Lucio Fontana made one of the most extraordinary, radical gestures in modern art when in 1958 he slashed the surface of a monochrome painting with a knife. A reassessment of Fontana’s legacy, this exhibition comprises approximately one hundred objects, including sculptures, ceramics, paintings, works on paper, and environments, all made between 1931 and 1968, and reconsiders the artist’s oeuvre between painting and sculpture, as part of a wider research on space and the materiality of the work of art.
Originally trained as a sculptor, Fontana developed his practice between Argentina and Italy, and this transatlantic experience defined his vision. Lucio Fontana began his artistic career as a sculptor in Rosario, Argentina, in the mid-1920s while working for his father’s business. Fontana y Scarabelli produced tomb sculptures for the local cemeteries of this city populated with Italian immigrants. The aspiring artist then moved to Milan to receive classical sculpture training at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. Showing early signs of anti-academicism, Fontana preferred modeling to carving and during the 1930s, materials such as plaster, terracotta, or ceramics defined his practice. His style favored a figurative, realist stance inspired by ancient Etruscan sarcophagi—as exemplified in his female portraits, some of which are painted with color or gold. Simultaneously, Fontana absorbed contemporary influences like that of Futurism, a dominant movement under the Italian Fascist regime. His work unified genres, themes, and historical references, while challenging the accepted codes of sculptural practice.
Spatial Concept: Cuts and Holes
Fontana created his most iconic artworks under the spell of the Cold War era—a time marked by pervasive nuclear threat and international research into space race. Under the title Spatial Concept, his first series of perforated paintings were conceived as screens for the transmission and filtering of electric light. Adopting the stretched canvas as a support of choice, Fontana set out to radically transform the entire Western tradition of easel painting. While the holes or buchi evolved into sensual slashes, Fontana adopted the void, infinite openness, as the absolute center of his practice. Performed in 1958, Fontana’s first cut (taglio) defined his signature gesture. The artist applied paint to the whole canvas, made a cut with a sharp knife, and then modeled the opening directly with his hands, adhering in some cases a piece of black gauze on the reverse. Over time, the slashes became straighter and more calculated. To signify the lengthy process of preparation, anticipation, and the momentous irruption of the cut, Fontana referred to many of these paintings as attese, “expectations.” Meanwhile, also since the late 1950s, Fontana started exploring the possibilities of irregularly-shaped canvases, as exemplified in his polyhedral The Quanta series. His use of unorthodox supports culminated with the End of God (Fine di Dio), a series of “astral eggs” painted in bright synthetic colors, whose perforated surfaces evoke the origin of cosmos and the human feeling of awe at the contemplation of infinite space.
Though at the peak of his career Fontana was mostly known as a painter, he first used a canvas at age fifty-one and remained attached to sculpture throughout his lifetime. In the 1950s, the movement known as Informalism or Art Informel had set the style rules for painting in postwar Europe. Fontana was sensitive to this trend because of its characteristic semipictorial, semisculptural processes, similar to that of modeling clay. At the end of the decade, he started working on a series of colored sculpture series titled Nature from his studio located in Albissola. The artist described the large, roughly formed balls of terracotta with cuts or holes as “nothingness, or the beginning of everything.”
Fontana cowrote the White Manifesto, the first declaration of Spatialism, in Buenos Aires in 1946. Following the new discoveries in physics—from relativity to quantum mechanics—this manifesto promoted the use of new technology and the expansion of the artwork into the fourth dimension. Three years later, in Milan, Fontana started his Spatial Environments, experiments with light and space. They included the use of neon tubes that would set the course for future developments in installation art. Fontana’s multidisciplinary approach broadened the notion of the art experience to embrace the space surrounding the viewer.
Catalogue of the exhibition Lucio Fontana. On the Threshold
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