To infinity and beyond

As the founder of Spatialism, Lucio Fontana would boldly go where no artist had gone before. Critic and TV presenter Alastair Sooke delves into the holes and cuts that characterise the Italian’s work.

Alastair Sooke

26/04/2016


One late summer’s day in 1958, the subversive Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) stood in front of a blank, unprimed canvas. In his hand he held not a paintbrush but a razor blade.

After a few moments of contemplation, he lifted the blade and, in a single gesture, made an incision down the middle of the canvas. And that was it: as a result of this simple act of vandalism, performed in a matter of seconds, the work was complete.

Destruction and creation had become one.

This was how Fontana began his famous series of elegant Tagli (Cuts), which rank among the most radical works of art produced during the 20th century.

In the decade that followed, leading up to his death, Fontana’s Tagli became more elaborate and assured. He experimented by painting the canvas white, or coating it with bright monochrome colours, before cutting into it.

In 1966, Fontana presented an entire room of white Tagli at the Venice Biennale, for which he received the Grand Prize for Painting, its highest honour.

He also made multiple incisions, as we see in Spatial Concept: Waiting (1959-60), with its two nonchalant, diagonal slits against a white background. (Spatial Concept was the generic name that Fontana gave to all his paintings from the late Forties.)

 

Photo:
LUCIO FONTANA (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio, Varese 1968)
Concetto spaziale, 1967
Lacquered and cut metal, red, hgt. 128; diam. 49 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan


Part of Intesa Sanpaolo’s collection of 20th-century art, Waiting is featured in 101/900 – a new publication cataloguing 101 of the Italian bank’s most treasured works from the period.

Typically, Fontana backed his slashed canvases with black gauze to enhance the impression that each cut was a kind of portal, offering a glimpse into a sublime void.

He once described this emptiness as “the infinite, the inconceivable chaos, the end of figuration, nothingness”.

Right from the start of the series, he also wrote the word attesa (“expectation” or “hope”) on the reverse of each canvas involving a single incision, and attese (the plural form of the same noun) for those with more than one.

By 1965, the Tagli had become remarkably ambitious: this was the year when Fontana, inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s first colour film, Red Desert (1964), which won the Golden Lion at the 25th Venice Film Festival, created a rhythmic frieze of 24 cuts – the most he ever made in a single work of art – in a widescreen canvas, nearly 2m (7ft) across, which was coloured a dramatic crimson. He inscribed the reverse: “I returned yesterday from Venice, I saw the film of Antonioni!!!”

Photo: Lucio Fontana (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio, Varese 1968), Concetto spaziale, 1952, Mixed technique perforated paper, silver and yellow marks on bottom blue-grey, 34,5 x 49,5 cm, Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

Half a century later, in November 2015, at a glamorous evening auction at Sotheby’s, New York, it fetched over $16m. That is the equivalent of more than $666,000 per cut.

No wonder that Fontana has been described, by the distinguished Italian art critic and philosopher Gillo Dorfles, as “the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century”.

He is also cited as one of two decisive influences, alongside the American Abstract-Expressionist Jackson Pollock, by the versatile German painter Gerhard Richter, whose own work has sold at auction for record-breaking amounts.

To understand the significance of the Tagli, it is important to view them within the context of Fontana’s 40-year career. Born in Argentina, in the city of Rosario in the central province of Santa Fe, with an Italian immigrant sculptor for a father and an actress for a mother, Fontana spent his earliest childhood in South America, before he was sent to Italy to receive his education.

After a spell back in Buenos Aires during the Twenties, he returned to Milan in 1927 and enrolled at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, where he was taught by the sculptor Adolfo Wildt, who was inspired by the great art of the past. Fontana would spend the rest of his life fighting against the tradition that Wildt so revered.

Fontana emerged as an abstract artist during the Thirties, when he also produced a vigorous series of ceramic animal sculptures, some of which were produced at the Sèvres factory in Paris. But it wasn’t until the Forties, when he spent the war in Argentina, that he began to formulate his trailblazing theories of Spatialism, the avant-garde art movement for which he remains best known.

Founded around 1947, when Fontana returned to Italy and settled in his adopted hometown of Milan, and expounded in a series of manifestos produced over the following five years, Spatialism was, in essence, a broadside against figurative art and the moribund notion that a painting should be understood as a flat surface and illusory space.

As a self-styled “Spatial Artist”, Fontana wanted to expand painting into three, or even four, dimensions – since he believed that time should be included, too.

Like the Italian Futurists before him, he was also excited by scientific discoveries and technological progress.

He began creating ambitious temporary “Spatial Environments”, which prefigured many later developments in modern art, such as the vogue for installation.

 

Photo:
LUCIO FONTANA (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio, Varese 1968)
Concetto spaziale, 1956
Sequins on canvas and perforated paper, 58 x 43,5 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan


The first of these, staged in Milan in 1949, consisted of a spectacular, swaying, amoeba-like shape, presented within a darkened gallery and illuminated with fluorescent light. Long before the likes of Dan Flavin or Tracey Emin, Fontana recognised the aesthetic potential of neon.

Indeed, he was always experimenting: for instance, in 1952, he became one of the first artists to work with television as a medium, when he projected moving images on to his paper-on-canvas Spatial Concept (1949), as part of a transmission from the Milanese studios of the Italian state broadcasting corporation, RAI.

By then, Fontana had also created his first Buchi (Holes), which, like the subsequent Tagli, were a deliberate assault upon the pristine, sacrosanct surface of the canvas. The artist, himself, regarded the Buchi as his breakthrough: “My discovery was the hole and that’s it,” he told an interviewer in 1968. “I am happy to go to the grave after such a discovery.”

Many of the Buchi have an unsettling bodily quality, like festering wounds. (Despite being more minimal and concise, the Tagli, too, are redolent of anatomical orifices: several art historians have suggested that Fontana’s gashes look like female genitalia.) The Buchi also resemble craters pockmarking the surface of the moon.

Over time, as Fontana finessed the hole as his signature gesture, they evolved into abstract compositions that could be both playful and baroque: Spatial Concept: Venice Moon (1961), in the Intesa Sanpaolo collection, for instance, consists of a thick ring of silvery acrylic paint circumscribing a rough, orb-like field, decorated with punctured holes and embedded shards of glittering coloured glass.

The Tagli are much more refined and austere; it has been said that Fontana was more delicate with a knife than many of his contemporaries were with paint. They emerged out of the particular artistic climate of the Fifties, when Fontana was aware of the primacy of spontaneous gesture and performance in the work of the Abstract-Expressionists, also known as “action painters”, in New York.

It is also likely that Fontana was thinking about the monochrome canvases of the charismatic French artist Yves Klein, who exhibited 11 identical ultramarine paintings in Milan at the start of 1957. In a sense, Fontana deftly fused Klein’s advances with those of Pollock, whose retrospective in Rome opened in spring 1958. (That said, in his last interview, Fontana dismissed Pollock as a “Post-Impressionist”.)

Perhaps it is most illuminating, though, to consider the Tagli in the context of the Space Race: a year before Fontana began his series, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. There is no doubt that Fontana’s Tagli contain a sense of lift-off, of voyaging through the “final frontier” of two-dimensional painting, and on into another sphere altogether.

This, in the end, is how Fontana saw his Cuts. Speaking in 1966, the year of his success at the Venice Biennale, he remarked: “I have invented a formula that I think I cannot perfect. I succeeded in giving those looking at my work a sense of spatial calm, of cosmic rigour, of serenity with regard to the infinite.”

"Further than this I could not go.”

By the standards of almost anyone else, it was far enough: Fontana had the courage to boldly go where no artist had gone before.

 

Alastair Sooke’s Modern Masters was broadcast on BBC One in 2010.
Other series include Treasures of Ancient Rome, Treasures of Ancient Egypt and Treasures of Ancient Greece. Soup Cans and Superstars: How Pop Art Changed the World was shown on BBC Four in 2015.

Other photo:
Lucio Fontana (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio, Varese 1968)
Concetto spaziale, 1967
Perforated and lacquered metal, 110 x 110 x 10,5 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan
Lucio Fontana (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio, Varese 1968)
Concetto spaziale. Attese, 1959-1960
Water paint on canvas, white, 64,5 x 42,5 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan
Cover photo:
Lucio Fontana (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio, Varese 1968)
Concetto spaziale. Attese, 1964
Water paint on canvas, white, 53 x 64 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

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