‘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 ...
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’ (A. Burri, quoted in Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View 1948-77, exh. cat., The Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, Los Angeles, 1977, pp. 48-49).
Towering over the viewer, two metres in height, Alberto Burri’s Bianco plastica P presents an imposing monolithic expanse of white with a black void at its centre. Executed in 1970, Bianco plastica P combines a number of strands of Burri’s work: plastic, cellotex, and of course, fire. The fire may not be burning any more, but its traces are there for all to see in the variegated textures of the deliberately wrinkled, darkened mass of plastic. By the time he created Bianco plastica P, Burri was enjoying international recognition. A new generation of artists had emerged who had been inspired by the breakthroughs he had made over the previous two and a half decades. This new wave included American artists, not least Robert Rauschenberg, who had visited Burri in the 1950s. It also featured a number of Burri’s compatriots associated with the Arte Povera movement. Burri’s rigorous focus on materiality and objecthood had inspired both of these strands. This year, the centenary of his birth, will be marked by a retrospective to be held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which will examine the wider impact and implications of Burri’s work.
Bianco plastica P is one of an important group of works consisting of plastic with white backgrounds - as the title indicates - which Burri made over a number of years. Indeed, at the 1966 Venice Biennale, only four years before he created Bianco plastica P, a selection of these related works were shown together in a one-man exhibition curated by Vittorio Rubiu. As is so clearly demonstrated by Bianco plastica P, these works have an intense visual impact, largely harnessed through the rigorous palette of black and white.
This results in an intriguing dialogue with the paintings of Franz Kline, one of the Abstract Expressionists who for some years had been the dominant artistic force across the Atlantic. However, Burri had moved beyond the ‘freedom of the brush’ which had been advocated in the late 1940s regarding the American avant garde; he has almost discarded the brush. In Bianco plastica P, much of the black was the result of the use of fire as a medium. He has used combustion to serve his purposes as a painter: the flame has become a surrogate brush. Burri used fire as a means of transformation - and revelation. He has allowed us to appreciate new qualities of the material all the more through the transmutations which he has forced upon it, creating sensual plays of texture in the crimps and folds, adding visual contrasts through the gloss and gleam of this area, the smoky matte of that. In this way, he has moved beyond figuration, beyond representation: Bianco plastica P is an autonomous slice of the universe in its own right.
The stitching of Burri’s Sacchi, the burlap collages he had pioneered in the late 1940s, invoked both the healing of wounds and the traditionally more feminine world of couture, thus serving as a bold riposte to the machismo associated with Abstract Expressionism. By contrast, the fire that he embraced in Bianco plastica P was an elemental force of destruction. Yet this was a destruction which Burri harnessed in order to turn it into a force for creation. There is an almost alchemical transformation at work in the surface of this picture: he has taken a clear material and, by introducing it to a raw flame, has turned it black. At the same time, there is evidence of heat and smoke upon the surface of the picture, giving a visceral sense of that moment of creation, as the fire danced across the plastic. Burri has used the white of the background to thrust this black further into relief, heightening the internal drama through the composition itself. After all, Burri’s use of fire was far from random, or uncontrolled: instead, he had developed techniques that allowed him a surprising degree of precision, as is evidenced in the photographs and videos of him at work. These reveal the artist taking a blowtorch to clear sheets of hanging plastic, dabbing out the flames, cutting, pulling and manipulating the scorched surface.
The use of humble media added to the potency of Burri’s works, be it in the Sacchi or the plastic of Bianco plastica P. Burri was celebrating these oft-overlooked aspects of everyday life in the post-war era, taking burlap, wood and plastic and placing them upon the elevated pedestal of art. ‘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’ (Burri, quoted in Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View 1948-77, exh.cat., The Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, Los Angeles, 1977, p. 72). While the poorness may not have been a symbol for Burri, his use of these materials was nonetheless an eloquent masterstroke, one that would come to have a huge impact on the development of Arte Povera.
In the catalogue for the large-scale 1995 retrospective of Burri’s work, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev pointed out that from around 1968, when Arte Povera was an ascendant force in Italy, Burri’s paintings appeared to become more refined in their compositions. She has posited this reduction of elements as a reaction to the material chaos and iconoclasm embraced by his younger compatriots (C. Christov-Bakargiev, ‘Alberto Burri: The Surface at Risk’, in Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Burri 1915-1995: Retrospektive, exh. cat., Rome, 1996, p. 117). This was a development that would ultimately lead to the crisp and controlled forms of Burri’s Cellotex series. Bianco plastica P confirms this idea: the composition of this work has a sense of simple might that serves as a precursor to the Cellotex works. However this painting remains rooted in Burri’s use of material and materiality, as underscored by his revelatory and transformative use of fire. In formal terms, Bianco plastica P uses a deft and bold economy of means in order to make a greater visual impact, thus revealing the constant interest in equilibrium, in balance and in composition which were such consistent touchstones for Burri.