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PRINT November 2014

IMMODEST PROPOSALS: THE ART OF LUCIO FONTANA

Lucio Fontana, Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), 1949/1976, papier-mâché, phosphorescent pigment. Installation view, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2014. Photo: Benoît Fougeirol. All works by Lucio Fontana © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

HOW DID THE SCULPTOR become the spatialist? This is a deceptively simple and far-reaching question to ask of Lucio Fontana. Yet it allows us not only to see the fundamental logic of the artist’s work but also to think again about the long history of twentieth-century European art as it played out in the aftermath of two world wars and across continents. The recent retrospective of the artist at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, curated by Choghakate Kazarian and Sébastien Gokalp, presented a firmly rooted yet wide-ranging picture of one of modernism’s most tantalizing figures, demonstrating how the artist of the self-declared “Spatial Concept”—an idea at once transcendent and technologizing, cosmic and material—emerged out of sculpture and the sculptural object.

At its best, the show lent a striking coherence to aspects of Fontana’s work that have previously seemed utterly irreconcilable with the standard narratives: If the artist is best known for his slashed and punctured monochromes, these mature postwar works are usually severed from his prewar figurative sculptures. Although the early three-dimensional work has been frequently exhibited, it has rarely before been shown in such depth (an exception was “Lucio Fontana: Sculpture” at Colorado’s Aspen Art Museum in 2012). This new concentration on Fontana’s early formation undoubtedly helps us to understand better his unusually eclectic range—so that the pictorial and the spatial, the figurative and the abstract, are in constant relation to each other.

Not many artists span the century as Fontana did. The MAM survey made a case for Fontana’s remarkably long career beginning early: It started, albeit fleetingly, in the 1920s, in his father’s commercial sculpture workshop in Rosario, Argentina, where Fontana made religious and funerary monuments, and continued at a refreshingly slow pace through the publication of his radical “Primo Manifesto dello Spazialismo” (First Spatialist Manifesto) in Milan in 1947 (penned with Giorgio Kaisserlian, Beniamino Joppolo, and Milena Milani). Fontana’s postwar career, ending only with his death at the age of sixty-nine in 1968, was more influential; he retained a remarkable capacity to be of his time, showing his great “Natura” (Nature) sculptures, 1959–60, at Documenta 14 the very year he died.

We can suddenly see the powerful trajectory of his three-dimensional work and, in particular, of the ceramics that run continuously through his entire output and that would in many ways define his incursions into matter, color, and space across vastly different media, from sculpture and painting to light installations.

An almost hallucinatory polychromy is already present in his glazed ceramics of the ’30s, made in Albisola, Italy, the seaside town known for its artisanal Mazzotti pottery factory, where he would return many times to work. After he saw Yves Klein’s blue monochromes in 1957 in Milan, Fontana would abandon the residue of a more nuanced Informel palette in favor of bright single colors. But seen together, his many monochromes show how he used decidedly unsubtle differences between any number of pink or red paintings to make modern color work for him—systematically corrupting any idea of purity that might once have been attached to color itself.

Color made Fontana’s ceramics strange, even feral. A “petrified and brilliant aquarium”—Fontana’s phrase—is hard to beat as a description of his almost fluorescently glazed still lifes and menagerie, including crocodile, octopus, crab, butterfly, and cuttlefish, or his gorgeously iridescent mineral flowers from the ’50s. He saw them as an imaginary bestiary with “wild, tumultuous rhythms.” At the same time, the artist always insisted that ceramics, despite their low or craft provenance, were one of the highest forms of sculpture (the most “aristocratic,” he said, with typical hyperbole). But Fontana was also positioning himself against his predecessor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s streamlined ideal of Italian majolica pottery (articulated in one of the last Futurist manifestoes, “Ceramic and Aeroceramic” from 1938); Fontana instead exploited the visceral and ungainly qualities of clay, creating glazed works that appeared almost bejeweled, and others of raw, unfired earth.

The ceramics were handmade, but here, as with his later paintings, they went a step further, into excess—we see the hand behaving badly, as if its products were some kind of automatist convulsion from the body that made them. That carnal aspect, so well described by Yve-Alain Bois in his brilliant 1989 response to Fontana’s scatology in terms of Bataillean base materialism, is at the root of an artistic project that would increasingly devote itself to kitsch and that became, in the throes of Italy’s postwar economic miracle, the glittering yet petrified form of consumer culture’s death drive.

Milan, the city Fontana adopted, and the epicenter of the creative design industries during the postwar period, became the artist’s sacred text and offered him endless possibilities. Fontana’s first black-light installation, Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), at the city’s Galleria del Naviglio in 1949, was made of papier-mâché in bulky arabesques suspended from the ceiling and painted in phosphorescent colors, lending it a nightclub aesthetic. But this turn toward the synthetic and spectacular retained the disturbing, frozen organicism of the ceramic bestiary. And though Fontana then changed tack again to make art that answered to the cold fetish-shine of a fast-emerging commodity culture, the famous “Buchi” (Holes), 1949–68, and “Tagli” (Cuts), 1958–68, can still be seen to display some kind of bestial myth, acting out the animal in phantasmatic sexual gestures, or merely in the oozing gloss that has hardened around a punctured hole, as in Concetto spaziale (Spatial Concept), 1962.

Despite the fact that he is better known for his paintings and larger sculptures, the artist still went on making ceramics, returning again to Albisola to work at the end of the ’50s. While there, he also began fabricating the terra-cotta “Natura” series, later cast in bronze—the two phases were brilliantly shown together in this exhibition as doubles of each other—demonstrating his full sculptural range. As in his earlier ceramic production, their extreme organicity shows Fontana, as he put it, “wanting to make inert matter live.” The great bulky spheres sit directly on the floor and are either gouged or slightly split open, like giant seedpods or husks of some kind. The sexual connotation is there, too, as always: Fontana apparently referred to the works as “balls,” and natura is Italian slang for female genitalia. It does not seem far-fetched to say that, like more or less everything he made, they operate as a riff on the dissolution of proper form, too—like crude sculptural slang.

After 1949, the year that “the hole” became the central feature and focus of his work, Fontana approached paintings in a three-dimensional mind-set as well. To him, they were simply flat sculptures that were hammered or hacked the way stone or clay might be. The more surprising question posed by the exhibition, I think, was why Fontana would have taken up painting at all, given his rootedness in sculpture. Didn’t painting return his work to the wall? But the artist never actually thought of his paintings as belonging there. Rather, he saw them as part of an infinite, even cosmic space that broke through the wall’s surface, collapsing differences between media in favor of an expanded spatiality that would project art into the future by breaking out of its conventional formats.

THAT FONTANA came to conceive of what it was to be a spatialist in the utopian, modernizing terms that he did was as much a matter of geographic displacement as of historical trauma. When he made his very first perforated paintings at the end of the 1940s, he had recently returned from Argentina, where he had spent several years teaching at art schools in Buenos Aires and Rosario. And in many ways it is impossible to understand how he became a spatialist without thinking seriously about his split identity: Born in Argentina to Italian parents, he trained in both countries, lived for most of his life in Milan yet also spent substantial periods in Buenos Aires at the moment of its most intense modernization.

While the Futurists provide a productive historical foil for Fontana’s rhetoric of avant-gardism, and while Klein, among other postwar artists, remained an important figure (and champion of Fontana’s work), Fontana mainly spent time with artists much younger than himself. He picked up on ideas that were current, not least in Buenos Aires when he mixed with the technophilic Madí group, which included artists such as Gyula Kosice, who preceded Fontana in his use of neon in abstract pictures in the early ’40s. The constructive utopianism that had been bankrupted in Europe had found a fertile place to thrive and transform in the modernizing context of the Argentinean capital. Curator Paulo Herkenhoff has pointed out that Fontana was the first European modernist to define himself in Latin America and that this episode was crucial to his coming into artistic maturity (an important argument completely ignored in the otherwise excellent and comprehensive catalogue to the current exhibition).

Indeed, the rhetoric of spatiality that Fontana developed later in that decade owed much to his time in Latin America, as did his own use of contemporary materials such as the extravagant arabesques of suspended neon and the immersive and labyrinthine environments of light. At the least, this Argentinean period offered a context in which a myth of cosmic spatiality still had some vibrancy and historical urgency. There, a constructive rhetoric of futurity was merged with new technologies in ways that Fontana would translate and in the process revivify back in the European context.

But it was also partly this crucial transition that encouraged Fontana—somewhat counterintuitively—to make paintings. Some of the first, in 1952, contained a vortex of punctured holes, created by stabbing through the surface, and were lit from behind. But soon the shower of holes seemed to be enough, without the need for artificial light and with color alone becoming the means by which the work could embody the desires commerce could command in the larger consumer culture: colors such as shocking and cotton-candy pink, emerald green, and so on.

Despite the fact that they were made in enormous numbers, as if industrially produced, Fontana’s perforated and slit canvases were intensely organic and carnal. A slit might be a mechanical gesture, but cut by Fontana’s hand it is also full of sexual innuendo. A hole becomes a violent wound; a cut becomes a labial parting. One group of paintings from 1962, all titled Concetto spaziale, are pink with gouged-out centers set within a roughly circular pattern of meandering incised lines, recalling Courbet’s L’origine du monde (The Origin of the World), as art historian Sarah Whitfield has pointed out. A reference like this is more than an art-historical source: It’s a voyeur’s calling card. There is something cartoonlike about such pornographic displays—vividly recalling Fontana’s now-trademark postwar bestiary—making them difficult to take seriously and yet giving them a horrible momentum.

In another group of works spanning 1947 to 1965, still slicker and bigger, Fontana took on the gaudy gold and glass clichés of Venice and the dazzling glamour of New York. It is never hard to see the verbs, the actions that have made the paintings, or those that have pulled them back from the edge. If Fontana was in doubt—and the ground of the work surely was doubt—his default position was always to be extravagant. In supplying material and visual excess, by adding glitter or cranking up the metallic color, he was simply overstating the case in a different way. The doubt that underlies such overstatement, in the context of the huge gulf that had historically emerged between art’s material base and the expressive and transcendental claims traditionally made for it, is art’s failure to believe in itself. There is melodrama in Fontana’s kind of doubt, as there is in the drive for redemption that saves the work from the sabotage he pretends to wreak on it.

The “Fine di Dio” (End of God) series, 1963, is the most vivid manifesto of Fontana’s near-ecstatic method, in which he tore apart an edifice of metaphysical values as much as a painted surface. Shown together with the large triptych The Trinity, 1966, its title betraying not so much a subject as a mode of auratic contemplation, even the few “astral eggs” exhibited at MAM trumped everything else on view by the sheer force of their absurdity. The museum’s decision to show less familiar work rather than a series such as this in real depth seemed a missed opportunity to insist on the work’s roots in sculpture, a trajectory that had been so coherently set up at the start.

For just as he hacked into his “Buchi” and “Tagli,” Fontana attacked the oval shapes—reminding us, too, of the way he once hammered at a piece of stone or sank his hands into wet clay. He learned how to do aura early on, and he never abandoned it in favor of negation. He had pushed aura to its limits, to chase a hyperbole of both high art and low kitsch, and he relentlessly pursued this strategy of immoderation. Fontana chose exacerbation and exaggeration as his strategies of choice; he became a ragpicker of surplus value, picking over its excesses until, in his hands, the excess said something about the world he inhabited.

The very earliest Madonnas and religious sculptures that Fontana made in Rosario found their dreadful doppelgängers in these great, decimated egg shapes, with their bleak yet blatantly self-aggrandizing Nietzschean title. Their eschatological barbarity shows Fontana pushing consumer culture to its extreme and yet savaging its idolatrous character. His habit of hamming it up in order to cast down the false gods of the economic miracle is nothing less than euphoric. Fontana could never resist the metaphysical reach of art, but he could not believe in it, either.

Briony Fer is a professor of the history of art at University College London.