Having fully explored his interest in the combustion of paper and canvas, and even the effects of the blowtorch on metal sheets, from 1958 on Alberto Burri began to investigate the combustion of plastic of different qualities and thicknesses.
Although most artists considered plastic useless for pictorial purposes, as well as being worthless and of limited aesthetic quality, Burri devoted the greatest attention to this material. In several of the first works dating to 1961-62 he began to experiment with its transparency, using the blowtorch to burn apertures into the surface. The combustion left black traces on the edges of these holes, which Burri then manipulated while the material was still hot, moulding them into shapes and compositions by adjusting the random effects of the heat. This was the period in which he dedicated himself to the red and black plastics; these works were distinguished by the colour of the grounds, either painted in acrylic or left plain when the canvas used was already black.
The work Nero Plastica L.A., 1963 belongs to a very small series of black plastic works produced in the same way between 1962 and 1964. The intensity and dramatic power of this work, in which an unfathomable scope and depth become palpable in the spatial darkness, make it historically pivotal not only to Burri’s own career but to all the art of the post-war period. His presentation of this material of humble qualities actually rendered them obsolete through the violence of the torch, which lacerated the uniformity of the surface, creating vast ulcers. Burri sought to emphasize the deformation produced by wrinkling the consistency of the plastic, triggering a brilliance in stark contrast with the darkness of the black canvas ground. Light and darkness compete to captivate the attention of the viewer, although the dominance of black in the work is an aspect not to be overlooked.
Burri has never made any secret of his attraction to black. It derives from the balancing impulse, at once complex and intuitive, which pervades his sensitivity in the action that qualifies the conception and realization of the pictorial space. In the case of Burri’s black painting, this is the result of at least two particular factors, among others. One is a blind faith in his ability to achieve, using a colour such as black, the range of shaded nuances which the works in fact reveal. The other is the possession of a technical mastery such as to bring forth the diversified sensitivity of the surface, perfectly ploughed into modulated planes that reflect the light striking them to different degrees. Beyond these aspects, we should not forget that Burri is, in pectore, the most assiduous and effective author and theorist of colour-matter. He has supplemented the age-old use of traditional pigments, earths, oxides and every other type of colour with that of other materials, which from 1948 on have indeed largely replaced them. These new materials not only have their own chromatic import, but also a physicality, weight and objective presence, which is then skilfully harmonised in the dramatic and articulated layout of the elements composing the work. Through Burri’s action, the presentation rather than the representation of matter has materialized painting to the point of making a decisive contribution to its liberation from all metaphor, promoting an art in which the meaning lies in the semantic value of language.
NERO PLASTICA L.A.: IN CONTEXT
A resplendent volcanic topography of molten black plastic, Nero Plastica L.A. stands as an unimpeachable testament to the explosive visual dynamism and intricately rendered elegance of Alberto Burri’s revolutionary artistic practice. Fusing visceral materiality with a Baroque sculptural magnificence, this extraordinary work is an unparalleled example from the artist’s revered and acutely limited corpus of black Plastiche. Executed at the spectacular apotheosis of the series in 1963, Nero Plastica L.A. is joined by only six other Nero Plastica constructions in a monumental scale; of these, all but one is held in or promised to the esteemed collections of the Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna in Rome, the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri, Rome, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Further testifying to the superb caliber of the present work, Nero Plastica L.A., amongst other select masterworks from the artist’ s oeuvre, was recently featured in the internationally lauded retrospective exhibition Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2015. Evincing a magnificent equilibrium of gestural dynamism, compositional balance, and raw physicality, Nero Plastica L.A. is amongst the most revered exhibitions of the artist's celebrated corpus and, in its radical investigation of matter as medium, a singularly exquisite masterpiece of Twentieth Century abstract art.
Heralded as the first artist to introduce the reality of natural and material forces into his artistic practice, Burri’s extraordinary mastery of radical and volatile materials is nowhere more profound than in his celebrated Plastiche. Having previously gained recognition for his coarsely stitched burlap Sacchi, scorched wooden Legno, and torched iron Ferri, Burri began to experiment with the new, thrillingly modern medium of plastic in 1958, before initiating the first dedicated series of Plastiche in 1961. Turning his torch upon the glassy surface of the plastic sheeting, Burri expertly burned and conjoined layers of rapidly congealing material, wielding the molten forms into intricately Baroque formations of obsidian apertures. Upon the first exhibition of the radical new Plastiche at Marlborough Galleria d’arte in Rome in 1962, Cesare Brandi, a viewer, described: “ [The Plastiche] represent a fresh and dazzling departure….in a way they represent the culmination of all Burri’s previous experiments. But in the direct line which leads from the ‘Gobbi’ through the ‘Combustione’ and the ‘Ferri’ to the ’Plastiche,’ they constitute an astonishing novelty.” (Exh. Cat, New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., Alberto Burri, 1963, p. 5) Single-handedly wielding his flame with virtuosic skill, Burri used his other hand to forcibly manipulate the sensuous liquid craters and luxuriantly tattered hems of tortured plastic sheeting into intricate compositional formations as it repeatedly melted and cooled, softening and reforming in endless permutations of abstract forms. Reflecting upon the remarkable expressive potential of Burri’s unpredictable materials, one scholar writes: “This material can be stretched, draped, coagulated like impasto, set off against the familiar monochrome use of the same color on a supporting surface, burned into new multi-layered skins of now inseparably welded tissue, only to be stretched, draped, craterized, and manipulated by the painter’s experimental vision.” (Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, Alberto Burri: A Retrospective View: 1948-77, p.55) Within the artist’s corpus of clear, red, and black Plastiche, Burri noted that chemical make-up of the black plastic caused it to burn with an exceptionally ferocious speed and, as a result, required an extraordinary focus and formal mastery unmatched in other examples from the series; describing the distinction, one scholar notes, “Although the red and black Plastiche overlap in chronology and process, Burri had to adapt his technique to suit the more rapidly burning substance of the latter. Thus, in addition to the draped, sealed, and vacuole types found in the red subset, the black group includes a new category that revels in high relief and surfaces violently alive with movement.” (Emily Braun and Carol Stingari, “Combustioni plastiche,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, 2015, p. 212) Harnessing the destructive and transformative powers of flame to create a sculpture of unspeakable abstract lyricism, Nero Plastica L.A. is amongst the most compelling articulations of Burri’s revolutionary artistic exploration into the limitless potential of materiality to become a vehicle for a radically new artistic expression.
Fusing the painterly and sculptural in an intricate relief of blackened voids and shimmering surfaces, Nero Plastica L.A. achieves a spectacular recalibration of the limits of abstract form that thoroughly surpasses the bounds of any one continent or movement within the trajectory of Twentieth Century Modernism. Indeed, even in the title of the present work, Burri draws upon diverse loci of inspiration: in 1963, the year of the present work, Burri and his American wife, Minsa Craig, purchased a house in the hills of Los Angeles, where they would intermittently reside between bouts of international travel. In the reductive and nihilistic tendencies which lie at the heart of the Plastiche, Burri invokes a similar mode of transfiguration to that of Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein, recalling Fontana’s forceful puncturing and slashing through the canvas and Klein’s explorations of the alchemical potential of fire. Yet in his masterful absorption of found and familiar materials, Burri draws an equally compelling parallel with the early Combines of Robert Rauschenberg; indeed, given the American artist’s visits to Burri’s studio during the 1950’s, art historian Charles Stuckey once remarked that Rauschenberg’s “collaborative attitude about materials is a response to the revolutionary collage paintings of Alberto Burri.” (Charles F. Stuckey, “Rauschenberg’s Everything, Everywhere Era,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, 1997, p. 37) In its palpable tension between free flow and structure, destruction and delicacy, the profound visceral immediacy of Nero Plastica L. A. likewise evokes the contemporaneous Ferragosto paintings of Cy Twombly, finding a deep affinity with the artist’s juxtaposition of restraint and effulgence in medium. Within the artist’s celebrated corpus, the Plastiche rank amongst the most eloquent and profound articulations of the artist’s unparalleled union of raw physicality and formal abstraction; evincing the very apotheosis of the artist’s unrivaled ability to transmute unexpected materials into entirely sublime aesthetic form, Nero Plastica L.A. magnificently bridges the European and American postwar divide to present a compelling treatise upon medium as meaning itself.
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