Starting in the late 1950s, with the devastation and scarcity of the war years still fresh in his mind, Italian artist Alberto Burri began making forceful works using unpredictable and non-traditional materials: fire and plastic. Harnessing the destructive and transformative powers of fire as a means of creation, Burri used a blowtorch to melt and manipulate sheets of industrial plastic into viscerally powerful abstract compositions such as Nero Plastica L.A. of 1963. Exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum’s acclaimed 2015–16 Burri survey, the work is the largest to come to market from the Nero Plastica series and makes its first appearance at auction in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale on 16 November.
“None of us who saw the Burri retrospective at the Guggenheim could fail to be moved by the explosive energy of Nero Plastica L.A.,” says Grégoire Billault, Head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s New York. “The perfect undulating rhythm of its monumental surface stands as one of the boldest expressions of 1960s abstraction that is as striking today as it was when it was unveiled to the world nearly 55 years ago.”
The year of the work’s creation, 1963, is notable in the artist’s improbable biography. A surgeon by training, Burri was a doctor in the Italian army during World War II. Captured by Allied troops, he spent several years as a prisoner of war in Texas, returning to Italy in 1946 and settling in Rome. In 1955 he married Minsa Craig, an American dancer who was touring with the Martha Graham Company. In 1963, the couple bought a house in the Hollywood Hills where they would spend every winter until 1991.
As he did with many other works he made while in Los Angeles, Burri added “L.A.” to the title of this Nero Plastica, but the work makes no visual reference to its place of origin. It is emblematic of Burri’s masterly manipulation of surface and material. With its haunting, mysterious surface and glass-like sheen, Nero Plastica L.A. reveals Burri’s unrivaled skill at transmuting the ordinary into the sublime.