Contemporary Art

3 Post-War Italian Innovators

By Sotheby's

A lthough Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and Michelangelo Pistoletto approached art-making differently, these groundbreaking post-war Italian artists are connected by their radical rethinking of what a painting could be and how it was created. Through their use of destructive methods such as burning and cutting and by turning to the non-traditional materials of plastic and mirror-finished metal, the artists opened new conceptual and formal frontiers. Completed between 1963 and 1965, works by each artist featured in Sotheby’s 16 November Contemporary Art Evening Auction exemplify this innovative brilliance.

By Bruno Corà

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.  

Bruno Corà is the President of the Fondazione Burri and Editor of Burri: Catalogo generale, 2015.

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 limited corpus of black Plastiche

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 intricate formations of obsidian apertures. 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.

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 20th-century Modernism. Indeed, even the title 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. 

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.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attesa , 1964


By slicing through the metallic expanse of supple canvas with deft exactitude in Concetto Spaziale, Attesa, Fontana challenged painting’s historical veneration for the uninterrupted picture plane, ushering in a new age of irreverent, impassioned and utterly groundbreaking artistic philosophy. Evoking the opulence of gilded Baroque sanctuaries and Byzantine mosaics, this exceptionally rare work is one of only two golden tagli paintings Fontana executed in 1964. Fusing the resplendent aura of a precious object with a radical formal gesture, Concetto Spaziale, Attesa is a profound summation of Fontana’s career-long dialogue with the infinite tangibility of space. “My cuts are above all a philosophical statement, an act of faith in the infinite, an affirmation of spirituality,” the artist famously wrote. “When I sit down to contemplate one of my cuts... I feel like a man freed from the shackles of matter, a man at one with the immensity of the present and of the future.”

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Scultura di Chamberlain , 1965


Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings defy easy categorization. Frustrated with the imitative relationship between traditional painting and reality, the artist first experimented with a series of self-portraits on reflective grounds in 1960; later that year and into 1961, Pistoletto refined his process by substituting the glossy ground for a highly polished stainless-steel one, onto which he pasted finely rendered photo-realist images that were painted on tissue paper. Scultura di Chamberlain depicts an image of a John Chamberlain sculpture that was reproduced on the cover of the 1964 Venice Biennale catalogue, a deliberate appropriation that questions notions of artistic originality, reality and illusion.

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