Gouged out of the white plastic surface of Alberto Burri's Combustione plastica are craters, their edges thickened, baring the scars of the burning that created them: the artist has both destroyed and celebrated his material. The holes in the surface of this work, which was executed in 1956, create an intriguing dialogue: backed with black, they become opposed to the white of the plastic that has been burnt, an effect that Burri has both complicated and heightened through his own use of black paint upon the surface. Here and there, flickers of golden-brown record the passing of the flame, adding flecks of colour to the composition, heightening both its dynamism and its authenticity as a record of the artist's movements. Combustione plastica is an important work: not only was it created only a few years after the inception of the Combustioni, but it also came to feature in a number of lifetime exhibitions dedicated to his work.
By taking a blowtorch instead of a paint-brush, Burri appeared to be entering a new level of iconoclasm with his Combustioni. This series of works involved fire as the main medium. Burri soon became an expert at manipulating the way that his various materials burnt, allowing him to create complex compositions with deft control. He would leave little to chance, dabbing or prodding the materials in order to ensure that they caught fire only to the extent that he desired. Footage of Burri working on a suspended clear sheet of plastic remains which shows the different techniques he used with his blowtorch, using it sometimes to melt, sometimes to burn, sometimes to mark. These techniques, the analogues to the brushstrokes of traditional painting, are all in evidence in Combustione plastica, in the incredible regularity and control of the openings that so rhythmically progress across the surface. The three-dimensionality of some parts of the surface itself adds to its 'painterly' quality: the rims of the craters have the thickened, shrivelled plastic that is the result of the burning and melting, yet which recalls impasto.
Burri developed an entire language of artistic creation that interfaced with his materials in new ways. While Abstract Expressionism was leading the field in the United States, with the Action Painters reinventing their relationship with the canvas and with the figurative world, Burri began to stitch canvases together in his Sacchi and to burn materials in his Combustioni. He was changing the entire way that the artist responded to his support and his medium. Initially, looking at a work like Combustione plastica, it could be posited that Burri was destroying the plastic. Yet, as James Johnson Sweeney had written about him the year before this work was created, 'Out of a wound, beauty pours forth' (Sweeney, quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Burri 1915-1995: Retrospektive, exh. cat., Rome, 1996, p. 265). This is certainly the case in Combustione plastica, which transcends the seeming limitations of its medium and its techniques. Fire and plastic, that apparently modern, everyday, apparently prosaic and more importantly overlooked material, are here united by Burri in such a way that they form more than the mere sum of their parts. They become a black and white epiphany.
Burri's works, either those made of sackcloth or those comprising burnt materials, are sometimes linked to the ravaged landscape of post-war Italy to which he had returned after his years spent as a Prisoner-of-War in the United States. At the same time, the fact that he has managed to take humble materials and to enshrine them within the context of art, to place them upon a new pedestal, reveals an artist who is granting his materials a new apotheosis. This is an act of reconciliation, of healing, rather than mere destruction. As such, it becomes all the more clear how closely linked Burri's original vocation as a doctor and his later life as an artist were. In Combustione plastica, Burri has allowed his scorched materials, phoenix-like, to be transformed.
Looking at Combustione plastica, the roots of Burri's material-based works in the abstract compositions that he had first created when he had adopted an artistic vocation remain clear. The work is underpinned with a clear sense of structure and hierarchy. Even the glimmers of white that appear through the black become all the more dramatic, adding an electric sense of energy to the entire composition. This adds a clear sense of the gestural, of Burri's own intervention with the surface, and indeed of his enthusiasm as well as his versatility. Sweeney, writing again about Burri in 1957, the year after Combustione plastica was created, would state:
'Burri enjoys his art like every other true artist. He plays in it: plays with the materials he employs, allows them to play with him, to collaborate in the final expression, even to dictate some of the forms which seem his most personal.
'This ability to play unselfconsciously with his medium, combined with an unashamed, natural sensuality - both controlled and refined by an intellectual ideal for his work, a delicate sensibility and a technician's competence and conscience - has made it possible for Alberto Burri to give one of the most individual and refreshing expressions of the past ten years and at the same time one directly in line with the soundest traditions' (Sweeney, reproduced in C. Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Burri 1915-1995: Retrospektive, exh. cat., Rome, 1996, p. 270).