Lucio Fontana

Retrospectives have an unfortunate tendency to diminish a renowned artist’s work. Indeed, their very inclusiveness tends to cut a figure down: What you once thought of as single-minded purpose comes across as mere habit; what once seemed amiably various seems like meandering lassitude. So it is a rare pleasure when a retrospective actually succeeds in aggrandizing its subject, and, if only in this regard, the Hayward Gallery’s “Lucio Fontana” is a triumph. Highly selective, the exhibition nevertheless encompasses work from 1929 to 1968, the year Fontana died; at every turn of the gallery’s two spacious levels, it illuminates, astonishes, pleases, and moves. Designed by the minimalist architect Claudio Silvestrin, this elegant exhibition is perfectly attuned to Fontana’s own impeccable chic. Sarah Whitfield, the curator and art historian who organized this show for the Hayward, takes us through the crucial phases of Fontana’s multifarious art, providing a generous sampling of work from throughout his career without succumbing to overkill; and in her catalogue essay she is the sanest of ciceroni.

Last spring in Milan there was a sprawling Fontana-fest of five shows marking the centenary of the artist’s birth. These displays, chosen from a narrow range of collections, were fragmentary in effect (which wasn’t helped by the dodgy reconstructions, at the Milan Triennial, of Fontana’s transitory light installations). His figurative sculptures on religious themes were annexed in the Museo Diocesano, for example, while the theoretical underpinnings of his work were miscellaneously illustrated in a show at the Brera. Although Whitfield also confines different species of work to separate spaces, they were at least under one roof, and a sense of energy harnessed to inquiry propels you forward. When you reach the final group of works (eight pierced, egg-shaped paintings from the “Spatial Concept/The End of God” series) you experience both a coup de théâtre and a sense of mission accomplished akin to those final chords of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, which, with irresistible dynamism, contain all that has gone before.

The cut and pierced paintings, replete with erotic, religious, and belligerent overtones, are undoubtedly the most familiar. But the exhibition begins with the far less known sculptures, mainly terra-cotta and polychrome ceramic (largely realized during the ’30s, though several pieces here date from the ’40s and early ’50s), depicting still life and various human and animal forms. Crab, 1936, for example, is a revelation—an inert orange-and-brown lump that delicately conjures the creature’s awkward and inquisitive armature. There are women on sofas in painted plaster that suggest dainty Dresden figures put through a car wash. Though not without precedents in their volatile freedom—created with a dash that the nineteenth-century animaliers would recognize, and with a crusty meltdown of surface not far from Medardo Rosso—such works blatantly ran counter to prevailing sculptural modernism yet, as with so much by Fontana, wing us into the future. Reviewers of the exhibition have had a mardi gras in knowingly parading the names of artists whose techniques or imagery Fontana continually anticipated. I shall avoid this. But the alert visitor will see any number of currently celebrated careers presciently pinpointed by Fontana in a single piece or short phase.

After the sculpture, we enter the world of the incision, the nick, the gouge, and the cut—a world that may fruitfully be seen as an extension of, rather than an alternative to, the sculptural project. These works range from orientalist drawings in which the graffiti of whispered marks bring to mind the foraging anxiety of a bird’s feet in fresh snow to the supremely spare, all-over red canvas with a single vertical slit (Spatial Concept/Waiting, 1965). Fontana’s technical finesse and his pastry-cook savoring of ingredients are brought into sharp focus by the often violent incidents taking place before our eyes. The balance can be breathtaking. There is an exemplary photograph in the catalogue, highly suggestive of these polarities, of Fontana in tie and well-tailored suit, clambering through the bombed ruin of his Milan studio in 1947; a great gash on one wall almost exactly prefigures the vulva-like stigmata of works from the ’60s. In these the intensity of Fontana’s procedure is matched to the dizzying metaphorical charge of his image. At the other extreme, the three white “Spatial Concept/Waiting” canvases of 1965, each with a cluster of razor cuts, brings us to the edge of wordless speculation.

Although Fontana was born in Argentina and his work anticipates so much international postwar art, his sensibility is rootedly Italian. The history of much of his adopted country’s art—from the linear elegance of early Siena through Leonardo’s equestrian monuments to Modigliani’s eyebrow-pencil curves—seeps into Fontana’s poise, his sense of rhythm, his stylish deployment of materials, from high-key glazes to gold, glitter, and neon. There is even a touch of “this season’s fashion” to his changes of gear, his “new look” and variations. Also in the Italian tradition is the rhetoric of his various manifestos and pronouncements. Leave them to one side. More than most artists, Fontana demonstrates that complex meanings are at times born of the simplest of means.

Richard Shone is the curator of “The Art of Bloomsbury,” which travels to the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, March 4.