Los Angeles

Lucio Fontana, Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment), 1966/2020, rectangular room, two corridors to enter and exit, walls and ceiling lined with black fabric, flooring in polyurethane foam covered in rubber, backlit holes with green neon crystal tubes. Installation view.

Lucio Fontana, Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment), 1966/2020, rectangular room, two corridors to enter and exit, walls and ceiling lined with black fabric, flooring in polyurethane foam covered in rubber, backlit holes with green neon crystal tubes. Installation view.

Lucio Fontana

Hauser & Wirth | Los Angeles

Not long after the end of World War II, Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) surveyed the wreckage of Milan and, forgoing nostalgia, started to dream big. A black-and-white photograph included at the entrance to his recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth showed the artist clambering through the ruined shell of his old studio building with the insouciance of a child on a jungle gym. All around him, the walls left standing seem to be pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet sprays, their tortured surfaces foreshadowing the punctured monochrome paintings that he remains best known for. The first of his “Buchi” (Holes) would appear in 1949, followed by the “Tagli” (Slashes) less than a decade later. Throughout this time, however, Fontana was also developing his “Ambienti spaziali” (Spatial Environments), 1948–68, the series of architectural interventions and constructed environments to which this show was devoted. Here, his repeated strikes against the closed format of the picture plane opened onto the possibility of working with space as such.

A quote from Fontana’s 1947 manifesto that launched the Movimento Spaziale (translated somewhat absurdly as “Spacialism”) was displayed on the wall in large font: “It is impossible that from canvas, from bronze, from plaster, from plasticine, man will not move to the pure aerial, universal, and suspended image.” Moving between the materials of painting and sculpture, Fontana wound up with an image that could be released from the logic of medium specificity and pitched to the skies. Near this wall text was a black curtain through which one entered the first of his environments, Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), 1948–49/2020, which featured only a large biomorphic form, vaguely reminiscent of a spiral nebula, rendered in color-daubed papier-mâché and hung, appropriately, above our heads. Shrouded in darkness yet fluorescing under the deep-blue beams of several Wood lamps (handheld devices usually used to detect skin disorders), this object amply confirmed the artist’s fondness for cosmic analogy. Yet it could just as easily be interpreted as a painterly gesture that had been extruded from its flat surface, rendered dimensional and ultimately architectonic.

The spaces that followed testified to Fontana’s growing ambitions, as well as his remarkable consistency, over the next two decades. Twisting its way through the gallery’s rafters in one room, Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano (Neon Structure for the 9th Milan Triennial), 1951/2020, an arabesque line of glowing crystal tubing measuring nearly forty feet, is essentially a more stylish reworking of the conceit of the suspended image invoked at the outset. It recalls the free-form strokes of postwar action painting and, at the same time, wartime impressions of a firmament filled to capacity with the vapor trails of somersaulting planes, whizzing mortar rounds, and rebounding radio signals. Multiple readings are triggered with a kind of aesthetic precision, yet it is the overwhelming opulence of Fontana’s version of formalism that stands out in the end. In later works, this excessive aspect was ratcheted up to a point of vertigo, as the artist became increasingly focused on kinesthetically controlling the viewer’s passage through his works. Strikingly aggressive in its maximal program of disorientation was an Ambiente spaziale from 1966/2020, which had to be accessed through a cramped, ascending corridor in near blackness. This opened onto a dark chamber bisected by a line of holes, backlit in green neon, bored into the floor, up the walls, and through the ceiling, to form a floating rectangle of acrid light, a frame that one confronted while teetering on a thick carpet of polyurethane foam. We were summoned toward, and in a sense into, the suspended image on unsteady pins.

Sometime in the 1960s, Fontana’s work began to show clear signs of a merger with the general economy of the trans-avant-garde. One of the greatest rewards of this exhibition came with the perception of what might be termed its site specificity—that is, the fact that it was mounted in Los Angeles, launching pad of the Light and Space movement. Fontana’s expanded field practice clearly anticipated that work and, later, perhaps, responded to it as well. Most provocatively, however, it can be seen to occupy a very volatile nexus between the old-country Futurist paeans to military carnage and the tidied-up aerospace fascinations of such local heroes as Robert Irwin and James Turrell.