Alberto Burri was born in 1915, in Città di Castello, Italy. Burri began not as an artist but as a doctor, earning his medical degree in 1940 from the University of Perugia and serving as a physician during World War II. Following his unit’s capture in northern Africa, he was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas, in 1944, where he started to paint on the burlap that was readily at hand. After his release in 1946, Burri moved to Rome, where his first solo show was held at the Galleria La Margherita the following year.
Like many Italian artists of his generation who reacted against the politicized realism popular in the late 1940s, Burri soon turned to abstraction, becoming a proponent of Art Informel. Around 1949-50 Burri experimented with various unorthodox materials, fabricating tactile collages with pumice, tar, and burlap. At this time, he also commenced the Mold and the Hunchback series; the latter were humped canvases that broke with the traditional two-dimensional plane. This preoccupation with the ambiguity of the pictorial surface and with non-art materials led Burri to help start Gruppo Origine, founded by Italian artists in 1950 in opposition to the increasingly decorative nature of abstraction. The artists in Gruppo Origine exhibited their work together in 1951 at the Galleria dell’Obelisco, Rome.
In 1953 Burri garnered attention in the United States when his work was included in the group exhibition Younger European Painters at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and was shown as well at the Frumkin Gallery, Chicago, and the Stable Gallery, New York. In the mid-1950s Burri began burning his mediums, a technique he termed combustione. These charred wood and burlap works were first exhibited in 1957 at the Galleria dell’Obelisco. In 1958 his welded iron sheets were shown at the Galleria Blu, Milan. That same year, Burri was awarded Third Prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh. In 1959 he won the Premio dell’Ariete in Milan and the UNESCO Prize at the São Paulo Bienal. There was a solo show of Burri’s art in 1960 at the Venice Biennale, where he was awarded the Critics’ Prize.
Persevering with the combustione technique, Burri started to burn plastic in the early 1960s. These works were exhibited in 1962 at the Marlborough Galleria, Rome. Burri’s first retrospective in the United States was presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1963. His art was selected for the traveling Premio Marzotto exhibition of 1964-65, for which he won the prize in 1965, the same year in which he was awarded the Grand Prize at the São Paolo Bienal. The art historian Maurizio Calvesi wrote a monograph on Burri in 1971. The subsequent year, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, dedicated a retrospective to Burri. In the early 1970s Burri embarked upon the “cracked” paintings series, creviced earthlike surfaces that play with notions of trompe l’oeil. A retrospective of Burri’s work was inaugurated at the University of California’s Frederick S. Wight Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1977; it traveled to the Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1978.
Burri turned to another industrial material, Cellotex, in 1979, and continued to use it throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, the Italian Order of Merit was bestowed upon Burri. The artist died on February 15, 1995, in Nice, France.
Biography from the Archives of AskART.