Lot 6
  • 6

Alberto Burri

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 GBP
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  • Alberto Burri
  • Rosso Plastica
  • signed, dedicated per Mario Dora, variously inscribed and dated 63 on the reverse
  • plastic, acrylic, vinavil and combustion on canvas
  • 80 by 100cm.; 31 1/2 by 39 3/8 in.


Dora Collection, Brescia (acquired directly from the artist)

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1979


New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Alberto Burri, 1964, no. 18

Milan, Brera 2 - Palazzo Citterio, Burri, 1984


Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Burri: Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello 1990, p. 181, no. 759, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate. Condition. This work is in very good condition. Close inspection reveals some minor wear to the top left corner. No restoration is apparent when examined under ultraviolet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

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 Retrospektive, 1997, pp.114-15. 


Evincing a magnificent equilibrium of dramatic texture, compositional balance and raw materiality, Rosso Plastica epitomises Burri's interrogatory practice and radical transformation of the traditional art of painting. Executed in 1963, the present work embodies a supreme example of Burri’s most celebrated and important series, the Plastiche. Having previously gained recognition for his works of coarsely stitched burlap (Sacchi), scorched wooden compositions (Legno), and torched iron pieces (Ferri), the arrival of this corpus comprising visually stunning and densely layered molten plastic compositions signalled the very apotheosis of Burri’s subversive transfiguration of the two-dimensional work of art. The present work ranks alongside the most exquisite manifestations of this esteemed corpus. In its imposingly layered igneous topography, Rosso Plastica invites a dialogue with visions of the apocalyptic in art, ranging from the biblical spectres of John Martin through to the eviscerated auto-destructivity of Gustav Metzger or the Feu paintings of Yves Klein. By wielding the transformative nature of fire as his principle tool, Burri paints with flames to exploit the potential of destructive creativity. As summated by Rosso Plastica, nowhere is this rebellious artistic act more effective and compositionally stunning than in the Plastiche composed of molten red acrylic.

In Burri’s hands, liquid craters and draping folds of scorched man-made matter breathe new organic life: inanimate and ubiquitous substance is thus propelled to the elevated status of a work of art. Having pioneered an artistic inquiry in celebration of the unglamorous substances of modern living, Burri was an extremely influential figure in the ensuing Arte Povera movement in Italy during the late 1960s. With their privileging of everyday materials, these artists sought to buck convention and ‘break down the dichotomy between art and life’ – a driving force prophetically central within Burri’s early 1950s production. Nonetheless where these divergent artists would privilege political motives or Pop Art strategies, Burri was concerned with the material reality of the picture plane. By searing unassuming lengths of wood, cuts of industrial iron, and sheets of plastic Burri looked to regenerate and substantiate an expression of the real beyond mimesis. In this sense, Burri’s use of fire and evisceration of traditional art-making practices chimes with the work of his post-war contemporaries.

Yves Klein’s pursuit of a mystical and otherworldly Infinite found its ultimate expression in the alchemical potential of fire: the theatrical command of an enormous fire hose brought forth a series of works in which fire's symbolic prima materia status and annihilative/sublimative force provided Klein with a definitive symbolic and spiritual expression of the Void. Similarly Lucio Fontana’s violent puncturing and slashing through the surface of a pristine monochrome canvas furnished his unique Spatialist theorems of a further infinite dimension. The reductive and nihilistic tendencies at the core of Burri’s Plastiche invoke a similar mode of transfiguration. Echoing Fontana and presaging Klein, Burri’s alchemical transformation has opened apertures onto a blackened void beyond the picture plane. Yet, contrary to harbouring a spiritual dimension or posing a metaphysical breach, Burri’s use of fire serves rather to heighten our knowledge of materials and explore the expressive potential inherent within the moment of a work’s creation.

Intensely striking, the forceful contrast of punctured, combusted voids and swollen plastic welts in Rosso Plastica, confer a feat of compositional drama that wavers delicately in the balance between annihilation and resurgence. Crater-like voids of molten cutaneous plastic chart a delicate compositional harmony across an imposing volcanic expanse. Contorted like a deathly veil of liquid magma, this extraordinary work exudes unparalleled 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 phenomena.

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 the present work, the sensitive play of molten shapes and blackened voids implore the viewer's eye to scan the surface of an eviscerated landscape, taking in the violence and pathos redolent in the dissipated layers of red and transparent plastic as subjects of the elemental destructivity of fire.  As a result, this work conforms to the edict of Informel art from the period, which stipulated that angst can be "expressed but not described" (Carolyn Christov-Bakargriev, 'Alberto Burri: The surface at Risk', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Palazzo delle Espozioni, Burri: 1915-1995 Retrospektive, 1997, p. 79).

Herein, the vicissitudes of the artist's biography and political climate in Italy during the immediately post-war years, posit Burri's practice as a visceral response to the Second World War. Having served as a doctor before turning to art during a year imprisoned in an American POW camp, apparent biological and surgical comparisons are intriguing for their socio-biographical import. Redolent of a living and bleeding body, Burri's gaping apertures of molten plastic, scorched wood, and stitched burlap sacking form a cathartic repost to the psycho-social wound of a European collective-consciousness. As exquisitely articulated in the nuanced yet brutal topography of Rosso Plastica Burri alludes to an existential but living body, lacerated and tortured in the wake of war's atrocities, yet simultaneously opening up a new realm for the real, operating on the threshold between art and life.