Alberto Burri - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, March 6, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Galleria Blu, Milan
    Collection of Giorgio Rivabella, Alba
    Studio d’Arte Contemporanea Condotti 75, Rome
    Collection of Massimo Gatti, Rome
    Collection of Giuseppe Panza, Varese
    Private Collection, Italy
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Exhibited

    London, Hanover Gallery, Alberto Burri, 29 March - 29 April 1960, no. 16
    Milan, Galleria Toninelli, Alcuni aspetti della pittura contemporanea, December 1966 - January 1967, no. 3

  • Literature

    Françoise Choay, 'Par delà l'image et le symbole: Alberto Burri', Art International, vol. 5/6, June - August 1961, p. 31 (illustrated)
    Cesare Brandi, Burri, Rome, 1963, no. 292, p. 215 (illustrated)
    Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Contributi al catalogo sistematico, Città di Castello, 1990, no. 60.34, pl. 1922, pp. 446-7, p. 489 (illustrated, p. 447)
    Bruno Corà, ed., Alberto Burri: General Catalogue, Painting 1958-1978, vol. II, Perugia, 2015, no. 891, pp. 104-5, p. 397 (illustrated, p. 105)
    Rita Olivieri and Chiara Sarteanesi, ed., Alberto Burri: General Catalogue, Chronological Repertory 1945-1994, vol. VI, Perugia, 2015, no. 891 - i6034, p. 138 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Plunged in a mass of textural darkness, Combustione E 4, 1960 represents the apotheosis of Alberto Burri’s iconoclastic gesture. Lauded for his early work exploring processes of assemblage and construction, the artist later ventured towards new creative realms vested with ingenious methods of obliteration. The most striking materialisation of this artistic evolution took form in the artist’s Combustioni series, commenced in 1955 and revolving around the use of fire. A commanding example from this cycle of works, Combustione E 4, reveals the creative potential of destruction, and, like an abject landscape, conjures an irrepressible sense of urgency.

    Housed in a distinguished European collection, Combustione E 4 was previously owned by the prominent Italian collectors Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza. Assembling a collection of exquisite artworks from 1956 to 2010, Giuseppe Panza along with his wife Giovanna focused on Abstract Expressionist production, before moving on to Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. Usually selecting early works drawing from an artist’s most fertile period, the eminent duo built one of the largest and most significant collections of modern art. While an important portion from their collection was donated – over 350 works to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum alone – some artworks, such as the present Combustione E 4, have enjoyed plural lives. Having formed part of the Panza’s esteemed collection, this work is amongst one of Alberto Burri’s most accomplished Combustioni, emblematic of the artist’s pioneering use of fire whilst simultaneously reflecting the exciting artistic possibilities that arose in Europe following the war.

    Replete with traces of the fire’s activity and brimming with textual complexities entailed by the surface’s combustion, Combustione E 4 is ceasessly referential of its own method of ignition. As multifarious blacks of varying texture and intensity mingle with one another on a unified field, the present work achieves an intricate tension between flatness and depth, transcending the limits of material destruction. In his quest to decipher the mechanisms and ramifications of blazing matter, Burri transformed mere canvases into grandiose protagonists: his flames did not comply with any domestic or magnanimous associations, rather, they established themselves as a primordial force, reminiscent of those from which the Phoenix rose. Burri’s fire, as such, emanates the mythological power of self-incarnation.

    A primarily formal endeavour, Burri’s Combustioni have nonetheless been referred to as a sublimation of the artist’s firsthand experiences of torment and devastation. Emulating a gesture of alleviation or reparation, Burri’s works denote skills the artist learned as a medic during the war; John Yau interpreted them as a concrete attempt to salvage or claim the medium of painting itself: ‘If Titian transformed oil paint into robust flesh, and Georges Seurat turned it into particles of light, World War II turned painting into a permanently torn, scarred and seared body. It is painting’s permanently damaged body that Burri stitched together as well as burned, sewed, cut, hammered, and glued. For him, destruction and creation were inseparable’ (John Yau, ‘Alberto Burri’s Challenge’ Hyperallergic, 25 October 2015, online).

    Setting art ablaze is a practice which developed, in conceptual terms, in the 1960s. Only a few years shy of Burri’s Combustioni, Yves Klein’s Peintures de Feu were inaugurated in 1961, introducing fire as a tool to perform dramatic abstraction. Klein’s approach, bringing attention to the shifting nature of his art as it veered from merely material to somewhat numinous, is at odds with Burri’s formalist mindset. Attending to the importance of process rather than the final result, Burri uses fire as a way to bridge the uncontrollable and the inevitable: ‘Form and Space! Form and Space! The end. There is nothing else. Form and Space!’ he could be heard exclaiming (Alberto Burri, quoted in Jamey Hamilton, ‘Making Art Matter’, October, vol. 124, Postwar Italian Art, Spring 2008). The artist’s Combustioni, in this sense, represent the most complete synthesis of his creative intentions.

    While developing acute methods of destruction, Burri continued taking interest in the formal potential of industrial materials with concurrent series, namely with his Sacchi, a group of collage constructions made from burlap bags mounted on stretchers. The artist declared, ‘If I don’t have one material, I use another. It is all the same. I choose to use poor materials to prove that they could still be useful. The poorness of a medium is not a symbol: it is a device for painting’ (Alberto Burri, quoted in Marco Valsecchi, ‘Alberto Burri dal 1959 ad oggi’, Il Giorno, Milan, 5 March 1974). In bringing together industrial materials evocative of used, forelorn or worn-out objects, Burri’s stitched-up canvases embodied reality in ways that were reminiscent of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz assemblages. The artist’s relentless use of humble materials and radical techniques presaged, among other artistic turns, the later conceptualisation of Arte Povera, whose proponents radically shed light on the intersection between pure matter and the everyday.

    The present Combustione E 4, fundamentally fraught in appearance, reflects Burri’s avant-garde radicalism as well as his necessary position within the history of postwar art. It reflects some of the artist’s best ideas, coalescing the myriad of innovative methods Burri introduced to the age-old medium of painting.


Combustione E 4

signed, titled and dated 'COMBUSTIONE E4 BURRI 60' on the reverse
paper, acrylic and Vinavil on paper laid on canvas
70.8 x 100.1 cm (27 7/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Executed in 1960.

£280,000 - 350,000 

Contact Specialist
Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2019