Fusing creation and destruction into a vision of raw, elemental power, Rosso Plastica is an outstanding work from Alberto Burri’s celebrated series of Combustioni Plastiche. Executed in 1963, and unveiled in New York the following year, its searing red plastic surface is warped, wrinkled and perforated by flames, giving rise to a rich topography of peaks, troughs and gaping black holes. Appearing before the viewer like molten lava or the surface of a distant planet, it transforms its humble material into a sensual plateau, riddled with primal, corporeal allusions. Part sculpture, part painting, the work takes its place within Burri’s broader artistic project: namely, to transform everyday, industrial materials into potent self-referential objects, freed from the burden of representation. Like Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein, both of whom embraced the aesthetics of destruction during this period, Burri was fascinated by the space beyond the picture plane, harnessing fire as a means of rendering it visible. With its vibrant red surface seemingly exuding the heat of its creation, Rosso Plastica is among the most complex and poetic examples of this practice, taking its place alongside similar works held in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome and the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello.
Having originally studied medicine before serving as a doctor in the Italian military, Burri took up painting whilst interned at a prisoner of war camp in Hereford, Texas, in 1944. Upon returning to Italy, he came to the conclusion that traditional means of expression were no longer relevant in a world ravaged by conflict. Initially employing materials such as tar, ground volcanic rock, industrial chemical binders and burlap sacking, he set about creating an art grounded in the innate properties of his materials. “Words are no help to me when I try to speak about my painting,” he explained. “It is an irreducible presence that refuses to be converted into any other form of expression” (A. Burri, quoted in The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955, p. 82). Despite their lack of conscious allusion to external reality, his works nonetheless became symbols of hope to a generation traumatized by war. Though torn, fractured and charred, his materials were ultimately reborn, assuming a new, visceral life of their own. Burri’s medical background was not lost upon his commentators: as James Johnson Sweeney wrote, “The picture is human flesh; the artist is a surgeon” (J. Johnson Sweeney, quoted in Burri, exh. cat., l’Obeslico, Rome, 1955, unpaged).
Burri had first begun working with fire in the mid-1950s, initially burning paper, burlap, wood and metal before turning to plastic in 1957. Using a blowtorch, he relished the unpredictable effects of the material as it melted and curled under the heat of the flame. At the same time, however, he remained fully conscious of the results, moulding, sculpting and manipulating his medium with virtuosic flair. As Emily Braun has described, “Burri began by burning holes in the material with a torch. He varied the distance and controlled the temperature as the plastic melted into wavelike formations, blistered, and burst into flames, and then he extinguished the flames by dousing them in water” (E. Braun, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2015, p. 211). With the skill of a master draughtsman, Burri payed close attention to effects of lighting, shade and texture, achieving subtle chiaroscuro effects that seemed to fly in the face of his volatile, violent process. “Nothing is left to chance,” he explained “What I do here is the most controlled and controllable type of painting … You need to control the material and this is achieved by mastering the technique” (A. Burri, quoted in E. Braun, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2015, p. 211).
Burri’s adoption of plastic, a relatively novel material in post-war Italy, was particularly innovative. Widespread manufacture of the substance had begun in the aftermath of the Second World War, yet—whilst it quickly became a staple in Italian homes during the “economic miracle” —it remained little utilized in the realm of art. First exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery in Rome, the year before the present work, Burri’s Combustione Plastiche entranced both critics and the public. “Certainly,” wrote Cesare Brandi, “one could not have imagined, before Burri, that plastic, as it is, indeed accentuated in its constitutional defects, could become the matter-non-matter of a new cycle of works” (C. Brandi, quoted op. cit., p. 37). While the results exude an almost Baroque sense of grandeur and ornamental excess, however, the artist continued to exalt the medium for its quotidian associations. “I chose to use poor materials to prove that they could still be useful,” he explained. “The poorness of a medium is not a symbol: it is a device for painting” (A. Burri, quoted in Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View 1948-77, exh. cat., Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, 1977, p. 72). It was a stance that, later that same decade, would influence the rise of movements such as Arte Povera and Minimalism.
Just as Klein embraced a “holy chromatic trinity” of blue, gold and pink, Burri was particularly fascinated by the colors red and black. Though their deployment was deliberately non-representational, both hues were unavoidably emotive to audiences who had witnessed the destruction of the European landscape. Red, in particular, carried implicit connotations of blood and wounds, indelibly linked to the religious iconography of the Renaissance that had fuelled Burri’s early imagination in his hometown of Città di Castello. Other commentators have suggested that the color was equally evocative of the hot Texan landscape, conjuring the scorched plains upon which he had decided to devote his life to art. More broadly, it might be seen to resonate with the monochrome adventures of his peers: artists such as Fontana, Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni all made striking use of the color, while across the Atlantic, Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko plumbed its depths in their vast painterly fields. These references collide in the bristling surface of the present work, giving rise to a powerful tension between real-world association and abstract sublimation. It was here, ultimately, that Burri located the true purpose of his art: to highlight the fluid line between art and life, in a period that had fundamentally shaken humankind’s faith in reality.