Alberto Burri - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Mastering Destruction: Alberto Burri's "Grande legno e rosso"

    Curator Francesco Bonami discusses the significance of "Grande legno e rosso," one of Alberto Burri's most transformative works that was created at a time when he had only recently introduced wood and fire into his practice.

  • Provenance

    Galleria La Tartaruga, Rome
    Acquired from the above by the family of the present owners in the early 1960s, and thence by descent

  • Exhibited

    Rome, Galleria La Tartaruga, Afro, Burri, Capogrossi, Matta, started December 5, 1957
    Venice, XXIX Biennale Internazionale d’Arte, 1958, no. 258 (bears label on the stretcher, not listed in the exhibition catalogue)
    São Paulo, Museu de Arte Moderna, Artistas Italianos de Hoje na 5a. Bienal do Museu de Arte, September - December 1959, no. 24
    Rio de Janeiro, Museu de Arte Moderna, Burri, Somaini, Vespignani: três artistas italianos premiados na 5a. Bienal de São Paulo, March - April 1960, no. 11
    New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, October 9, 2015 - July 3, 2016, no. 41, p. 184 (illustrated, pp. 192-193)

  • Literature

    Mario Pedrosa, “Artes visuals. Burri etc. (III)”, Jornal do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, April 7, 1960
    Raffaelle Carrieri, Pittura e scultura d’avanguardia in Italia 1890-1960, Milan, 1960, n.p. (illustrated)
    “Untitled”, L'Œil, no. 94, Paris, October 1962, p. 49 (illustrated)
    Cesare Brandi, ed., Burri, Rome, 1963, no. 69, n.p. (illustrated)
    Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, Le arti oggi in Italia, Rome, 1966, p. 71 (illustrated)
    Franz Meyer, “Macchia e materia: Fautrier, Wols, Dubuffet, Burri, Tapies”, L’arte moderna, no. 105, vol. XII, Milan, 1967, p. 224 (illustrated)
    Nello Ponente, “La crisi dell’immagine e della forma”, L’arte moderna, no. 93, Milan, 1967, p. 150 (illustrated)
    Maurizio Calvesi, Le grandi monografie: Pittori d’oggi, Burri, Milan, 1971, p. 22 (illustrated, p. 42)
    Marisa Volpi Orlandini, “Alberto Burri”, Storia dell’Arte, nos. 38-40, vol. II, Florence, June - December 1980, p. 407
    Luciano Caramel and Francesco Poli, Storia Universale dell’Arte, vol. IX, Milan, 1985, p. 223 (illustrated)
    Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, ed., Burri: Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello, 1990, no. 605, p. 146 (illustrated, p. 147)
    Giuliano Serafini, “Burri”, art e dossier, no. 62, Florence, November 1991, p. 44 (illustrated)
    Gloria Vallese, “E Lucio Fontana fece il primo taglio”, Arte, no. 215, Milan, February 1991, p. 79 (illustrated)
    Giuliano Serafini, Burri: La misura e il fenomeno/The Measure and the Phenomenon, Milan, 1999, p. 53
    Bruno Corà, ed., Alberto Burrio: opera al nero, Cellotex 1972-1992, exh. cat., Galleria dello Scudo, Verona, 2012, pp. 214-215
    Bruno Corà, ed., Burri: General Catalogue, Painting, 1958-1978, vol. II, Perugia, 2015, no. 725, p. 40 (illustrated, p. 41)
    Bruno Corà, ed., Burri: General Catalogue, Chronological Repertory, 1945-1994, vol. VI, Perugia, 2015, no. 725, p. 129 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Monumental and absorbing in scale, Alberto Burri’s Grande legno e rosso from 1957-1959 stretches over eight feet in breadth. This colossal painting features the combination of wood and fire that Burri had only recently introduced into his work, placing it at the vanguard of his oeuvre. According to the catalogue raisonné of Burri’s work, this is the largest of the Legno e rosso works that he created, hence its name; additionally it is one of only two to incorporate combustion, the other being a fraction of the size. A picture of exceptional quality, it has been in the same family’s ownership since its acquisition from the acclaimed Galleria La Tartaruga, Rome, shortly after its execution. The importance of Grande legno e rosso is further indicated by its inclusion in the critically-acclaimed 2015 retrospective of Burri’s work held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. After that exhibition, the presentation of this picture at auction marks only the second occasion it has been shown publically since 1960, shortly after it was completed.

    Grande legno e rosso demonstrates why Burri’s works chimed so well with the atmosphere of post-war Europe. The continent had been ravaged by the Second World War. Old hierarchies had been toppled. This was the age of Existentialism and Abstract Expressionism. Establishing his ground-breaking career in Rome and New York in the early 1950s, Burri’s works appeared to challenge both: his incorporation of “poor” materials such as sackcloth and wood revealed an artist appearing to elevate the humblest of elements into the realm of the artistic, placing them on a previously unthinkable pedestal. Likewise, the techniques that Burri employed, be it the stitching in his Sacchi or the use of fire in works such as Grande legno e rosso, indicated an artist who was finding new ways of making a mark on the canvas.

    Burri’s innovations came at the same time as the holes of Lucio Fontana and the drips of the recently-deceased Jackson Pollock. By scorching wood and incorporating it within the confines of a picture surface, Burri was pushing the boundaries of art to new extremes. In using these materials from the world around him, he was creating seemingly autonomous works that took shards of the real world and reconfigured them in order to eke out a new visual poetry. These works are not representative: they simply are. And in this, their autonomy, they would find themselves the unwitting progenitors of a number of subsequent artistic developments both in Italy and abroad, from Arte Povera to Minimalism.

    Over the course of his fifty-year career, Burri developed his practice through discrete series, each of which was defined by and titled after the dominant process, material or color. Following his Sacchi series, consisting of collage-like compositions stitched from cast-off linens and burlap material, Burri in the mid-1950s developed his Combustioni and Legni. Adopting materials essential to Italy’s post-war reconstruction and building industry, he utilized materials such as wood veneer and pioneered his new so-called combustion process of burning material.

    By incorporating fire within the picture surface, Burri could be seen to be taking up the challenge that had been set down by Joan Miró in the years before World War II. “The only thing that’s clear to me is that I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting,” Miró had declared. Miró, whom Burri had visited in his studio in Paris in 1948, admitted that he was nonetheless constrained by “the customary artist’s tools—brushes, canvas, paints—in order to get the best effects. The only reason I abide by the rules of pictorial art is because they’re essential for expressing what I feel" (Joan Miró, quoted in Margit Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Cambridge, 1992, p. 116). In Grande legno e rosso and his other works, Burri demonstrated his ability to surpass those limitations.

    While Miró sought to destroy painting by creating imaginary universes, Burri’s art is grounded in both the past and present. Burri’s striking chromatic palette of red, black and ochre abounds with associations to not just post-war Italy, but also with references to art history – particularly in his use of the color black. The chromatic intensity that Burri achieves by juxtaposing black with flashes of red and in particular reveals his affinity with Michelangelo Caravaggio. One of the first Baroque painters to use black as the main element of his chiaroscuro, Caravaggio introduced a dramatic intensity hitherto absent from religious painting that would pave the way for numerous followers over the centuries. In Grande legno e rosso, the black field is then not one of absence or functions merely as a background; much more, it is an integral component to achieve Burri’s desired tension between flatness and depth. Burri’s use of black as a bolster for the entire composition achieves a chromatic richness that reveals both his indebtness to the rich canon of Italian painting, and his ability to maneuver beyond its limitations.

    By the time that Grande legno e rosso was created, Burri had already become an internationally-recognized artist, having gained increasing exposure and acclaim at the beginning of the 1950s. This was in part due to his promotion by the legendary museum director James Johnson Sweeney, who exhibited and acquired his works from an early stage, having been introduced to Burri during a visit to Rome in 1953. By 1957, Burri was participating in shows throughout Europe and the United States. This rise to fame was all the more impressive as it was only during his imprisonment in World War II that he had turned to painting as a vocation, abandoning medicine, his former calling.

    While serving as a prisoner of war in Hereford, Texas, Burri became increasingly focused upon art; although he would later destroy many of the works from this period, he made a point of saving his early landscape, Texas. This work, filled with scorched red and orange and with a high horizon line, can be seen as a forebear for the composition of Grande legno e rosso, where the lower two thirds of the picture are also redolent of the heat and colors of the desert of Texas. This landscape reveals the deeply-ingrained sense of proportion that underpinned Burri’s work throughout his life. It is not that Grande legno e rosso refers to the landscape itself, but that the two works share the same fundamental quest for balance within the composition. Burri himself would declare that his pictures contained, "Form and space! That’s it! There is nothing else! Form and space!” (Alberto Burri, quoted in Stefano Zorzi, Alberto Burri. His Thoughts. His Words, 2018, p. 90).

    For Burri, this particular type of composition would be one to which he would return on a number of occasions, for instance in Martedì Grasso, another painting of almost the same scale which was formerly in the collection of G. David Thompson, and is now in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. That work features strips of material rather than the wood and band of red paint of Grande legno e rosso, yet their kinship is self-evident. Similarly, Legno SP, 1958, in the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Città di Castello, bears a similarity. Even the tiny Senza titolo, 1956, from the same museum, which measures a mere three and a half inches in breadth, echoes this composition, albeit with the upper horizontal band occupied in that case by a piece of scorched wood. Related compositions had even featured among the Sacchi, the earlier burlap works with which Burri had achieved such notable success. Later examples would pick up these visual rhythms, be it the Legno nero rosso of 1960 which hung next to Grande legno e rosso at the artist’s retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2015, and which appears to have taken up the theme albeit on a similar scale, or the later Cellotex works, which likewise sport similar proportions, harnessed through Burri’s interventions with paint and fiberboard.

    These variations on a similar composition show the elegant sense of equilibrium which Burri sought in his works, turning his selections of unusual materials and techniques to the achievement of a sense of pictorial harmony. It is telling that Burri’s works were known to be admired by Giorgio Morandi, the painter of contemplative still life compositions. Burri himself would sometimes claim that his materials were almost incidental, and that it was the problem of composition that he sought to solve, using wood, sackcloth or iron more because of their aesthetic qualities than any sense of meaning or purpose. Burri nonetheless accepted that his materials had appearances that appealed to him, and this is palpable in his use of wood in Grande legno e rosso. The wood contrasts with the bands and columns of uniform black and red paint, its warp and veins pushed to the fore. Its variations in color and almost marbled appearance add to the composition, becoming a readymade parallel to Pollock’s drips. The wood becomes a part of Burri’s arsenal— or rather his palette. In a rare interview with his friend Stefano Zorzi, Burri spoke in terms that reflect his intense focus on composition:

    “I have finally found a phrase that mirrors, with absolute fidelity, my conception of painting. It is just a couple of lines by Robert Bridges that I found, if you can believe it, in a scientific text. He says, ‘Our stability is but balance, and our wisdom lies in masterful administration of the unforeseen.’ This is the foundation of my painting” (Alberto Burri, quoted in Stefano Zorzi, Alberto Burri. His Thoughts. His Words, 2018, p. 17).

    That element of the “unforeseen” is encapsulated in the increasing interest Burri showed in using fire as a part of his creative process, as is the case in Grande legno e rosso. Where earlier, he had begun to burn paper to create artworks, and would subsequently use flames to melt and make holes in plastic, he took advantage of the slower-burning nature of wood to use fire as an analogue for black paint. This black, however, is made all the more dynamic through its dialogue with the painted band of black at the top of the composition, which also peeks through as a background visible behind the wooden elements. The black circle perfectly shows that balance of chance and mastery of technique that underpins so many of Burri’s greatest works. It is thrust all the more into relief by the thick wedge of red that makes the painting so vibrant. This shows the incredible attention to detail that was the foundation of so much of Burri’s work. After all, this was an artist who was friends with scientists, taking advantage of his access to new materials and substances to gain the precise finishes he desired. Burri was meticulous, painstaking. The warmth and visual harmony of Grande legno e rosso showcase these qualities.

Property from a Distinguished European Collection


Grande legno e rosso

signed and dated “Burri 57-59” on the reverse
wood, acrylic and combustion on canvas
59 x 98 3/8 in. (150 x 250 cm.)
Executed in 1957-1959.

$10,000,000 - 15,000,000 

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018