Artist of the Month: Lucio Fontana

Artist of the Month (February)

Lucio Fontana
Concetto Spaziale, Attesa (1964-1965), for sale by the Cardi Gallery, via Artsy.

Born in Argentina at the Turn of the Century, Lucio Fontana was an Italian painter, sculptor, and theorist mainly known for founding Spatialism and in association with Arte Povera. I actually decided to profile Fontana expressly because of his vague ties to the latter movement, which emerged as an offshoot of Conceptualism during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Arte Povera members such as Alighiero Boetti and Michelangelo Pistoletto sought to break away from postwar consumerism and destroy the barrier (or blur the boundary) between art and life by using everyday materials—ranging from hardware store knickknacks to hair and feces—in their work. This revolutionary approach was “linked to the political radicalism of the period, which reached its zenith with the student uprisings of 1968,” the year that Fontana passed away, and it is important to note that he himself was more a proto-member of Arte Povera than a principle player. Fontana also contributed to ZERO, Heinz Mack’s informal magazine that received a major Guggenheim survey in 2014, but was foremost an independent character who did what he wanted. Nonetheless, I thought his oeuvre was especially compelling given Arte Povera’s increasing relevance: with Marisa Merz‘s new retrospective at the Met Breuer and the recent death of prominent innovator Jannis Kounellis, in addition to a culture that favors applicable “Me Decade” nostalgia, the group has been receiving greater media attention, so I decided to join the fray, as well.

During the early 20th century, Fontana shuttled back and forth between Italy and Argentina, busting his chops as a sculptor and traditional painter. Then, after a brief fling with the Corrente, a group of Milan expressionists, he delineated his novel Spatialist doctrine in Manifesto Bianco or the White Manifesto. Published in Buenos Aires in 1946, the document was an outgrowth of Fontana’s thoughts while forming the Altamira academy, a center for abstract and avant-garde art. In the unsigned paper, he foresaw Arte Povera by emphasizing how new technology such as neon lighting or television could become essential tools for transforming color and form into real space. Fontana was interested in the “plastic emotions” that were developing out of WWII and while he failed to elaborate in writing on what these specifically entailed, he communicated his perceptions visually with pieces like Black Spatial Environment, a futuristic installation in a pitch-black room, as well as stabbed canvases. He dubbed this famous style of perforated paintings whose matte, monochrome surfaces he had fissured and made three-dimensional “an art for the Space Age,” placing them under the generic title of Concetto spaziale (‘spatial concept’)—in the above piece, Attesa is added to mean waiting or anticipation. Fontana started on the Buchi (‘holes’) in 1949 and initiated the Tagli (‘slashes’) in the mid-1950s. He would even cover their backs with gauze to create an illusion of depth beneath the open cuts of canvas “skin.”

Before his death, Fontana assembled multiple biomorphic Arpian forms as single objects (the quanta sets); collaborated with architect Luciano Baldessari; sculpted in clay, marble, and metal; designed graphic motifs; and modified his puncturing process further. He was so successful in his later years that he showed in New York, Venice, and at dOCUMENTA‘s fourth edition. Additionally, Fontana tried to achieve aesthetic purity through Trinità (1966), a trinity of three large white canvases subtly punctuated by holes, and tasteful playfulness via Teatrini (‘little theatres’), frames of wavy silhouettes and irregular shapes that would reflect the viewer’s shadow in a set-like forum. These were well-received and considered key parts of his canon.

Now I will speak to Fontana’s work on a personal level: I enjoy how pristine and perfect his slashes are. The almost surgical lacerations retain a light, experimental flavor through a selection of whimsically colored backgrounds and the fact that while clearly being quite deliberate, the cuts appear arbitrary. Fontana tricks you into believing that what he does is easy and the moment you realize the opposite becomes the base of your experience with his pieces, as is the case in many other cultural contexts. A novel’s excellence is measured in the seamless way its author toys with your perceptions and provokes a slow embrace of his genius. Such is true in art, as well. I like Fontana’s paintings because they achieve profundity through simple lines and colors; his marks incise the viewer’s brain as much as the physical page. 

For a more intellectual look at Fontana, I suggest watching this video from ArtBasel 2014 where Luca Massimo Barbero, an Associate Curator at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection who edited a catalogue raisonne of Fontana’s works on paper, discusses the artist with Choghakate Kazarian, curator of Fontana’s retrospective at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, who did an even more expansive catalogue:


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