Christie’s, Milan, 24 May 2005, Lot 353
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, Mostra Mercato Nazionale d’Arte Contemporanea, March - April 1964, p. 109, no. 1, illustrated
Following his imprisonment in Texas during the Second World War and the abysmal destruction that conflict had inflicted upon his home country, Burri turned to art as a cathartic outlet to fathom the inconceivable horrors of war. Upon his return to Italy the artist began to explore the limitless potential of materiality as a vehicle for artistic expression, subversively employing matter as the subject of his paintings. Mostly experimenting with the expressive qualities of everyday materials such as burlap, wood and iron at this point, the artist turned to the primal notions of earth and water to create the organically evolving sculptural networks of the Cretti. The measured craquelure in the present work was created using a combination of zinc white and kaolin, which was then covered with PVA glue and water and left to dry. Consequently, as the water vaporised the paint surface solidified, contracted and cracked.
Burri employed an agenda of minimal artistic intervention as a means of exposing the primary nature of materiality. This reductive autonomy stands in correlation to the contemporaneous work of Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, whilst inspiring and pre-figuring the work of Enrico Castellani, Paolo Scheggi and Agostino Bonalumi in their quest for a dematerialisation of the artwork as substantive of the real. In this respect Burri stands among the most radical and important artists to emerge from postwar Europe: his work embodies the conceptual and aesthetic bridge between the expression of Art informel during the 1940s and ‘50s, and Arte povera, which in the late 1960s began experimenting with unconventional processes and everyday materials. Combining the material lyricism of Art informel with the autonomy of process and form typical to Arte povera, Burri’s Cretto Bianco from 1958 innovated a visual riposte, and even antecedent, to concurrent artistic philosophising regarding the ‘Death of the Author’; indeed, it was not until 1967 that Roland Barthes would proclaim the very demise of the author in literature.
In resembling forms found in nature and bearing no trace of the artist’s hand, Burri’s Cretti embody seemingly autonomous entities. Herein, they visually chime with Manzoni’s contemporaneous Achromes, in which the artist sought to create a self-governing work of art devoid of figuration and literal representation. At the very same time as Burri during the late 1950s, Manzoni began this pursuit in an attempt to reduce the interaction between the artist and the work of art. By soaking his canvases in kaolin and leaving them to dry in the sun, Manzoni relinquished formal influence to the natural drying process during which the liquid clay would contract and solidify. Likewise, in Burri’s Cretti the medium itself was the catalyst driving compositional form. Nevertheless, there always remains a certain degree of control. The size of each Cretto, for example, was dependant on the thickness of the paint mixture, as well as the amount that was applied.
A compelling mosaic of sculpted furrows, Bianco Cretto epitomises the artist’s revolutionary approach to material. On the cusp of absolute destruction and creation, it exemplifies Burri’s revolutionary transfiguration of the two-dimensional work of art. As an exceptionally early example of his celebrated Cretti, it ranks amongst the most important works of Burri’s seminal artistic practice.
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