Maurizio Calvesi, Le due avanguardie: Dal Futurismo alla Pop Art, Milan 1966, pp. 228-229
Created by the immensely influential Alberto Burri in 1958, Legno comes from the celebrated series of Legni initiated by the Italian artist in 1955. The work is composed of partially combusted wood overlaid on canvas, and powerfully embodies Burri’s ground-breaking artistic explorations which championed industrial and quotidian materials over conventional artist’s tools. A key proponent of the ensuing Arte Povera movement that would take Italy by storm in the late 1960s, Burri boldly relinquished traditional mediums, opting instead to experiment with everyday materials that spoke more pertinently to the modern world he lived in: in place of canvas and paint, burlap, wood, fire, plastic and metal would become the predominant instruments of his labour. Asymmetrical in composition, with a charred surface and coarse texture, the present work poignantly foreshadows the fundamental precepts of Arte Povera. Legno appeared early on in a number of museum shows, and was first displayed in Burri’s significant travelling solo-exhibition of 1963, Alberto Burri, which debuted at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The work accompanies some of the greatest of Burri's combusted works held in museum collections worldwide, and is directly comparable to examples in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, Harvard University’s Fogg Museum in Cambridge Massachusetts, and the Burri Foundation in Perugia. Characterised by its pioneering use of red acrylic paint, the present work anticipates the artist’s focus on molten red plastic in the 1960s, which would become one of his principle and most renowned mediums.
From the late 1940s onwards, Burri looked to the limitless potential of materiality as a vehicle for artistic expression by subversively employing matter as the subject for his paintings. Having previously gained recognition for his Sacchi works of coarsely stitched burlap, Legno offers a remarkably resolved example of Burri’s earliest commitment to combustion as an artistic procedure that would prove to yield the most dynamic and celebrated examples of his opus. Famously reserved on the hermeneutics of his own esoteric artworks, Burri preferred to afford critics and art historians with a considerable freedom of analysis, invoking a host of multivalent interpretations across the rich ground of his oeuvre, many of which revolve around the artist’s own biography. Born in 1915 in Città di Castello, a small town in the Umbria region of Italy, Burri initially trained as a doctor. He received his medical degree in 1940, and served in the Ethiopian campaign during World War II, first as a frontline soldier and then as a physician. In 1943, Burri was captured in Tunisia and sent to an American Prisoner of War camp, where he was detained until 1945. Burri took up painting during his incarceration and, disillusioned by the senseless brutality of war, was never to practice medicine again.
Rendered from materials including scorched wood, stitched burlap sacking, and gaping apertures of molten plastic, Burri’s work often appears distinctly biological, even surgical, in nature. As the eminent curator James Johnson Sweeney has remarked, "Burri transforms rags into a metaphor for bleeding human flesh, breathes fresh life into the inanimate materials which he employs, making them live and bleed; then heals the wounds with the same evocative ability and the same sensibility with which he first inflicted them. What for Cubists would have been reduced to the partial distillation of a painted composition... in Burri's hands becomes a living organism: flesh and blood... The picture is human flesh, the artist a surgeon" (James Johnson Sweeney cited in: Exh. Cat., Rome, L'Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.). Indeed, operating on the threshold between art and life, the present work seems at once to allude to an existential, living body which has been lacerated and tortured by the atrocities of war, whilst simultaneously opening up the realm of the real through its self-referential physicality. The dynamic play of naturally occurring wood rings, splintered grooves, and two burnt-out voids implores the viewer to scan the surface of the work as they would an eviscerated landscape, taking in the violence and pathos redolent in the scorched wood and the blood red acrylic paint that have been subjected to the elemental destructivity of fire. Engaging with the principles of Art Informel, the present work conveys an impalpable sense of emotion and angst that can be "expressed but not described" (Carolyn Christov-Bakargriev, 'Alberto Burri: The surface at Risk', in: Exh. Cat., Rome, Palazzo delle Espozioni, Burri: 1915-1995 Retrospektive, 1997, p. 79). In stimulating a mental and physical engagement with the viewer, Legno stands as a work of pivotal innovation within Burri’s highly acclaimed oeuvre.
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