A deep and cavernous black void punctuates the molten layers of scorched and searing red plastic in Alberto Burri’s enthralling work, Rosso Plastica. Hovering tenuously between the realms of creation and destruction, the piece encapsulates the Italian artist’s radical investigations into the alchemical potential of fire in painting. Executed in 1963, the work embodies a prodigious example of Burri’s most celebrated and important series, the Plastiche, which he initiated in 1960. 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 aesthetically striking and densely layered molten plastic compositions signalled the very apotheosis of Burri’s subversive transfiguration of the two-dimensional work of art. Ranking alongside the most exquisite manifestations of this esteemed corpus, the present work was used to illustrate the front cover of Burri’s 1963 Catalogue Raisonné, distinguishing it as a masterwork within the artist’s oeuvre. In its vibrant, charred and eviscerated topography, Rosso Plastica invites a dialogue with the canon of art history, ranging from Caravaggio’s lavishly rendered red drapery in works such as Saint Jerome in Mediation (1606) through to the potent auto-destructivity of Gustav Metzger or the violent perforations in Lucio Fontana’s iconic Tagli. 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 arresting 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 quotidian substances of modern living, Burri was an extremely influential figure in the ensuing Arte Povera movement in Italy during the late 1960s. In elevating everyday materials to the status of high art, artists such as Alighiero Boetti, Piero Manzoni, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Enrico Castellani sought to 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 primarily with the material reality of the picture plane. By utilising unassuming lengths of wood, cuts of industrial iron, and sheets of plastic, Burri looked to regenerate and substantiate an expression of the real, the physical, and the tangible, beyond mere mimesis. In this sense, Burri’s use of fire and refutation of traditional art-making practices chimes with the work of his post-war contemporaries.
Intensely engaging, the forceful contrast of the elongated and combusted black abyss at the centre of the composition and the swollen plastic welts in Rosso Plastica, confer a feat of pictorial drama that wavers delicately in the balance between annihilation and resurgence, creation and destruction. 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, apocalyptic visions, and natural biological phenomena. As the legendary curator James Johnson Sweeney 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: Exh. Cat., Rome, L'Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.).
In the present work, the sensitive play of molten shapes and gaping, creviced voids implores 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 Art Informel from the period, which stipulated that angst can be "expressed but not described" (Carolyn Christov-Bakargriev, 'Alberto Burri: The Surface at Risk' in: Exh. Cat., 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 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 Prisoner of War 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 wounds 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. With its magnificent equilibrium of dramatic texture, compositional balance and raw materiality, Rosso Plastica epitomises the artist’s pioneering practice and radical transformation of the traditional art of painting.
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