Burri was born in 1915 in Città di Castello, Italy. He began as a doctor, gaining a 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 at hand. After his release in 1946, Burri moved to Rome, where his first one-man 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.
The Art Informel (‘formless art’ in French) style was developed between 1950 to 1960. The term was first used in 1952 by the French writer Michel Tapie who is the author of the book ‘Un Art Autre’ (Art of Another Kind). Tapié saw this art as 'other' because it appeared to him as a complete break with tradition. An important source of this kind of painting was the Surrealist doctrine of automatism. An exhibition titled Un Art Autre was organised in Paris the same year as Tapié's book and included Appel, Burri, De Kooning, Dubuffet, Fautrier, Mathieu, Riopelle, Wols. Other key figures were Henri Michaux, Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages. The term Art Autre, from the title of Tapié's book, is also used for this art, but Art Informel seems to have emerged as the preferred name.
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’ series 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 came to be noted in the United States: 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. In this 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 Sao Paulo Biennale. 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 Sao Paolo Biennale. 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.
|1982 Cetto Grande Bianco acrovinilico on cellotex|
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. He died in 1995 in Nice.
|1952 Grande Sacco|
|1953 Composizione oil, gold paint, glue on burlap & canvas|
|1953 Sacco bag, canvas & stone|
|1955 Compostion in White|
|1955 Sacco Nero Rosso|
|1959 Sacco e Rosso|
|1966 Bianco Plastica|
|1966 Rosso Plastica L.A. plastic, acrlic, cobustione on cellotex|
|1974 Nero Cretto|
|1990 Mixoblack 1|
|Sacco e Rosso|