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Alberto Burri was born on March 12, 1915, in Città di Castello, Italy. He earned a medical degree and served 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 readily at hand. After his release in 1946, Burri moved to Rome, where his first solo 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.
Around 1949–50 he experimented with various unorthodox materials, fabricating tactile collages with pumice, tar, and burlap. At this time he also commenced the Mold (Muffa) and Hunchback (Gobbo) series; the latter are humped canvases that break 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 which exhibited in 1951 at the Galleria dell’Obelisco, Rome. In 1953 Burri garnered attention in the United States when his work was included in the group exhibition Younger European Painters at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. In the mid-1950s he 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 in Milan. That same year Burri was awarded Third Prize at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. In 1959 he won the Premio dell’Ariete in Milan and the UNESCO Prize at the São Paulo Bienal.
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. His first retrospective in the United States was presented by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 1963. In 1965 he was awarded the Grand Prize at the São Paulo Bienal. In 1972 the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris organized a retrospective. In the early 1970s Burri embarked upon the “cracked” paintings series, featuring creviced, earthlike surfaces that play with notions of trompe l’oeil. A retrospective inaugurated at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1977 then traveled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1978. Burri turned to another industrial material, Cellotex, in 1979, and continued to use it throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He died on February 15, 1995, in Nice, France.