Sacco e rosso

Sack and Red

Artist Alberto Burri


Accession year 1992-93

Jute, thread, acrylic-vinyl paint on black canvas, 100 x 86 cm

Collection Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte

Long-term loan Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Inv. no. CC.23.P.BUR.1954.A72

Provenance: Martha Jackson (acquired directly from the artist, June 1954); Galerie La Medusa, Rome (May 19, 1975); Paolo Sprovieri or Rudolf Zwirner (by 1984); Claudia Gian Ferrari Collection.

Exhibitions: New York 1954a; Burri, exhibition without catalogue (New York, Stable Gallery, 23 May – June 1955); Paintings and Sculptures from the Collection of Martha Jackson and Works by the Artists of the Gallery, exhibition without catalogue (New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, 24 January – 11 February 1956); Paris 1956b (no. 6); Pasadena 1958; Aurora and other venues 1966-68 (no. 6); Tokyo 1971 (pl. 12); Santa Barbara 1972 (no. 10, ill.); College Park-New York-Buffalo 1973-74 (pp. 16 ill. [with the title Lower Red], 44 no. 13); Minneapolis 1975 (no. 2, ill.); Venice 1984 (no. 78, ill.); Bologna 1985-86 (pp. 276, no. 215, 222 ill.); Rome 1987 (pp. 56 ill., 92); Milan 2005 (p. 453, ill.).

Bibliography: Scala 1959, p. 11 ill.; Brandi 1963, p. 26, no. 10, ill.; Meyer 1967, p. 237, ill.; A. Bonito Oliva, “La misura aurea della materia,” in Rome 1979-80, p. 15, ill.; Volpi Orlandini 1980, p. 406, no. 2, ill.; Caroli, Romano 1986, p. 25 ill.; Burri, Contributi 1990, pp. 104 no. 417, 105 ill., 481; Caroli 2001, pp. 526-527, no. 611, ill.; Corà 2015, t. I, p. 212, no. 500 pl., t. VI, p. 90, ill.; The Cerruti Collection 2019, p. 69, ill.

True to his discerning eye, Francesco Federico Cerruti not only acquired an Alberto Burri work from the artist’s most noted series – the Sacchi – but one that came from the personal collection of Martha Jackson, the influential New York dealer.

Adept at sewing and suturing from his training as a doctor, Burri stitched his lines with calligraphic virtuosity, leading the eye to varied incidents across and into the surface.

True to his discerning eye, Francesco Federico Cerruti not only acquired an Alberto Burri work from the artist’s most noted series – the Sacchi – but one that came from the personal collection of Martha Jackson, the influential New York dealer.1 Beginning in the mid-1950s, Jackson placed Burri’s work in key American collections but purchased certain pictures for herself, including this one, which she called Lower Red.2 She acquired it from the artist the year it was made and immediately lent it to his second one-man show at the Stable Gallery in New York, the avant-garde venue that was critical for establishing his reputation in the United States (by contrast, other Italian artists, such as Afro, Emilio Vedova, and Pietro Consagra debuted at the Catherine Viviano Gallery). The title Lower Red drew attention to the purely abstract composition of the picture plane in a convention pleasing to American collectors; Burri, instead, preferred to accentuate the material reality of his works by listing the simple facts of their medium, colour or process. Accordingly, Sacco e Rosso (Sack and Red) owes its present name (as it was properly retitled by the time Cerruti acquired it) to the jute that constitutes its support and the swath of brilliant red pigment. Paradoxically, as the artist intended, brute matter is transformed into an object of uncommon visual and affective power.

The Sacchi (1950-56) depend on the tactile qualities and symbolic connotations of utilitarian burlap. Earlier artists such as Paul Klee and Joan Miró had occasionally bought new burlap cut from fabric bolts to stretch like a canvas, exploiting the unprimed, nubby ground for additional textural effects, as seen in two works in the Cerruti Collection: Mast= und Zier-Fische, 1938 by Klee and Femme et oiseau II/IX, 1960 by Miró.3 Burri, however, was the first to use it as both support and pictorial ground; moreover, he stitched together each Sacco from fragments of cast-off burlap bags used for the storage and transport of foodstuffs. Threadbare and dirty, they evoked the wounds, poverty, and shame of postwar Italy, underscored by associations with the robes of St Francis of Assisi and penitents. With the Italian economic boom of the late 1950s, the theme of abasement was no longer relevant and Burri ended the series. The Sacchi nonetheless transformed the art of assemblage and ushered in the international phenomenon of process art.

Sacco e Rosso appears to contain three burlap scraps, each with a slightly different tone and density of weave: the lightest and largest fragment constitutes the main of the canvas; another piece forms the horizontal band at the top; and a third source was used for the circular and ovoid patches of varying sizes. The subtle tonal contrasts, along with stains and fading, resemble chiaroscuro modelling, though shaded by the passage of time, not by hand. Burri draws attention to the conventions of painting and drawing, even as he upends them. Adept at sewing and suturing (from his training as a doctor) he stitched his lines with calligraphic virtuosity, leading the eye to varied incidents across and into the surface. Two pre-existing rope-like seams form a broken arc at the top, while a thin thread loops around the small patch at upper right and travels down to the brutal dance of large and small whipstitches that seemingly strain to hold the wretched patchwork together. As in Sacco e rosso, Burri typically placed black cotton fabric over the entire verso to provide structural support for the weakened burlap. It adds another layer of actual relief within the picture, while endowing the “wounds” with the illusion of even greater depth. On the verso, one observes that traces of the “lower red” bled on to the surface of the backing fabric; Burri also chose to sign the work with the same pigment, painting his name in bold red on black.

Sacco e rosso stands out for its singular iconography: it is the only one of the Sacchi in which a large ovoid form dominates the imagery, distinctly outlined by stitching and rent by a wide slit at the centre. Although sexual allusions may be discerned in the apertures of other Sacchi, here the raw imagery unmistakably resembles female genitalia, while the area of bloody-hued paint accentuates the sense of bodily damage, even as it paradoxically adds compositional and chromatic balance. The violence of Sacco e rosso preceded Lucio Fontana’s more infamous tagli or “cuts” (see Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1965), and even more so, certain Spatial Concepts with gashes pulled apart and edged by thick paint, similarly set within a circular form. Yet, as often noted in Burri’s works, such aggression is balanced by the humble material and his lyrical touches of abstract, thread-made lines – a visual and psychological “equilibrio squilibrato”, as he termed it. Moreover, the artist’s brilliant reds and blacks (not to mention the occasional touches of gold paint) recall the beatific colour schemes of Trecento and Quattrocento panel painting, an affinity that Cerruti may well have intuited, given his beloved collection of Tuscan and Umbrian masters.

[Emily Braun]

According to the oral account given by Annalisa Polesello Ferrari, Francesco Federico Cerruti purchased the work from Claudia Gian Ferrari between 1992 and 1993 [Ed.].

1 Paintings and Sculpture from the Collection of Martha Jackson, exhibition without catalogue (New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, January 24 – February 11, 1956; see M. Fontanella, “Begun Behind Barbed Wire: Alberto Burri’s Early Career in America”, in New York-Düsseldorf 2015-16, p. 109, note 39.

2 Entry 1417 (“Lower Red”) with photograph attached; Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, University at Buffalo, Anderson Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo.

3 According to Annalisa Polesello Ferrari (as told to Fabio Cafagna), at one point Cerruti hung the Burri next to these two works along the staircase wall that leads from his study to the floor above, suggesting that he perceived their common materiality.