New York

Lucio Fontana

Alexander Iolas Gallery

At a time when a reinterpretation of Abstract Expressionism seems both necessary and feasible, it’s especially good to have access to previously unexhibited work by Lucio Fontana, whose career in some ways paralleled that of postwar American painting. Rosalind Krauss has indicated that what needs to be considered is Abstract Expressionism’s internalization of the Surrealist idea of “content.” I’d extrapolate that what’s in question is the extent to which the Americans retained Surrealism’s preoccupation with the erotic as a subversion of the erotic. A well-known reading—William Rubin’s—seems to say that the eroticism of Surrealist terminology—a prime example of which would be automatism—became deemphasized in an American art that was, because of that, able to reconnect with the larger tradition which Surrealism itself had originally sought to oppose. A wide variety of recent art—Snyder’s, Hesse’s, Morris’, Benglis’, to name four who are otherwise very different—suggests that this will not do, that a less straightforward explanation than the surrender of the surreal has to be advanced to account for the presence of both Masson and Matisse in the geneology of the last quarter-century’s art.

Fontana’s teatrim, 1965, displays all the trappings of the surreal that, in American art, the ’50s and ’60s are supposed to have expunged. Penetration, an unavoidably sexual metaphor, provides the work with its syntax. The painting is a shallow box, its front panel—the “picture plane”—largely cut away, that back pierced by a row of dots that are across the “background.” In this one sees how it was that Surrealist theory could accommodate itself to the space of painting both as an object and also as a conventionalized, abstract, deep space. The unifying impulse was the penetration of that space, or rather the acknowledgment of the Freudian implication of such an invasion. Just as the fascination which some Surrealists felt for Renaissance space was the result of the fixed position demanded from the viewer by Renaissance perspective, so the literalizing tendency in Surrealism derives from seeing the work as the object of a kind of attention which is conceivably fetishistic. If the deep space of de Chirico suggests voyeurism, a work such as teatrim analogizes to rape. This is a point worth making because the erotic implications of a great deal of the art that’s being made now contribute to the work not by being submerged within a more generalized, esthetic experience, but rather by remaining in opposition to it in a way that suggests the opposition of literal action to the fundamental denominator of painting’s independence which is found in Fontana’s famous slashed canvas. In teatrim, Fontana adopts modernism’s shallow space as the limited context of a behavior which readily analogizes to the terms of extraartistic behavior, and which is, therefore, perceived as in tension with the artistic conventionality of that modernist space.

Fontana reminds one that the impulse to see art as a tool with which to focus on the physical world without being discontinuous with it derived—for the Surrealists—from a will to equate the paranormal—as it occurs in the psychoanalysis of dreams—with the normal, as coterminous features of the everyday. Surrealism remains as an overwhelming influence because of its refusal to see art as anything other than an institution that makes it possible for the fantastic to occupy the space of the real world. Surrealism’s nonsubsumption of the erotic is then a means by which eroticism, as it becomes the undeniable property of an art object, makes possible an equivalence between the imagined and the physically apparent.

Fontana seems to have anticipated what is now a commonplace, the subversion of the artwork through equal emphasis on its nonartistic side. In his use of Surrealism’s insistence that the common denominator of the conscious and the subliminal may be located in the terminology of psychoanalysis, Fontana subverts the experience of the artwork as the incarnation of an idea “at one remove.” Immediacy becomes that which connects art to the world of objects and, at the same time, renders the two distinct and reiterates that it was the Surrealist who first saw art as a way for concentrating on general questions of linguistic reflexiveness in a manner not available elsewhere.

––Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe