When Alberto Burri first showed his Plastiche at the Marlborough Gallery in Rome at the end of 1962, Rosso Plastica M 1 was selected to adorn the cover of the catalogue, a tribute to its importance. Created in 1961, this was one of the earliest of Burri's Plastiche, one of his most recognised series. With works such as Rosso Plastica M 1, which changed the landscape of artistic practice in the post-war world, Burri established his own importance and influence. It is no coincidence that his importance is being celebrated in a retrospective taking place at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, being held from 9 October to 6 January next year. Rosso Plastica M 1 itself has also enjoyed a prominence within Burri's work, having enjoyed a distinguished history, featuring in a number of subsequent lifetime exhibitions of the artist's works as well as several important monographs dedicated to him.
Looking at Rosso Plastica M 1, it is easy to see why: the picture has an absorbing energy: an intense, red core is surrounded by molten and charred plastic, giving the impression of a dark background, while a bar of red hovers at the top. In compositional terms, it recalls the pictures of some of Burri's mighty contemporaries across the Atlantic, for instance Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. Yet in terms of its sheer materiality, this is definitely something Other: in the place of the traditional oil on canvas is the glimmer of plastic, a relatively new substance at the time of execution which Burri has not only appropriated but also transformed.
The relationship between Burri and the Abstract Expressionists is a significant one. After all, it was in the United States that he enjoyed a lot of his early recognition, due in part to the support of the legendary museum director James Johnson Sweeney, who also wrote on Burri's work. Like the Abstract Expressionists, Burri was taking on the entire notion and legacy of painting. But unlike them, he was pushing his deconstruction of painting to a far greater extreme: over the years since the end of the Second World War he had gradually removed the paints, the brushes and even the canvas from the equation. Now, in works such as Rosso Plastica M 1, he was using fire, an element usually associated with destruction, as a force of creation. He was deftly controlling the flames of his blowtorch, understanding how to use them to either melt, char or blister his material, and thus controlling it as he ushered into existence new, vibrant works such as this.
The connection with the Abstract Expressionists must have been evident even in 1962, when Rosso Plastica M 1 was first shown alongside its sister pictures at the Marlborough Gallery in Rome. After all, the exhibition previous to it had shown the works of Jackson Pollock. Like Burri, Pollock had made great headway in reinventing painting, yet he had remained tethered to the paint and canvas. Burri, by contrast, since the late 1940s, had used myriad other techniques. He had begun with sewing and stitching, creating canvas collages such as his famous SZ1, which comprised fragments of a sack used as part of a food shipment from the United States; it was even emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes. Burri had taken this material, an analogue for the canvas beloved of painters, and had re-used it in a new, dynamic manner, incorporating it within an abstract composition that played as much upon contrasts of texture as it did colour. Meanwhile, his stitching provided a counterpoint to the machismo of Pollock's flung paint. Over the intervening years, Burri made a number of interventions with the traditional formula of paint and canvas. He disrupted the picture plane in his Gobbi by using other elements to upset the flatness of the canvas. And from 1954, he began to use fire in his mark-making process. In this, he used various materials, such as wood, canvas, paint and eventually plastic, as in Rosso Plastica M 1.
Burri's own varied experiences in the United States had played their part in his artistic formation, and this is evident in Rosso Plastica M 1 as well as in all his other works. It was while serving as a Prisoner-of-War in a camp in Hereford, Texas that Burri had abandoned his medical vocation, which had seen him serving as an army doctor until his capture, and turning instead to art. While in Hereford, he had painted a number of works that were figurative yet which showed an interest in composition that would find itself distilled down to the point of abstraction. This was clearly the case with Texas, one of the few early works that he did not destroy. In it, the presence of red was crucial: over the coming years, this was to become a vital part of Burri's own artistic heraldry. For a period of time around the period that Rosso Plastica M 1 was created, Burri pared down his palette to a small range of colours, mainly white, black and red.
The red that sings so vibrantly in Rosso Plastica M 1 therefore taps into a tradition within Burri's own works: it had appeared in Texas, and would also serve as a vital element in many of his Sacchi in subsequent years. But in his Plastiche, it appeared to reach an apotheosis. Looking at Rosso Plastica M 1, the viewer is seduced by the incredible variety of effects that occur upon the surface. He has used plastic, as well as acrylic paint, harnessing a number of visual effects. In the darker areas, for instance, the intense red that underlies the plastic is glimpsed through the charred brown. The palette is at once organic, reminiscent of blood and the earth, and yet highly modern. The richness of the red speaks of the manmade, of the artificial, recalling the epiphany that one of Burri's artistic contemporaries, Karel Appel, had enjoyed when seeing a fragment of red plastic amidst the damage-strewn landscape of Europe. Here, Burri has channelled that intensity, creating a work that is near monochrome.
This rigour regarding the palette allows Burri to bring the viewer's attention to the material itself. While previously, he had allowed contrasts between colours and materials to emphasise their properties, including such varied elements as wood, sackcloth, paint and gold within the fabric of his works, in works such as Rosso Plastica M 1 he was removing the distractions, instead insisting upon the viewer's appreciation of the red surface and the charred plastic alone. It stands before us, a tribute to its own existence, a sliver of the world placed on a pedestal. And at the same time, the interventions of the artist himself, so viscerally captured within the seared and blistered surface, speak of a specific moment in time, preserved like the material itself for posterity.
Burri's use of monochrome in Rosso Plastica M 1 reveals a general drift away from the more complex compositions that he had earlier created, towards a more rigorous economy of means. At the same time, it chimes with developments in the European avant garde that were taking place at the time. Artists such as Yves Klein, Enrico Castellani, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni were all embracing the monochrome as a vehicle, albeit for different reasons. Burri's place alongside these artists was already cemented. Indeed, only the year before Rosso Plastica M 1 was created, Manzoni had declared that
'... the truly vital thing that great artists like Burri, Fontana, Picasso, and Pollock give us is not so much material, a gesture, or a mark. It is an attitude toward life, the will and power to make art, the freedom to invent. This is the only lesson we can assimilate, the only one that regards us' (Manzoni, quoted in Azimuth, 1960, quoted in Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni, exh. cat., Milan & London, 1998, p. 312).
That 'freedom to invent' is clearly present in Rosso Plastica M 1, in the wealth of techniques that Burri has so deftly used to celebrate the red, the plastic and the fire, to create this pulsing beacon of life and vitality. This work clearly demonstrates the continuing validity of Sweeney's words from more than half a decade earlier, when he said of Burri: 'Out of a wound, beauty pours forth' (Sweeney, quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Burri 1915-1995: Retrospektive, exh. cat., Rome, 1996, p. 265).