‘Impassable and evasive in its liquid solidity, in the glossiness that always calls into question the form, the matter emerges from the relief, from the clot, from the crater open wide on the hardened magma, while the light – after the fire that has burned – becomes the main vehicle of the image, “matter” of the matter itself’ (G. Serafni, in Burri, Milan, 1999, p. 193).
Alberto Burri’s Rosso plastica is a near sculptural painting that revels in its very materiality. Created in 1968 Rosso plastica is one in a series of works by the artist that celebrated the sumptuous properties of its main medium, plastic, and its reaction to the elemental properties of fire. Burri’s technique of scorching his vibrant expanse of red plastic, results in a captivating topography of undulating ripples that coalesce at the edge of large craters, peeled open to reveal a black background that adds to their contrast. Masterfully controlled by the artist’s hand, the very materiality of the artwork conveys the presence of the fire that brought it into creation. The black matt not only brings about a rich textural counterpoint to the glossy red plastic, it also encourages shadows to proliferate from the peaks and curls of the violated material, thereby heightening its sculptural properties.
When Burri had first turned to plastic as a material in the mid-1950s, though, its presence in his work may have reflected its relative novelty. Returning to Italy after the Second World War and his imprisonment in the United States, Burri would doubtlessly have been struck by the modern sheen of the plastics that occasionally appeared in his then war-torn homeland, That blood-like intensity has been channelled by Burri in Rosso plastica, where it retains that similar sense of pulsing, beacon-like attraction and indeed life force. But in Burri’s iteration, it also comes to recall bubbling molten lava, an appearance only reinforced by the qualities of the plastic itself.
For Burri, red was a colour that would recur through a number of his works, perhaps reflecting his experiences during the War, not least as a medical officer in the Italian army. Certainly, like the younger French artist, Yves Klein, Burri developed a small group of signature colours: the colour of sacking, black, white, gold and crucially red. Many of his works would come to adhere to this rigorous palette. The use of red in his Plastiche resonates with the pictures that had formed a part of his earliest output, when he had been a Prisoner of War in Hereford, Texas, having been transported there after his capture by British forces in Africa. On his arrival, his medical equipment having been taken from him, he selected a new vocation: art. One of his earliest works, and one of the few to survive from this period, was Texas of 1945. In that work, reds, oranges and yellows make up most of the scene, conveying a sense of desolation and of oppressive heat. The near-barren landscape is punctuated by fences, a windmill and what appears to be the smoke of a passing train in the far distance, details which relieve the composition while also emphasising its sparseness. The black pits in Rosso plastica serve a similar purpose, adding a visual rhythm, pulling the eye across its expanse.
Burri’s works are both incredibly grounded and incredibly transcendent: on the one hand, they take elements from the real world around us, from the landscape of our existence, and show them in their own right, eschewing any sense of representation. Works such as Rosso plastica do not show – they are. At the same time, by elevating his chosen materials, be it sackcloth, hardboard or plastic, by inserting them into an artistic context, he is granting them an attention to which they and the viewers are unaccustomed. By 1968, when Burri created Rosso plastica, the red plastic that dominates the composition would have been endemic enough a product that it was seen as an everyday object. It was practical, and indeed ‘poor’. Its use here highlights the importance that Burri had to a slew of artists including those in Italy associated with Arte Povera, who themselves began to use a palette of materials taken from the fabric of the world around them, for instance Jannis Kounnelis and Pino Pascali.