Executed in 1956, Alberto Burri's Combustione plastica unites one of his favourite media, plastic, with one of his favourite techniques: fire. In this elegant work, limited to the bichrome black-and-white palette of the plastic, the acrylic and the charring, Burri has replaced the oil and canvas traditionally favoured in painting with a modern, man-made material and a process that is linked to destruction. And yet from this flammable union has emerged a work of great elegance and revelation: the fire has acted as a transformative catalyst, prompting a change in the nature of the material while also increasing our knowledge of the plastic. The surface has been opened up by these flames, recalling the Spatialism of Burri's contemporary, Lucio Fontana as well as the later fire-paintings of his friend Yves Klein. However, where Fontana pierced his supports in order to reveal a dimension beyond and Klein used fire as a mystical force, Burri has done so in order to deepen our understanding of the material itself.
The objecthood that lies at the heart of Burri's greatest works is here in great evidence. This is not a picture; it does not refer to the outside world, either through figuration or emotional content. Instead, the work is self-sufficient, autonomous, in a way that would come to influence a range of artists both within Italy and beyond it. The entire notion of the work of art and its purpose has been thrown into question by Combustione plastica and its brethren amongst Burri's works. He himself attempted to explain this, while also pointing out the difficulty of using words to convey the meaning of something which so emphatically is in its own right:
"Words are no help to me when I try to speak about my painting.
It is an irreducible presence that refuses to be converted into any other form of expression.
It is a presence both imminent and active.
This is what it stands for: to exist so as to signify and to exist so as to paint.
My painting is a reality which is part of myself, a reality that I cannot reveal in words.
It would be easier for me to say what does not need to be painted, what does not pertain to painting, what I exclude from my work sometimes with deliberate violence, sometimes with satisfaction...
I can only say this: painting for me is a freedom attained, constantly consolidated, vigilantly guarded so as to draw from it the power to paint more" (Burri in 1955, quoted in Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View 1948-77, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1977, pp. 48-49).
Combustione plastica, then, is a bold segment of reality, existing in its own right as the crystallised shard of a transient moment, as the flames initially came into contact with the material. There is a sensuality to the wrinkled, cratered surface that in part derives from the fact that the viewer can so palpably trace the artist's intervention with it. As well as brushstrokes, we can see the various burns that mark the surface as the evidence of Burri's movements. It is in part for this reason that Emilio Villa, only a few years before Combustione plastica was created, said of Burri's work:
"For each of these paintings, always a bit unexpected, we can always say: this is a work could only have been done today, this is an action that could only have been performed today, not yesterday and not tomorrow" (Emilio Villa, 1953, quoted in G. Serafini, Burri: The Measure and the Phenomenon, Milan 1999, p. 141).
In this context, Combustione plastica is a poetic, almost fossilised testimony to the very flames that brought it into existence.
In the wake of the Second World War, Burri had developed new artistic techniques that seemed more in keeping with the times in which he lived. During the War, he had been captured as a Prisoner of War, and interned in Hereford, Texas. There, he abandoned the medicine that had formerly been his vocation in favour of taking up palette and brush. Within a short time, the landscapes with which he had begun developed a codified form teetering on the brink of abstraction; later, those forms came to consist of collaged elements of burlap, painted canvas and gold, as well as the traces of flames and stucco. Burri began to explore materials in a way that would set a crucial precedent both for Robert Rauschenberg, who visited his studio, and an entire generation of artists linked to Arte Povera. In Combustione plastica, the 'povertà' of the relatively new and industrially-produced plastic is combined with the deliberately tattered look of the burnt material to result in an aesthetic effect that is perfectly suited to the era of post-War existential anxiety that infused so much of the European avant-garde during the 1940s and 1950s. While Burri avoided politics per se, the war-torn appearance of the beloved homeland he found following his release from his prison camp came to inform the appearance of his works, not least the first Sacco, which had even included a fragment of a sack sent as humanitarian aid by the United States and clearly emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.
Burri's Sacchi and his Combustioni are not, though, mere testaments to destruction and gloom. Instead, they are celebrations of the material, celebrations of the real world. Indeed, Burri's work in this sense appears as a parallel to the New Realism, condensing some aspect of the very fabric of the world around him into his artworks. His selection of this plastic, the modern sacrificial and transformative act by which he has elevated it to the status of art by burning it, painting it and presenting the finished result in an artistic context, results in a form of rehabilitation. He has embraced the everyday material of our modern world: the flames are the means through which he has saved the plastic, forcing us to view it from a new perspective. This, then, is an act of purification, even of healing, a continuation of the stitching that featured in some of his collage works such as the Sacchi. Rather than simply paint, he has used fire, one of the great and timeless elemental forces of our universe and the one by which so much of the world had been laid waste in the previous decade, to create something beautiful, something whole, something that is very much a product of the real world, and therefore something that shows him taking the healing obligations of his earlier medical career and continuing them by other means.