Lucio Fontana, who was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1899, and who died in Comabbio, Italy, in 1968, is best known for his slit paintings and their embrace of Spatialism, a theory the artist developed. The paintings occur as a group belonging to a sequence, the Concetto Spaziale series, meant to open the space behind the painting. In doing so, Fontana was turning our expectations of a two-dimensional surface into one that provided, or at least intimated, a three-dimensional one. These works, which began in 1959, stemmed from Fontana’s concept of Spatialism, defined in his White Manifesto, which was published in 1946. In that text, Fontana rejected traditional painterly space, as well as embracing contemporary science and technology. In a late interview, done in 1968, Fontana remarked, “My discovery is the hole, and that’s it.” The comments modesty limit the influence of Fontana’s innovation; his painterly slashes have been linked to American minimalism and even installation art. Perhaps it is most evident that his efforts were meant to challenge canvas’s flat surface. The wonderful, museum-quality show at Hauser & Wirth, curated by Luca Massimo Barbero of the Fondazione Lucio Fontana, offers sculpture covering the length of his career. As exhibited, Fontana’s ceramic works, extravagant and deliberately roughed up, his incised reliefs, and his slit canvases establish his remarkable achievement as a three-dimensional artist.
Fontana, whose creative life occurred entirely in 20th-century art, was interested in the defacement of beauty. His ceramic work in this show is regularly awkward or deformed: holes and slashes occur in spheres, paintings are cut, and when Fontana makes figurative art, his deliberate rejection of beauty, in favor of clumsiness and an uneven exterior, avoids the traditions he wanted to change. The idea of the baroque sometimes comes up with Fontana’s sculpture, and this term makes sense as a description of the overwrought manner of form and, sometimes, feeling that the artist embraces. Yet Fontana did not reject tradition entirely. There is a 1952, white ceramic sculpture on show, Maquette for the Fifth Door of the Duomo of Milan (the doors were first noted in 1582), in which the top band and the twelve panels of the door are decorated with very small articulations that can sometimes be seen as true figures. Here Fontana pays homage to a historically important work of art–this despite the fact that his manifesto rejecting tradition had been written six years earlier. Whether Fontana wanted to be recognized or not as a sculptor of extraordinary skill in the traditional sense, this exquisite maquette makes it clear that he possessed unusual craft.
An interesting debate might be held about the tension between Fontana’s sculpture and the baroque sculptural period, which encompassed the 17th century. Baroque work can be understood as communicating intense, often ecstatic religious emotion, but clearly Fontana was not conveying this kind of feeling. Yet the cracked harmonies of his ceramics do in fact demonstrate a considerable sensibility, even when they are abstract. Although Fontana is well recognized for his theory of Spatialism, which included the acceptance of technological change, this show of his sculptural work makes it clear that he never fully turned his back on the past. It is interesting, now that Fontana’s work has become more historical than contemporary, to read it as being in dialogue with a current or even a prescient (future) understanding of space. This surely is an insight proceeding from Italy’s extraordinary legacy in sculpture, which Fontana experienced throughout his life in Italy. In consequence, his art, highly experimental for its time, also results from his awareness of work that preceded it. Despite modernism’s claims, it is very difficult to be wholly original. Fontana’s extremism, his deliberate destruction of the painting’s flat plane, was likely an act meant to critique the past as much as it was a gesture toward what would come.
One other matter we might consider is Fontana’s place in modernism. He is clearly a master, both in theory and in practice, among 20th-century artists. Yet his work does not follow the clean lines of modernism. Instead, his sense of a rough-and-tumble surface dominates; in addition, the exhibition also presents a few figurative works, even though he was mostly creating non-objective objects. These few examples of realism make it hard to categorize his art as completely abstract. The artist’s alignment with the baroque also could have caused him to work in a manner unrelated to Spatialism. It is true that his exploratory thinking and his wish to catch the depth behind the picture plane, or the space inside the sphere, were new. But, as we saw in the maquette for the Milan Duomo’s door, Fontana did not fully reject art history. However uneven the surfaces of his work may be, his art does not entirely leave the past (whose art does?). He was ahead of his time, or at least committed to new ideas and forms that influenced later work. But no artist can turn away from art’s legacies. Precedents are found everywhere, always being part of our current concerns. Fontana’s task was to walk away from art history, which he did astonishingly well. His innovations derived from an awareness that perspective, promoted by a two-dimensional plane promising depth, needed to be broken by aggressive action: the slashing of the canvas, or penetrating it with holes. This was genuinely a new idea, but it doesn’t mean that Fontana had entirely broken with the past.
The glazed terracotta sculpture, titled Female Figure with Flowers (1948). Is tall: 242 centimeters high. It shows a woman with simply given features on a white face, wearing a hat and holding a bouquet of flowers up against her right shoulder. Her dark blue dress, a baroque sculpture in its own right, is covered with folds that twist and turn, in the lower half of the garment especially. Supporting this woman, whose clothing and hat come from an earlier time, is a pedestal in tan, meant to look like stone. Its shape is skewed in not so subtle ways. The sculpture starts to look both like a parody of and a homage to a time when the formal presentation of beauty–and class–was a major goal of art. But since the beginnings of the 20th century, artists have pursued a different way of thinking. They are now determined to make it new, and confront accepted form and, sometimes, accepted mores. We are not told if the woman comes from nobility, but it is clear she is of the upper classes. Her attractiveness, even if plainly presented, undercuts, to some slight extent, the formal ungainliness resulting from the many rough folds in her dress. It looks like Fontana felt forced to caricature deliberate beauty even if he was tacitly taken with it.
The show begins, at the entrance, with a remarkable painting: Spatial Concept: The Moon in Venice (1961). A black, circular shape, painted in acrylic, is circumscribed on its periphery by a white line. The space within is punctured by small, jagged holes and by small pieces of colored glass occurring randomly across the picture plane. This beautiful work, chaotic in its parts but coherent overall, acts as an introduction to the show. Like so much of the art done for this sequence, The Moon In Venice treats the surface violently as a way of denying the picture plane’s coherent integrity. The cuts and holes in Fontana’s art are always invasive, as if the formal aggression were linked to a thematic rage. Yet these actions can also be seen as joyful experiments, based on relations between violence and creativity. Painted late in Fontana’s career, The Moon in Venice establishes the tone of the show, being aggressive, beautiful, and, to some degree, theoretical. The sculptural aspect of its surface, resulting from its jagged holes and bits of glass, demonstrates Fontana’s ongoing interest in space. As a result, the painting becomes volumetric at least as much as it is planar.
A quite early work, Incised Panel, done in 1931, consists of incised and painted concrete. The off-white of the concrete serves as the background of the relief, but in the center we see a prominent black, rounded rectangle, with incised lines suggesting a similar white shape to the left. This panel, one of several in the show, is undeniably beautiful, and is also free of the rugged exteriors that often occur in the clay works. The panel is at once a painting and a low relief, its smooth surface only slightly changed by the incisions. Even though Fontana’s work in this show is considered sculpture, in many works his attraction to painting also comes through. Yet the slit pieces derive interest from the fact that the space behind, while hard to determine, make it evident that they belong to sculpture. We may not see the white wall behind the art, but that does not mean we lose awareness of its volumetric existence. Rather, we experience the darkness of an undefined emptiness. These slit pieces, perhaps prefigured by the Incised Panel, whose lines clearly cut into the surface (even if in a shallow manner), retain their ability to startle, given our expectations of an unbroken picture plane.
The Concetto Spaziale sculptures are remarkable, mostly ceramic works of art. Concetto Spaziale, Natura (1959-60) is made of bronze, though. Its slightly rough surface is dark green in color, and, at the top, has a hole whose edges are irregular and ridged. The sculpture feels deeply archaic; it might be an ancient container for water. At the same time, the piece orchestrates Fontana’s gifted insight into space, determined here by its orbed shape and intimated by the hole, which present and suggest volumetric space, respectively. Here the concept of Spatialism is well illustrated. Another work, made of red glass, is simply called Concetto Spaziale (1965). Thirty centimeters in diameter, the piece is marked by holes with rising edges located mostly on its top; on its lower half, the glass is smooth. It is a beautiful piece, and the transparency of its material, creatively used by Fontana, is unusual for its lucency. All of Fontana’s works in this show stand up to scrutiny as individual, physical objects, but we also must remember that they are conceptual and illustrate an idea. In another work, also named simply Concetto Spaziale (1961-62), the viewer looks at a gray, egg-shaped form 38 centimeters high. It is made of slipped terracotta. Two deep, vertical slashes cut into the face of the sculpture, attacking the otherwise smooth surface.
Why would Fontana wish to damage the surface of his art? What is gotten by so violent an attack? It is, I think, one way of contemporizing the traditional art esthetic, changing tradition by wounding it. Working in this way also gives the works a surface complexity, made possible by the slits, holes, and gashes driven into the exterior. The gashes become motifs corroborating current ideas about both art and experience. They are interesting visual markers, to be understood in their own abstract terms. And they point to Fontana’s originality, which is taken with the illustration of ideas as much as craft. When an artist like Fontana develops as original an idea as Spatialism, the concept becomes, more or less, a work of art. Yet the idea needs a sculpture to illustrate its invention. Ever since the Romantics, we have preferred the ruin–the fragment–to the whole. Fontana’s aggression toward his work becomes a transformation of creative impulse, in which the violence associated with his holes and slashes becomes a new esthetic, as well as a means of opening up the space behind the work.
Toward the end of his life, in 1967, Fontana worked on the very minimalist sculpture called Spatial Concept, Ellipse. A vertical ellipse tall in size, this flat plane looks as if Fontana was considering the simple surfaces often associated with minimalism, which had already been active for a few years before he made his work. Holes traveling from the bottom to the top of the piece, creating a line not straight but gently curved as it rises to the top, show that the artist practiced Spatialism until the end of his career. The work does indeed look like a minimal sculpture, but the light purple used to cover the wood also suggests monochromatic painting, a movement active at the time Ellipse was made. Additionally, the slightly bent line of holes is interesting as a pattern and, more conventionally within Fontana’s oeuvre, another illustration of his wish to reveal the interior hidden behind the surface of things.
Fontana’s discovery of the hole or slit, deliberately deforming the work of art and revealing the volume within, was not a small insight. For centuries, Western painting had been committed to the portrayal of perspective, which meant that illusion always occurred: depth was intimated through skillful effects on a two-dimensional plane. True volume did not exist in such work, whose long tradition was assaulted with the start of cubism. The cubist movement successfully indicated a three-dimensional plane by two-dimensional means via the presentation of the object’s front, sides, and back, all at the same time. This was an extraordinary treatment of painterly space, but it was still a trick of painting. The actual space occuring behind the front of a work was not addressed. Fontana was working after cubism’s transformative energies were no longer dominant–indeed, by the time his Concetto Spaziale series was being made, cubism was moribund. His sequence suddenly revealed the truth of a volumetric space hidden behind the painting plane. By introducing an awareness of depth, Fontana turned the painting into sculpture, even though the surface was flat.
This idea may not seem like much now, given that considerable time has passed since Spatialism's first public declaration. Yet when Fontana’s theory was elaborated in the White Manifesto, it was a revelation of space. At the same time, perhaps the desecration of the canvas through a conscious violation of its surface was more than a technical insight. It may also have been a way of suggesting, in an abstract sense, the violence of the Second World War. It can be argued that the idea is extravagant; we cannot be sure that such a reading is close to Fontana’s intentions. But we can, tentatively, extend an interpretation that would read his stylistic savagery as metaphors for conflict. Very good art usually develops meaningfulness in several ways at once, so why shouldn’t we be able to see the artist’s Spatialism not only as a stylistic departure, but also as a descriptive appraisal of brutal events? It is a mistake to overemphasize the Concetto Spaziale series as evocations of real-life occurrences; doing so would place the work too much in the consideration of history. There is no overt politics or history in the show. But the violence encountered in the sculptures can be seen in more than one way, including the intimation of documented exigencies.
In the long run, a show like this one can only deepen our appreciation for a great artist. As the wall texts indicate, his art had far-reaching influence, including an effect on minimalism, America’s most important movement in recent years. We first experience Fontana’s art as art, but afterward consideration of its metaphorical force beyond art has a place. It can also be said that Spatialism is highly metaphorical. While the concept’s influence had to do primarily with art, it also took note of technological and social change in the world. By extension, this awareness could be extended to the historical violence all of Europe suffered through. Additionally, ever since the 20th century, we live with art that deals with the past–whether we are aware of it or not. Generally speaking, Fontana’s work cannot be seen at all as eventfully driven. Yet the choices and changes of his style and thinking indicate an awareness of the past. Such an awareness is not easily perceived in the show, and surely cannot be determined as central to his esthetic. Yet it likely provided a scenario that determined his wish for change. We know that newness had already been central in art for some time when Fontana started working with Spatialism, and for that reason, even the daring of his esthetic needs to be set in a continuum, both before and after his remarkable sculpture.
By Jonathan Goodman, January 11, 2023