Lucio Fontana, Fonti di energia (Energy Sources), 1961/2017, neon. Installation view. Photo: Agostino Osio. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana.

Lucio Fontana, Fonti di energia (Energy Sources), 1961/2017, neon. Installation view. Photo: Agostino Osio. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana.

Lucio Fontana

Lucio Fontana, Fonti di energia (Energy Sources), 1961/2017, neon. Installation view. Photo: Agostino Osio. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana.

The slashed and punctured canvases in Lucio Fontana’s series “Tagli”(Cuts), 1958–68, and “Buchi”(Holes), 1949–68, are often characterized as extreme forms of midcentury modernism’s gestural impulses, or as embodiments of the postwar era’s lingering social turmoil. Both interpretations may be valid, but the Italian-Argentinean artist’s desecration of the picture plane may in fact be best understood in the context of his immersive “Ambienti spaziali” (Spatial Environments), 1948–68. This exhibition, curated by Marina Pugliese, Barbara Ferriani, and Vicente Todolí, presented careful reconstructions of nine of these explorations of phenomenological and cosmic space—five of which had not been seen since the artist’s death in 1968—offering a rare and visceral perspective on his larger project.

A suspended arabesque, Struttura al neon (Neon Structure), 1951/2017, dramatically invited viewers into the darkened rear galleries of the cavernous Pirelli HangarBicocca, a former locomotive factory. Here, as in the original installation over a staircase at the ninth Triennale di Milano in 1951, light created a palpable sense of place in a space viewers might ordinarily pass through without paying much attention. At the far end of this nave-like gallery, a raft of crisscrossing green and blue neon tubes beckoned. Fonti di energia (Energy Sources), 1961/2017, is a ceiling installation Fontana designed for the “Italia 61” exhibition in Turin. Each using light to challenge spatial perception, these two neon interventions bookended a sequence of discrete, boxlike rooms containing the Ambienti spaziali.

It was surprising to realize that the first of these, Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), 1948–49/2017, preceded Fontana’s holes and cuts in canvases. This Day-Glo papier-mâché construction, swaying over viewers’ heads in a black-lit space, evinces his early vision of an art of perceptual experimentation, and prefigures the use of fluorescent tubes and other industrial and commercial materials by artists such as Dan Flavin, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman, and Gilberto Zorio. Fontana later pushed his own research in new directions, collaborating with the architect Nanda Vigo on a couple of narrow room-size installations, both titled Ambiente spaziale: “Utopie” (Spatial Environment: “Utopia”), 1964/2017, made for the thirteenth Triennale di Milano in 1964. One of these pieces has a steeply undulating shag-carpeted floor, reflective metallic wallpaper, textured glass dividers, and red neon lights that together generated a profound disorientation as one walked through the space.

A work titled Ambiente spaziale, 1966/2017, originally designed for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, required viewers to enter and exit a central room by crouching down and feeling their way along low, pitch-dark corridors with inclined floors. Having completed this challenge, one found oneself in a room surfaced entirely in bouncy black rubber, dimly lit by tiny green lights along the floor, walls, and ceiling. Almost the opposite experience was offered by Ambiente spaziale in Documenta 4, a Kassel, (SpatialEnvironment in Documenta 4, Kassel), 1968/2017, a labyrinth of angled white walls bathed in oppressively bright light that challenged one’s ability to differentiate between surfaces. The staged sensory stimuli of such works dissolved the separation of two-dimensional and three-dimensional perception, analogous to the ways Fontana’s canvases defy pictorial flatness.

Each of the environments seen here was remade for this exhibition, and together they constituted a chronologically sequenced restaging of Fontana’s spatial works. In his time they would never have been seen simultaneously, much less in succession, or in rooms that sometimes read as objects as much as spaces. Their presentation here revealed the inherent curatorial challenge in approaching any historical art that upends traditional uses of materials, time, and space. What was lost was the subversive impact of encountering such immersive installations among more static art objects. Nevertheless, the opportunity to actually experience such revolutionary works was a precious one. Groping and shimmying one’s way through this exhibition was fun, but also something more: Thanks to the thorough documentation of the curators’ archival research, as well as their notes on the decisions made in reconstructing each environment, the exhibition opened the door to a more comprehensive understanding of Fontana’s theoretical and material radicalism.

Elizabeth Mangini