New York

Lucio Fontana

Barbara Gladstone Gallery

It was wonderful to see an exhibition of subtle an that has withstood the test of time—to see “paintings” that stretch the limits or our assumptions about painting without destroying them, and without turning painting into a masochistic joke. Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) made artworks that seem materially “incredible”—are extraordinarily, sensitive to the medium—without undermining their credibility as paintings, and that generate “miraculous” effects without thereby making art seem like a game in which the rules change arbitrarily.

The oldest painting shown was an untitled work from 1953; the most recent, a Concetto spaziale, attesse (Spatial concept, expectations) dated 1966. All of them are actually intimate “spacial concerts” involving various “musical instruments”—not only paint, often of an outlandish or risqué color, but colored stone and, in one, copper. The canvas has been altered in all of them; painting, Fontana seemed to suggest, means something like what John Cage has done in altering and then sometimes “playing” a piano in silence. In New York, 1958, the copper “canvas” has been ripped vertically and scratched with moody markings; one Concetto spaziale from 1964 has a large hole in its center, from which ripples spread over the surrounding, gooey-looking pink paint. Other works have punctures and slits of various kinds, sometimes forming patterns, sometimes random. The surface may be sluggishly dense or seem to move mercurially.

The paintings are a kind of Modernist capriccio, buoyant paradoxes articulating a border area of perception. They have an odd mix of whimsy and cruelty—a lyric criminality recalling the original subliminal intention of collage. They carry “musical” painting to a climax, retaining its ideal of radical singularity and unconscious evocation. For all its hard and fast play with material, the integrity of each work as a picture is retained. The artist’s violent cutting, or “wounding,” marks are restrained by the ordinary rectilinearity of the support, which is never violated. Every “diversionary,” disruptive tactic is absorbed back into the work as an ambiguous abstract/illusionistic element—an overdetermined bit of bravura painting. These works are masterpieces of their kind, even as “experimental” as they are—even inasmuch as they point to arte povera.

It is interesting to realize that these paintings were made while the so-called “American-type” abstract paintings of Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko were developing. Fontana’s are different in outlook as well as in size; they have less grandiosity than American abstract art of the same period, and are more alchemical—they exhibit less hubris and a more lyrical sense of space, touch, and shape. They make clear that as part of the recognition of current European art there must be a reevaluation of postwar European art in general. It is no longer self-evident that postwar American art was more innovative than parallel developments in European art, although that hardly means it was nothing but an instrument of American imperialism, as certain self-styled radical, but in fact reactionary, art historians would have us believe. (They don’t think there was anything revolutionary about postwar American art.) In this reappraisal Fontana will emerge as a major force for the good. That is, his art reminds us that all important methodological steps forward, which lead ultimately to new concepts of art, are made by combining a sense of the specialness of the past with the same sense of the present. That is the secret of genuine, durable innovation.

Donald Kuspit