes that he created became increasingly abstract, and their evolution can be seen as the genesis of Sacco itself. The formerly descriptive elements became more codified, each dominating more and more of the canvas. Eventually, rather than paint these elements, Burri began to stitch them together. They were no longer figurative, but were objects in their own rights, elements and materials that came together to form a strange tapestry of real life.
What Burri had done was to strip away all the superfluities that he felt cluttered art, made it an indirect and abstract concept rather than something that passed directly from A to B, from artist to viewer. He stripped away the pretension of painting, of representation, a process that he felt could only create interpretative barriers rather than bridges. Each layer of subjective representation places us at an increasing distance from the world itself. Burri instead stripped away painting, presenting a canvas that was clearly raw. The material is not only sufficient to his needs, but is indeed superior to any representation. As he explained a few years after the execution of Sacco,
'Sacking... is the compendium of the ideal psychological reasons, of the reasons of form and colour. I could obtain the same shade of brown, but it wouldn't be the same because it wouldn't contain everything I want it to contain... It must respond as a surface, as a material, and as an idea. In sacking I find a perfect match between shade, material and idea that would be impossible to paint' (Burri in 1956, quoted in Serafini, ibid, 1999, p. 160).
As was only apt for one of the founders of the Gruppo Zero, one of the great artists of the decades following the dropping of the Atom Bomb, Burri had discovered a form of artistic Ground Zero, a point of crisis and wonder and invention and infinite potential. In showing us the various warps and wefts of the different textiles, as well as some paint and some plaster, Burri has reached something far deeper, far more raw and authentic.
The act of stitching with which Burri has created Sacco subverts and undermines the painterly gestures that it replaces. Burri has adopted a technique that has associations with domesticity, with the feminine, but most importantly with healing. He has therefore discovered a means of combining his original role and training as a doctor with that of being an artist. The fact that he has linked these two vocations shows the degree to which Burri believed in art, believed in its power to open our eyes and minds and to improve the world that we live in. At the same time, the gesture itself of stitching is one that allows us to see visibly the traces of time passing, of the artist's hand working its way across the picture surface. Just as his Combustioni record a moment of flame and smoke, so too this stitching is the visible trace of a particular moment, a particular stretch of time passing. Sacco is therefore a poetic product and record of a specific instant in the year 1953. As the critic Emilio Villa wrote the same year, 'For each of these paintings, always a bit unexpected, we can always say: this is a work that could only have been done today, this is an action that could only have been performed today, not yesterday and not tomorrow' (E. Villa, 1953, quoted in Serafini, op.cit., 1999, p. 141).
Oil, burlap, varnish and muslin mounted on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE SWISS COLLECTION
Signed 'Burri' (on the reverse)
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, Paintings by Alberto Burri, November 1957, no. 5. This exhibition later travelled to Chicago, The Arts Club of Chicago, January - March 1958; Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery, April - March 1958 and San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, June - August 1958.
New York, Aurora, Wells College, Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, September - October 1966, no. 3 (exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York). This exhibition later travelled to Ohio, Gambier, Kenyon College, October - November 1966; Ohio, Wilmington, Wilmington College, November - December 1966; Portland, Portland Museum of Art, January 1967; Sarasota, Ringling Museum of Art, May - June 1967; Tampa, University of South Florida, July 1967; New York, Oswego, State University College, September - October 1967; New York, Clinton, Root Art Center Hamilton College, October - November 1967; Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, November - December 1967; Iowa City, University of Iowa, January 1968 and Ohio, Columbus, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Feburary 1968.
Prato, Museo Pecci, Burri-Fontana, 1949-1968, April - June 1996, no. 18.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
39 3/8 x 33 7/8 in. (100 x 86 cm.)
C. Brandi, Burri, Rome, 1963, no. 117 (illustrated p. 195).
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini (ed.), Burri, Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello, 1990, no. 279 (illustrated in colour p. 73).
Mrs Harry O. Maryan, Madison, Wisconsin.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1968.