PRINT November 1987


ONE CAN ASSOCIATE THE WORK of most artists who pass into the canon of art history with a moment of crystallization, a moment in which the identity of the art as it will henceforth most immediately be recognized, for better or for worse, coheres. Scholars often focus on this moment as central to the artist’s thinking. Yet Lucio Fontana’s art reaches a number of different peaks, which are successive but not in succession—each stage of the work does not seem necessarily to depend on the one before, and none can be taken as background for any of the others. Though these phases are by no means exclusive, generally speaking one can say that the work of the ’30s uses tactile, manual terms to explore various possibilities for “the new”; that throughout the ’40s and ’50s Fontana moves in the extradisciplinary directions of science and technology; and that finally, during the ’60s, when he produced some of his best-known images (he died in 1968), he addresses the issues of all the different parts of his work, though in quite new ways. Clearly, a critical portrait of Fontana cannot be drawn without looking at his production over a span of time; he is par excellence the artist of “periods.” The premise unifying all his approaches, and their quite disparate formal results, is an idea of the role of the artist with respect to the world at large. Working in the same Lombard culture in which Leonardo, centuries earlier, had lived in the period of his first scientific experiments, Fontana saw art as more than a means of description of things as they are. It is active; by constructing a new image of the world, it renovates the world.

The most striking aspect of Fontana’s art from the ’30s is his interest in both the figure and in abstraction. Perhaps in part because he produced both kinds of work, Fontana has never been seen as an artist of either camp, but simply as an artist of “the new.” He was in fact deeply concerned with “the new,” as he called it, locating it not in some narrow idea of progress but beyond schematic categories, beyond “figurative” or “abstract,” beyond the “avant-garde”; “the new”—new spirit, new ideas, new vision—is arrived at through the artist’s pursuit of his or her research and interests wherever they may lead. This principle distinguishes Fontana and his Milanese circle, especially the architect and critic Edoardo Persico and the sculptor Fausto Melotti, from the eclectic historicism widespread throughout the European art of the period. Fontana was opposed to this form of eclecticism; his summation of it has a detached, ironic cast—eclecticism was a “predilection for influences,” he said. His research into “the new” led him away from this historicism to contemporaneous international currents in art as well as to the art of the recent past and earlier Modernism—to Medardo Rosso, Futurism, Umberto Boccioni, and the reemergence of Futurism in the Aeropittura (Aeropainting) movement announced in 1929 as much as to the Modernist objective, intensifying in the ’30s, of merging architecture with painting and sculpture in a synthesis of the arts. He had already absorbed all these esthetic options when he began his mature period, with the sculpture Uomo nero (Black man), in 1930.1

Fontana’s ’30s works shift quickly from the figure to the abstract and back again. The artist often produced figural sculptures for specific occasions and shows: Bagnante (Bather) and Gli Amanti (Lovers) for the 1933 Milan Triennale; Busto di signorina (Bust of a young woman) for a public exhibition in 1934; Vittoria (Victory) for a 1932 war memorial; Medusa for the 1940 Rome Quadriennale. These figures gave Fontana a reputation as an unconventional artist. They were considered provocative by the conservative artists whose work, more truly figurative than Fontana’s, was allied with the fascist regime, for though they are figural, they yet are not figurative. They open up the figure as a spatial event, involving themselves in space as much as Fontana’s so-called abstract works do, works themselves more concerned with spatial issues than with the issues of abstraction. Beginning with Uomo nero, space is the crucial element for Fontana.

Among the outstanding characteristics of the figural sculptures is color—gold, silver, and other hues given shiny, light-reflective surfaces. In tone, many of these hues are probably developments of the palette of Giorgio de Chirico’s ’20s paintings. Their function, accentuated by their shininess, is to dematerialize the bronze, cement, plaster, terra-cotta, or ceramic medium on which they lie; the solid matter of which the form is made becomes secondary, a support for color and light. The effect is to carry the viewer beyond the physical form, which is open, ruptured. And the color has another purpose: it is a step toward Fontana’s goal of unifying sculpture with painting, which is itself part of his larger plan of merging painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Another striking quality of the figural sculpture is the plasticity of the material, which carries the image of the figure outward into space, eroding the traditional boundaries between the two. The active, volatile look that Fontana instills in his media through his handling of them is another way of breaking the borders of form. Passing through its various materials and conditions, the image describes a series of possibilities. It is this mobility of matter that most significantly relates the figural works to the abstract terra-cotta pieces, the tavolette grafite (small graffItied panels), the sculture astratte (abstract sculptures), and others from the years 1930–35. An earlier reference for it might be Rosso, but such movement also suggests the Futurist legacy revived in the aerial vision of the Aeropittura artists—Enrico Prampolini, Fortunato Depero, and others. In contrast to much of the Aeropittura work, movement in Fontana’s sculpture is never merely described; it is internal to the work. It is inherent in the consistency and texture of the terra-cotta or ceramic pieces, which effect a critique of matter as inert; in the vectors of the drawn or incised lines in the tavolette grafite of 1931; and in the iron of the sculture astratte, which, threadlike, advance directly into space, folding and turning in directions revealed and intimated through movement.

Other sculture astratte are slabs of plaster or cement, their surfaces divided between white, black, or gray. Fontana’s abandonment of color here, his departure from his use of color in the figural works, can perhaps be attributed to this plane’s closeness to the plane of a canvas: the work approaches painting, but the artist doesn’t want it to be mistaken for painting. He wants it to keep its relationship with both painting and sculpture. Accordingly, he tones down the pictorial qualities of the image. Also, in the relationship between light and dark here the artist finds a cohesive force. Something similar happens in the tavolette grafite, in which cellular masses emerge from planes crossed by linear markings. This kind of biomorphic representation, which Persico related to Surrealism, involves a dynamic between nucleus and line similar to that between light and dark in the sculture astratte. The dynamic appears in different forms in much of Fontana’s art.

This entire body of work, along with the various ceramic pieces, establishes a sort of spatial revision of composition, of materials, of working terms (plane, projection, mass). Finally, the environment around the work becomes one of the working conditions. Bagnante, for example, is a sculpture of a black woman in a striped bathing suit; Fontana once exhibited it on a bed of real sand. In the ceramiche one can see how Fontana has penetrated matter with his hands. The movements of his fingers introduce one’s awareness of space, become space’s marks. This incorporation of real space into the form grows increasingly specific: the “Fondi marini” (Marine depths, 1935) and the “Farfalle” (Butterflies, 1935), for example, have a double movement, downward toward the plane below and upward toward the environment, in a dynamic relation with both. Space in Fontana’s work of this period is simultaneously intuitive, mental, and physical. It is of a different quality from the space in the geometric and biomorphic abstractions made by the artist’s contemporaries in Milan, and in the Paris “Abstraction-Création” group, of which he was a member.

Fontana was already beginning to extend his work into architecture during these years. The casting in bronze of Vittoria, ca. 1930, a high relief originally executed in red- and gold-painted plaster, and its installation in Giuseppe Terragni’s war memorial in Erba, provides an early example of an artist’s collaboration with the Italian rationalist movement in architecture. (The memorial was a government commission; Fontana accepted such projects from time to time, but did not align himself with fascist ideology.) This kind of project recurred in 1936, when Fontana, the painter Marcello Nizzoli, and Persico collaborated on the Salone della Vittoria in the Milan Triennale of that year. The space combined painting, sculpture, and architecture, but it contained no paintings on canvas, no windows, doors, or walls; a Fontana work entitled Vittoria dell’Aria (Victory of the air), bleached of color through its execution in white plaster, blended into the light of the environment. The project reflected a desire to overcome the separation of the three arts, and this early synthesis is a direct forerunner of Fontana’s different “Ambienti” (Environments) of the late ’40s and early ’50s.

The expression of space in matter, and of space’s interest in matter: Fontana left the ’30s with these postulates. Toward the end of a number of years he spent in Argentina, beginning in 1939, he was involved in the production of a manifesto, the Manifiesto blanco (White manifesto, 1946), that developed these ideas, and that inaugurated what is often called his “spatialist” period. Here, spatial sculpture, space as concept, and spatial environment all create a circuit; what is sculptural becomes conceptual, and vice versa. And figural works merge more inseparably with space. (It is revealing that two works from 1947, one a black plaster ring, the other a human figure, are both called “spatial”—the ring Scultura spaziale, the figure Concetto spaziale.) Between his stay in Argentina and his return to Milan, in 1947, Fontana developed another interest that would inform the various manifestos he would write on space in the late ’40s and ’50s, the idea of the new media of art. In 1949 he wrote to Giampiero Giani, “From this moment [the Buenos Aires period], I became increasingly convinced that art had come to the end of an era, and that from it new experiences would have to grow that would completely sidestep the problems of painting and sculpture, and would use all the modern techniques, that is, neon, television, radar, a spatial era, a spatial art.”2 (By 1952, Fontana would have created a neon work and made a television broadcast.3)

The new media that would soon appear in Fontana’s work reflect a formal departure, a break, from his earlier pieces, but they continue his desire to bring together the separate genres of painting, sculpture, and architecture. The Manifiesto blanco talks of a genre that would join the individual arts, a genre it calls a “greater art”; for Fontana, the typology of such a genre would be the “Ambienti” he would soon begin to create. (On his return to Italy he reestablished contact with architects, collaborating particularly with Luciano Baldessari on the Milan Triennales and trade fairs of the ’50s.) The first Ambiente spaziale was A luce nera (In black light), a room created in 1949 at the Galleria del Naviglio, Milan. In a completely darkened space a number of luminous colored forms hung in midair, glimmering with fluorescence under lamps of ultraviolet light, or “black light,” which causes certain colors or paints to shine but does not affect the darkness of a room. The second environment, at the 1951 Milan Triennale, was Struttura neon (Neon structure), in which a skein of neon around 100 yards long was suspended above a large staircase. The idea of creating environments such as these was to some extent foreshadowed in Giacomo Balla’s idea of a “Futurist reconstruction of the universe,” in Kasimir Malevich’s work with environments, and elsewhere; Fontana’s innovation lies in his introduction of the technological means of ultraviolet and neon light as the media with which to project toward the new.

Fontana outlined the theoretical ideas behind these works in the Manifesto tecnico (Technical manifesto4), to which he was the only signatory (the Manifiesto blanco had been a collaborative work; his name did not appear on it). He wrote this essay to coincide with the 1951 Triennale in which he installed the Struttura neon. The “evolution of the media” of art, Fontana affirms, must incorporate the introduction of technology. And he uses a series of diagrams to propose the environmental space as an example of spatial art. These diagrams comprise a series of reflections on cosmic space, and on its relations with the earthly sphere. “Spatial forms” don’t really exist yet, Fontana says, because form is always thought of in relation to the plane of the earth. A true spatial art must have no such relationship. The diagrams show the familiar earthly viewpoint of the person standing, feet on the ground, with the horizon formed by the curvature of the earth, but they also show that other kinds of horizon, other kinds of perspective, are equally possible, replacing this one. One diagram demonstrates a “spatial viewpoint” and a “nuclear viewpoint,” and these give a view of earth as a compact, celllike nucleus. This relates back not only to the tavolette grafite but also to a series of drawings bearing the title “Ambiente spaziale,” which show a distinct central nucleus within an area of homogeneous color. The nucleus is the equivalent of the sphere of Earth seen from the “nuclear viewpoint” of the drawings; it floats in the picture space, creating no relationship to the earth’s plane.

Fontana works out these same goals in the “Ambienti” themselves. It is important to emphasize that in the “Ambiente spazialeA luce nera the luminous forms were hung in the air rather than resting directly or indirectly on the floor. And the Struttura neon, installed not in an exhibition room but above a stair, escaped a conventional relationship with a room’s floor and walls. The very irregularity of the wound neon was itself a denial of geometry, which sets the finite boundaries of most Western architecture. The Struttura neon was contained within an architectural envelope, but it undercut that envelope in its image; the same was true, of course, of the “Ambiente spazialeA luce nera, in which floor, walls, and ceiling disappeared in the blackness. In these environments the image became incorporeal; color was determined by light. Combining painting and sculpture, Fontana was moving beyond their limits, and beyond architecture’s.

Fontana’s interest in technology during this period shows how close he felt to science in the years after the war. The several “spatial manifestos” of the late ’40s and early ’50s, most of them produced collaboratively with others among the artists and intellectuals around him, are theoretical extensions of contemporaneous scientific themes. In the period of rebuilding after the war, science was a powerful social force, and Fontana saw it as a positive agent, its promise and meaning outweighing its other side, its regrettable and even terrifying effects. To him, science seemed to offer a kind of universal language or system of knowledge. Cellular microbiology and cosmography had already been hinted at in Fontana’s work of the ’30s; in the ’40s their presence grew stronger. The work looks directly at the physics of matter. The Manifesto dell’arte spaziale (the fourth of these manifestos, from 1951) talks of “that vision of universal matter with which science, philosophy, and art, at the center of consciousness and intuition, have nurtured the human spirit,” and of “seeking to represent figuratively that energy today.” Fontana’s formal gestures are infused with these principles, both in the “Ambienti” and in the other works of the time.

Every piece in the “Buchi” (Holes) series, begun in 1949, bears the title Concetto spaziale, or “spatial concept,” “concept” because art in these works has reached the level of an art of knowledge, “spatial” because space is this art’s domain. (Fontana had been using this title for some of his works since 1947). Just as the Ambiente spaziale corresponds to the Modern search for a synthesis of the arts, so the Concetto spaziale satisfies the desire that Modern art took from Renaissance Humanism: the desire for an art that would both describe and propel the consciousness of its era, that would infuse it in all its different fields. For Fontana, that consciousness was inextricably bound up with science. The “Buchi” is a series of canvases and mounted-paper works, all of them punctured with holes, which now are grouped like constellations, now spread out in open, expansive rhythms; the movement of the arrangements of holes is a means to distribute energy, a more inclusive expression or transmission of the energy that has gone into the action of puncturing. Convinced as he is of the equations between matter, energy, and space, Fontana moves toward the origins of these principles, their common roots as revealed in contemporaneous physics. The work is a kind of naturalism, but it is not in the usual sense representational; it invokes a mental or conceptual awareness of nature as well as a visual one. It is critical philosophy, but not in the manner of Kant; concept has been transformed into art.

The last decade of Fontana’s life begins with the “Tagli (Concetti spaziali—Attese)” (Cuts [spatial concepts—waiting], 1958), large-format works of broad and deliberate gestures, complex variations, and studied elaborations of materials. The works of the next ten years develop this example. They are at the same time more essential—in the sense of purer, more reduced, closer to a sense of essence—and richer, more imposing than the artist’s earlier works. “It will be a spiritual art,” Fontana had written in a note during the ’50s, and his prophesy proved true. The appearance of the work is simple. Now it emphasizes the support (oil-painted canvas, gold, gilded sheet metal, terra-cotta) and the action that “makes” the work (the cut or puncture). These are works of deep concentration and meditation. One feels the charge of tension released when the knife cuts the canvas; the action is elevated far beyond its apparent simplicity.

Most often in these late works, Fontana unifies the ground by making it a monochrome. Having established this unity, he seems liberated into the exploration of other dimensions. In the “Tagli” he concentrates on the gesture, the cut; in the “Quanta,” 1959, groups of differently shaped pierced and cut canvases in variable arrangements, he modifies the outlines of the frame; the “Nature” (Natures, 1959–60) are large terra-cotta globes slashed so as to seem exploded, like germinating seeds. The “Olii” (Oils, 1960–68) are monochrome canvases of thick, shiny colors whose surfaces crack into subtle furrows that allow one to sense the paint’s depth. Each color is created specifically for the particular work in which it appears, and a large hole in each canvas focuses one’s concentration. The “Olii” show Fontana’s wide experience of color—the pinks of strawberries, certain dried fruits, and cyclamen, the blues of turquoise and of the sky, the greens of water and of grass, and gold, dense and soft. Fontana’s taste for gold is manifested again in the brass and gilded-copper sheets of the “New York” series, begun after a visit to that city in 1961. And more “Ambienti” also appear—Fonti di loci (Fountains of light, 1961), a work made up of tubes of colored neon, for the interior of a pavilion in Turin’s “Italia ’61” exhibition; a space in the Palazzo Reale in Milan in 1964; another at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1966, and still others in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk and in Foligno, both in 1967.

The series of “Ovali (Concetti spaziali—La Fine di Dio)” (Ovals [spatial concepts—the end of God], 1963) shares the color sense of the “Olii,” but the canvases are punctured or cut many times instead of just once, and they are oval in shape, according to the hypothesis that the universe too is oval. That reference and the subtitle Fine di Dio help to clarify the exact nature of the spirituality that infuses Fontana’s late work. He was attracted to divine faith; a triptych of 1966—a row of three large square canvases, all of them punctured, the two outer ones in horizontal rows of holes, the central one in a spiral—is explicitly titled Trinità (Trinity). Yet he knew God’s absence in the modern world (Fine di Dio). Fontana’s sense of the spiritual involves a physical and mental apprehension of the world and a belief in the place of art, a human creation, in that vision. In a 1968 conversation with Tommaso Trini, recorded a month and a half before the artist’s death, when he was already ill, Fontana said, “The intelligence of man. . . is the only thing in which I believe, more than in God. . . for me God is the intelligence of man. . . and so, since I have faith in the intelligence of man, I am convinced that in the future man will know a world completely transformed by art.”5

Jole de Sanna is an art critic who lives in Milan and teaches at the Accademia di Brera. Her “Breve storia dell’arte Italiana 1895–1987” appears in the catalogue for the “Italie hors d’Italie” exhibition, at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Nîmes, this past summer.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. See Lucio Fontana, letter to Giampiero Giani, 2 November 1949. In the collection of the Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan, and republished in Tommaso Trini, Lucio Fontana, exhibition catalogue, Messina: Edizione Mazzotta, 1986–87.

2. Ibid.

3. See the Manifesto del movimento spaziale per la television. This and all Fontana’s manifestos are collected in Enrico Crispolti and Jan van der Marck, eds., Lucio Fontana, 2 vols., Brussels: La Conaissance, 1974.

4. The Manifesto tecnico was composed for the 1° Congressso delle Proporzioni of the 1951 Milan Triennale.

5. Trini, p. 40.

The art of Lucio Fontana is the subject of a retrospective exhibition currently to be seen at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and remaining there until January 11, 1988. Subsequently it will travel to the Caixa De Pensions, Barcelona; the Stedelijk, Amsterdam; and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. At this writing, the dates of these subsequent shows have not been set.

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