New York

Lucio Fontana

THE WORK OF LUCIO FONTANA was last presented monographically in the United States in 1977, when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum mounted a major retrospective of the artist; his most recent prominent appearance here was in 1999 as part of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center’s “Minimalia: An Italian Vision in 20th-Century Art,” in New York. Thus, the staging of “Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York” at the Guggenheim (after the show opened at the institution’s Venice branch last year) represents not only a welcome rarity for American audiences but takes on something of a magnified importance for his legacy as it circumscribes Fontana’s broad range of artistic production, focusing instead on late-career homages to a pair of cities that reflect the artist’s transatlantic cosmopolitanism.

As organized by curator Luca Massimo Barbero, the Guggenheim installation reconstructs Fontana’s peripatetic flow first through one city, then another. The “Venice” canvases (all made in 1961), studded with bits of colored glass or marked by great swirls in generous, thick paint, evoke a lyrical encounter with urban space—an experience of leisure and luxury as a means without an end. His “New York” series, 1961–65, displays a similarly extravagant materiality. For these works Fontana put aside oil and canvas and turned to copper and aluminum, using large, flat pieces of metal as both foreground and background, thus exposing the texture of the surface: the scratched and punctured copper of Concetto spaziale, New York Grattacielo (Spatial Concept, New York Skyscraper), 1962, its gashes faceting the shimmering gleam of metal; the striations in aluminum of Concetto spaziale, Cielo a New York 2 (Spatial Concept, New York Sky 2), 1962. The exhibition emphasizes the jewel-like nature of these two series—some of the “New York” works are dis- played in darkened rooms. But the real gems include rarely seen yet pivotal earlier works such as the 1949 paper-and-canvas Concetto spaziale, Fontana’s very first assault on the sacrosanct quadrilinear surface of drawing and painting. (Indeed, 1949 might be seen as the “year of the cut,” as it was also the date of Affichistes Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villeglé’s first décollage of shredded and torn posters.) Engaging in the decadent performativity of process, Fontana here committed to demonstrating the violence and erotics of mark-making—or, perhaps, unmaking, as his “cuts” created voids in the canvas rather than additions.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of this illuminating piece underscores how little else the Guggenheim show does to mitigate the now-canonized view in America of Fontana as an eccentric practitioner of kitsch-inflected postwar abstraction—a flaw that one becomes palpably aware of when considering the role of the present exhibition on this side of the Atlantic. Without the benefit of greater contextualization, the works are at risk of seeming precious, exotic objects, which would support the mistaken impression of abstract painting in Europe after World War II as politically disengaged, if not entirely narcissistic, and ultimately vapid. (Born in Argentina to an Italian father and an Argentinean mother, Fontana spent long periods of time in both countries, but in 1947 he moved permanently to Italy.) In fact, as American technocracy—and American-style skyscrapers and American products—made its way to Milan via the Marshall Plan, Fontana’s indulgent materiality was excess as a critical form of nihilism. In 1955, in a short opening text for the inaugural issue of the magazine Il Gesto, Fontana declared that painting was impossible after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—an echo of Adorno’s much-cited assertion that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. And yet Fontana did not abandon painting; instead he attacked the canvas with the reverse side of the brush and, eventually, with a blade. At a time when the expressive presence of the artist was celebrated in the work of American hero Jackson Pollock, for example, Fontana’s voided mark seemed to ask if the concept of a “subject” even made sense.

This fatalism extended to Fontana’s work of the ’60s, perhaps most clearly in the disturbing 1963–64 series “La Fine di Dio”(The End of God), in which the artist drew together the cultural endgames of painting and religion; here he traded the rectangular canvas, loaded with the promise of transcendence and autonomy (the legacies of the Renaissance and of modernism, respectively), for the comical, almost grotesque organic form of the egg. However, set at a distant remove from examples that would underline this attitude, works such as Concetto spaziale, Venezia era tutta d’oro (Spatial Concept, Venice Was All Gold), 1961, and Concetto spaziale, New York, 1962, seem like idle flânerie, when, in fact, Fontana’s skyscrapers connote a certain irony—symbols of American efficiency turned by the artist into images of decadence. (Along these lines, one also thinks of Fontana’s 1952 “Manifesto del movimento spaziale per la televisione” [Manifesto of the Spatial Movement for Television], a written meditation on a technology that for him was the quintessential object and index of Marshall Plan–era Europe’s reconstruction and loss; the show does include his “Manifesta tecnico dello Spazialismo” [Technical Manifesto of Spatialism] from the previous year, but does not examine the statement’s gravity.)

Although Fontana’s work was not explicitly political, it was nevertheless politically aware; the artist took apart both his subjects and the act of painting even as he embraced them, carving out an idiom that functioned as its own critique. His cuts, perforations, and exploration of the materiality of surface perform the impossibility of “art,” accomplishing this from within the most traditional of media—defying the ’60s avant-garde’s rejection of painting in the process. It is this act that makes Fontana revolutionary; but left unexamined, it makes him appear reactionary.

Jaleh Mansoor is a term assistant professor at Barnard College in New York