With its mixture of textures, Rosso, executed in 1953, introduces a bold and sensuous play of contrasts. This work dates from the exciting period early in Burri's artistic career: he had created his first truly abstract, collage-based work only four years earlier, yet was already gaining international recognition for his art. In Rosso, which is characterised by the exciting verve of this crucial, innovative moment in his artistic development, Burri has produced a picture-surface that, through his use of bold red and stark black, thrusts the deliberately scraped and battered plaster-like areas into relief. Each element plays off the other to create a strange wealth of visual contrasts, while the sheer materiality allows the work to almost spill into our world. In Rosso, the viewer's appreciation is not limited to the sense of sight. Instead, touch is invoked through the tactile variety of the surface. This picture is a celebration of the material, providing the viewer with a strange visual feast.
The red that has given this work its title was to become a recurring feature in Burri's works, not least in his plastic-based creations a decade later. In Rosso, the colour, used in this striking manner with the black, creates a visual impact through both its intensity and through the contrast between its smooth and unvariegated surface and the rough areas that cover so much of this work. These areas recall the bullet-scarred walls that were a day-to-day reality in many European towns in the wake of the Second World War. Battles had raged through much of Italy less than a decade before Rosso was created, and it appears that the ruination this caused has in part informed Burri's interest in the deliberately tattered surfaces of many of his greatest works.
On a more personal level, Burri was influenced by the austerity of his own experiences during the conflict, when he was a prisoner-of-war in the United States. It was there that he had begun to turn towards art, rather than his original vocation, medicine. He was in part making a break with the past. He was also making a break with his own military history as a medical orderly. Burri's earliest works during his internment had been landscapes; gradually, these had become increasingly abstract, and eventually the abstracted forms had been replaced by different elements, pieces of cloth and sacking and other such items, found in the real world. Rosso is to some degree a collage as well as an abstract composition. Both of these elements were the result of his increasing dissatisfaction with figuration and representation in art. Using raw materials from the real world, contrasted with areas of monochrome picture surface, allowed Burri to celebrate those materials themselves. In this way, the deliberately tattered aesthetic of Rosso becomes a paean, an existentialist tribute to the component parts. There is no reference to the outside world. Instead, the work contains the world, contains very real shards of the universe that surrounds us.
This results in an emphatic sense of objecthood that would become highly influential to other artists of the time, not least Robert Rauschenberg, who would visit his studio in the same year that Rosso was executed. By this time, Burri had already been a founder member of the short-lived Gruppo Origine, which asserted that art did not need to represent, that it could and should be self-contained and self-asserting. Painting, he explained, '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' (Burri, quoted in Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View 1948-77, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1977, pp. 48-49).
Burri was keen to distance himself from the inevitable links that people began to make between him and the constituent parts of his pictures. People were too keen to reduce his bond with his materials to simplistic terms that obscured the extent to which they were celebrations of themselves, containing themselves and nothing else: 'I have never had an obsessive relationship, as some have said, with the materials I have worked with over the years. What I've sought to draw out of them is only their property' (Alberto Burri, quoted in G. Serafini, Burri: The Measure and the Phenomenon, Milan, 1999, p. 160). Rosso, then, carries not only an aesthetic that recalls war-torn Europe, but also provides us with a celebration. The overwhelming materiality of the surface, emphasised by the contrasts, by the red and the black, results in a work that recontextualises and therefore concentrates the properties of the constituent elements, encouraging us to appreciate all the more the varied textures of our surrounding universe, to see the beauty in the material world around us. The fact that the artist's own gestures can be traced in the surface of this painting, that its materiality contains the record of his own movements, his own interventions with the picture, emphasises both the affirmation of life that fuelled his art and also creates a poetic link to a specific moment which, like the material itself, has been captured within the frame. This provides another aspect to Rosso's status as an existentialist celebration, a tribute to a moment lived. And it is for this reason that, in the same year that Rosso was executed, the critic Emilio Villa stated: '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' (E. Villa, quoted in ibid., p. 141).