Lot 10
  • 10

Alberto Burri

800,000 - 1,200,000 GBP
2,057,250 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Alberto Burri
  • Nero Plastica

  • signed and dated 65 on the reverse

  • burned plastic on canvas


The artist
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Marlborough Gallery, New York
DiLaurenti Gallery Ltd., New York
Private Collection, Central America
Thence by descent to the present owner


Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Eds., Burri, Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Cittá di Castello 1990, p. 178, no. 748, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

"The action of fire became much more domineering and determinant in the unforeseeable series of the plastic combustions which in the 1960s congenially marked Burri's full maturity" (Carlo Pirovano, 'The Seasons of Fire', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizione, Burri: 1915-1995 Retrospective, 1997, pp. 114-115). 

A resplendent volcanic topography of molten black plastic, Alberto Burri's exquisite Nero Plastica is a magnificent exhibition of the artist's revolutionary combustioni series of plastic works and a masterpiece of twentieth-century art. The fabulous multi-layered planes with extraordinary textures and relief, and blackened sheets of melted plastic comprise an eviscerated landscape, a reduction, or even regression, of the manufactured artificiality of plastic to the natural oil of its subterranean origin. Intensely striking, the forceful contrast of punctured, combusted voids and swollen plastic welts, confer a feat of compositional drama that wavers delicately in the balance between destruction and creation. Heralded as the first artist to introduce the unpredictability of natural phenomenon into the work of art, Burri first forged a dialogue with the alchemical potential of fire in 1957, instigating his first corpus of dedicated plastic works in 1960. Executed in 1965, this work delivers the apotheosis of Burri's groundbreaking exploration into the poetic expressivity of fire as an artistic tool. Though directly comparable to examples prestigiously held in the Burri Foundation in Perugia, Nero Plastica stands out for its unrivalled splendour of surface manipulation. Indeed, within the series of black combusted plastic works executed between 1961 and 1965, Nero Plastica is lyrically unparalleled, standing among the very highest tier of the prodigious Plastiche corpus. The extraordinary theatrical strata of cutaneous plastic and dense treacle-like surface posit this work as an adroit illumination of Burri's radical aesthetic inquiry into the power and sensuality of material and the destructive/creative force of fire.

The volatile yet delicately executed structure of Nero Plastica demonstrates the expressive yet nihilistic potential of fire in the very limits of the picture plane. Reaching a perfect equilibrium between the sensuality of texture, the balance of composition and the vitality of material, Nero Plastica epitomises Burri's innovative methodology and revolutionary transformation of the monolith of painting. As a procedure in which the contingency of fire's alchemical reaction ultimately informs the aesthetic surface of the artwork, Burri's practice traverses the boundaries between art and life whilst simultaneously bridging the threshold between the natural and synthetic.  Exposed to the destructive power of fire, the natural transformation of perishing materiality forges a new and contingent aesthetic realm. According to Carlo Pirovano, in Burri's work the moment of "panic", occasioned by fire's terrific devastation is surpassed "by the sublime regenerative potentiality which is innate to fire, exactly in the exploitation of that mythical gift which not so much consists in the destructive charge as it does in the possibility of transforming matter... of creating" (Carlo Pirovano, 'The Seasons of Fire', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizione, Burri: 1915-1995 Retrospektive, 1997, p. 112). Constitutive of microcosmic and macrocosmic environments, Burri's surface evokes both the otherworldly realms of unknown galactic landscapes and infintesimal cellular structures.

By reducing sheets of black and transparent plastic to blistering welts of carbonated and molten substance, the profoundly destructive methodology of Burri's practice provokes an illuminating philosophical allusion to existential nihilism. As principally propounded by Friedrich Nietzsche and later expounded by post-structuralist philosophers Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, by surrendering to nihilistic Dionysian abandon the subject is granted access behind the ordered Apollonian veil of appearances. Herein the threat of destruction calls forth experiences and metaphysical planes of knowledge beyond those of rationality and logic: annihilation is theoretically posited as the key to unveiling an existential 'truth'. Against the wreckage of post-war disillusionment, Burri's work forges a visual counterpart to such theorems: by exposing the materiality of plastic to the elemental force of fire, new life and beauty are propagated through brutality, laceration, and evisceration. Nero Plastica is a magnificent example of this groundbreaking artistic innovation. Crater-like voids of molten cutaneous plastic chart a delicate compositional harmony across a monumental expanse of abyssal black. Contorted like a deathly veil of liquid magma or tar, this extraordinary masterpiece exudes an unparalleled degree of fetishistic abject-beauty; simultaneously mutilated while evocative of natural abundance, the fury of fire eloquently tempers a dramatic and sensual metaphorical play between wounded anatomical allusions and natural biological phenomenon.

Herein, Burri's nihilistic methodology has also been read as a primal regression, psychoanalytically interpreted as a conflict between the elemental subconscious and the rationalising ego. As Maurizio Calvesi has outlined: "Burri's poetic is resolved in a radical stripping of primary psychical structures...directly from a meeting on a psychological level of vital, primordial unconscious tendencies; a play of forces that could also take him back to the wider scope of the basic conflict between the forces of the instinct and the responsible consciousness of the ego" (Maurizio Calvesi, Le due avantguardie. Dal Futurismo alla Pop Art, Milan 1966, pp. 228-229). Indeed, Burri's surface visually testifies to this nihilistic regression via a physical operation of the Tabula Rasa: within Burris' Nero Plastica the immaculate manufactured quality of plastic alchemically retrogresses to the liquescent and viscous crude oil of its elemental source.

The vicissitudes of the artist's biography and political climate of Italy in the immediate post-war years locate Burri's practice as a visceral response to the Second World War; Burri himself suffered detainment in an American Prisoner of War camp during 1944-45. Having qualified as a doctor before turning to art during his incarceration, biological and even surgical analogies have been drawn, enlikening Burri's gaping apertures of molten plastic as redolent of a living and bleeding body; a metaphor for the existential wound of the European collective-consciousness. As James Johnson Sweeney has remarked in his influential analysis: "Burri transforms rags into a metaphor for bleeding human flesh, breathes fresh life into the inanimate materials which he employs, making them live and bleed; then heals the wounds with the same evocative ability and the same sensibility with which he first inflicted them. What for Cubists would have been reduced to the partial distillation of a painted composition... in Burri's hands becomes a living organism: flesh and blood... The picture is human flesh, the artist a surgeon." (James Johnson Sweeney, in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, L'Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.). In Nero Plastica, the sensitive play of molten furrows and burnt-out voids implores the viewer's eye to scan the surface like an eviscerated landscape, taking in the violence and pathos redolent in the moribund forms of molten plastic: this work powerfully confers emotive articulation to that which can be "expressed but not described" (Carolyn Christov-Bakargriev, 'Alberto Burri: The surface at Risk', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Palazzo delle Espozioni, Op. Cit., p. 79).

In subversively employing matter as the subject of his painting from the late 1940s, Alberto Burri looked to the limitless potential of materiality as a vehicle for artistic expression. Having previously gained recognition for his works of coarsely stitched burlap Sacchi, and wooden Legno pieces, Nero Plastica represents a mature and consummately resolved exemplar dated to the very moment Burri had mastered the command of fire as an artistic procedure; a procedure moreover that would yield the most dynamic and celebrated of Burri's works ever to be created. From discarded partial fragments of destruction, new life and beauty are born again in resurgence. As exquisitely articulated in the nuanced yet brutal topography of Nero Plastica Burri alludes to an existential but living body, lacerated and tortured in the wake of war's atrocities, whilst simultaneously opening up the realm of the real, operating on the threshold between art and life.