Alberto Burri (Italian, 1915-1995) Catrame I 1949

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Lot 6AR
Alberto Burri
(Italian, 1915-1995)
Catrame I

Sold for £ 116,500 (US$ 162,708) inc. premium
Alberto Burri (Italian, 1915-1995)
Catrame I

oil and tar on canvas

53.5 by 46.5 cm.
21 1/6 by 18 5/16 in.

This work was executed in 1949.


  • This work is registered in the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Città di Castello, under no. 49.38.

    Edgardo Mannucci Collection, Rome
    Galleria Il Segno, Rome
    Private Collection, Italy
    Galleria Valente Arte, Finale Ligure
    Private Collection, Italy
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

    L'Aquila, Castello Cinquecentesco, Alternative attuali, Omaggio a Burri, Retrospettiva antologica 1948-1961, 1962
    Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Alberto Burri, 1963, no. 3
    Parma, Galleria d'Arte Niccoli, Alberto Burri 1946-1966, 1993-1994, p. 33, illustrated in colour
    Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni; Monaco, Lenbachhaus; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Burri: Opere 1944-1995, 1996-1997, p. 146, illustrated in colour
    Fukuyama, Museum of Art; Osaka, The National Museum of Art, Afro, Burri, Fontana, 2002, p. 77, no. 23, illustrated in colour

    Cesare Brandi, Vittorio Rubiu, Burri, Roma 1963, p. 186, no. 29, illustrated in black and white
    Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini (ed.), Burri, contributi al catalogo sistematico, Città di Castello 1990, p. 22, no. 47, illustrated in colour
    Bruno Corà, Burri e Fontana, Milan 1996, p. 97, no. 2, illustrated in colour

    "Form and Space! Form and Space! The end. There is nothing else. Form and Space!"
    Alberto Burri in an interview with Stefano Zorzi, Parola di Burri, 1995, p. 99

    An artist's importance can be judged in a variety of ways: their influence on artists who came after, their innovation with material, their clarity of purpose and their primacy within the world's major museum collections. As such Alberto Burri is now recognised as one of the most significant figures of the 20th Century and a planned retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York in October of this year only serves to cement this reputation.
    Burri was an artist who rarely gave interviews, and is often described as reclusive, a 'lone wolf'. As such, the few interviews which do survive provide a rare insight into this giant of Italian, and indeed international, abstraction. These powerful words from his discussion with Stefano Zorzi, spoken in 1994 as the artist approached the end of his long life and career, sum up both his enthusiasm and his clear vision of what his paintings were all about. Catrame I of 1949 is a seminal work from the most innovative period of Burri's life. As we scan its complex landscape of soft, sinuous contours, its ridges and crevices, a sense of that form and that space begins to emerge. It draws us in like a shadow, strange and ambiguous from afar, but on closer inspection a mass of movement and incongruity. Its apparent darkness begins to lift as the light plays across its varied surface, and our eyes are drawn to the vibrant patches of colour which emerge amongst the black, a warm, glowing core at the heart of the composition. Suddenly Burri's concise but powerful exclamation begins to make sense.

    A prisoner-of-war camp is not the kind of place that you might expect creative inspiration to flourish, but that is exactly where Alberto Burri discovered his artistic calling. It was here that he began to experiment with painting. His choice of materials obviously limited, Burri painted with what was to hand, often using humble burlap as a base for his work. Finally released in 1946, he returned to Italy filled with enthusiasm for this new creative direction, and finding himself dissatisfied with the political realism which was currently popular, he quickly moved into abstraction.
    Burri recognised the potential of the unusual artistic practices he had developed in the camp, and in 1949 he returned to the use of unconventional materials, specifically media which were not normally associated with 'fine art'. He stitched together patches of old sacks into works known as Sacchi. He formulated unexpected collages containing fragments of pumice stones and wood. As we see in Catrame I, he combined the more traditional technique of oil paint on canvas with thick, black tar. Burri adroitly utilised the viscosity of the tar to develop the fascinating forms that we see here, also etching sharp lines into it once it had dried and solidified, adding sculptural texture to the slick, glossy surface. The very title of the present lot, which translates as simply 'Tar I', reveals the importance of the material component in this work. Although these unexpected media are sometimes described by art historians as 'poor', there is nothing meagre or modest about Catrame I: in fact, it demonstrates Burri's talent for artistic alchemy, transforming the apparently mundane into something almost magical.
    By the time he produced Catrame I, Burri was a man on an artistic mission. In the winter of 1948-9 he had spent a significant amount of time in Paris, visiting the Louvre, meeting Miró and experiencing the exciting atmosphere of the Galerie Denise René. It was in Paris that he saw works in tar by Jean Dubuffet, and was struck by their power. In 1950 he helped to found the group Origine, who hoped to combat the increasingly decorative nature of current abstraction. Two years later his work was included in an exhibition and book organised by French academic Michel Tapié, both entitled Un Art autre (Another kind of art), alongside the paintings of other innovators including Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet and Wols. A new movement was born, and Art Informel was to challenge all that had come before it. Like Burri, many of the artists involved used unexpected materials, and took risks with existing notions of art, effectively drowning stale traditions in the wake of something absolutely "other". Artists from across the world began to take notice: in 1953 Burri was twice visited in his studio in Rome by Robert Rauschenberg, who took a number of new ideas back with him to the States. Looking at Rauschenberg's Black Paintings, which began to appear around the same time, it is easy to see the affinities between them and Catrame I, not least in the intensity of their obsidian depths and their use of unusual, apparently prosaic materials (in this case newspaper) to create something altogether extraordinary.

    The inclusion of Catrame I in the artist's first American retrospective, as well as various other shows across Europe, suggests that its important place in Burri's artistic journey has long been recognised. In fact, given the qualities that he shared with the Abstract Expressionists, who are often portrayed as the American equivalent of the members of Art Informel, it is hardly surprising that America was a nation that seemed to instantly take to Burri. Comparisons have been made between Burri's technique and that of Jackson Pollock, both men assaulting their canvases with unrivalled vigour, and the Italian's use of the American flag predated the iconic stars and stripes of Jasper Johns. Burri's profile in the USA continues to grow, with the aforementioned major retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, which owns a number of his best works, being a case in point.
    Attempts have been made to equate the works of the late 1940s with the bruised and burnt post-war landscape that would have met him on his return to Italy, but given Burri's steadfast focus on form and space, such comparisons are surely nothing more than biographical fallacy. Catrame I is not about reproduction or recreation of reality, it is rather an example of the production and creation of something entirely new. As an early example of Burri's formative abstracts, this work represents a crucial turning point, not just in Burri's practice, but also in the direction of twentieth-century abstract art. This work was nothing less than an attack on the existing artistic canon, and the impact of Burri's output from this period was to be felt far and wide.
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