In Alberto Burri’s Combustione, a spherical black form dominates a stark white background. Executed in 1966 using fire and plastic, the work bears witness to the radical new media and techniques that distinguished Burri as a leading exponent of Arte Povera. In lieu of brushwork, the artist chars and scars the plastic to create a textured swathe of darkness. Tendrils of smoke and dust appear to have licked the surface, adding a dynamic and almost painterly quality to its appearance. The traces of fire represent poetic shards of reality: evidence of the flickering flame that brought the work into being. The passing second in which the fire tore through the plastic is thus crystallized for eternity. By turning a force of destruction into one of creation, Burri sheds new light on the inherent materiality of his medium. Fire transforms the banal properties of plastic into a vision of violent transcendence, rehabilitating a fundamentally humble, industrial material. As the artist explained, ‘I chose to use poor materials to prove that they could still be useful. 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., Los Angeles, 1977, p. 97).
Burri’s Combustione works were inspired in part by a visit to an oilfield with Emilio Villa, the poet with whom he collaborated and who also wrote on his art. This new series was a contrast to the stitching that had been employed in his Sacchi: where the sewing of the canvas had been interpreted as a form of mending, the fire asserts its capacity for destruction. Burri’s unconventional media and techniques set the precedent for matter oriented art in Europe - fellow Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis quoted the Combustione when he incorporated fire in his jute sack paintings, and Yves Klein adopted the use of fire several years after Burri initiated the series. The present work discard the traditional constituent parts of painting, creating a poetic image that combines the interplay of natural elements with raw artistic expression.