SMMoA Santa Monica Museum of Art

Combustione: Alberto Burri and America

11 Sep - 18 Dec 2010

Alberto Burri
Grande Bianco Plastica, 1962
plastic, combustion on aluminum frame
190 x 200 cm
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri

11 September - 18 December 2010

Alberto Burri (1915–1995) was a seminal artistic figure of the 20th Century, a forebear to many artists and artistic movements—from Pop Art to Arte Povera—both in Italy and the United States. Burri’s fame is great in his native Italy, but he remains relatively unknown in the United States, despite the fact that for over 25 years he would winter in his home in the Hollywood Hills, where he produced more than 60 major works of art. Combustione: Alberto Burri and America—a tightly focused exhibition featuring 40 major works from 1945 to the late 1980s—will pay particular attention to both his reception and his production in the United States.

Burri’s biography links him closely with the United States. While a doctor in the Italian army during WWII, Burri was taken captive in Tunisia by U.S. troops and detained at Camp Howze, a prisoner-of-war facility in Hereford, Texas. At some point during his captivity, Burri began drawing and painting. This happenstance initiated his five-decade-long career.

After the war, Burri completely rejected his medical training, and with no formal instruction embarked on a career as an artist. Though he began as a painter, he soon abandoned traditional materials in favor of the creative reuse of mundane objects. The appearance of his Sacchi series in the early 1950s, which incorporated burlap material from military and Marshall Plan supply sacks, represented a radical shift in modernist art-making. Burri innovatively used the discarded debris of everyday life and utilitarian materials such as tar, sheet metal, plastic, and wood which he transformed by tearing and stitching, burning and pulling, giving the appearance that his only intervention was to bring out the natural colors, textures, and shapes already inherent in the material.

Interestingly, Burri’s first success as an artist was in America, predating widespread notoriety in his homeland by several years. Starting in the early 1950s, concurrent with the development of his first burlap paintings, Burri had contact with several influential American artists, dealers, and curators who supported his work. The art historian James Johnson Sweeney, then director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, visited Burri in 1953 and became an enthusiastic promoter of his work. Several New York and Chicago art dealers came to view his work at this time and subsequently gave Burri gallery shows in the United States. Despite these auspicious beginnings, Burri remains relatively unknown in the United States.

Burri purchased a home at 7423 Woodrow Wilson Blvd. in the Hollywood Hills in 1963—a location selected for the dry weather climate and its proximity to his wife’s family. He spent each winter there until 1989, and the remainder of the year between Rome and his hometown of Città di Castello. He often titled pieces simply according to their material or series, and titled many artworks produced in Los Angeles with either the prefix or suffix “L.A.”

This landmark exhibition of Burri’s works will look at the spectrum of Burri’s work with an emphasis on his productivity within the United States, defining Burri’s importance as an artist for a new generation of Americans. The exhibition will take as its starting point the iconic Texas, which Burri painted during his detainment in 1945 and which has never been exhibited in the United States until now. Combustione will also highlight projects that occupied Burri in the twenty-five-year period during which he worked in L.A.

Major support for the exhibition is generously provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts, Isabella del Frate Rayburn, Randi Malkin Steinberger and Harlan Steinberger. Additional support is provided by Pasadena Art Alliance, Istituto Italiano di Cultura and the Robert Lehman Foundation.

Tags: Alberto Burri, Andy Warhol