Lucio Fontana

Italian Painter, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist

Born: 1899
Rosario de Santa Fe, Argentina
Died: 1968
Comabbio, Varese, Italy
I do not want to make a painting; I want to open up space, create a new dimension, tie in the cosmos, as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture.

Summary of Lucio Fontana

The career of artist Lucio Fontana spans some of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century, from the build up to World War I to the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the Cold War. Trained initially as a sculptor, Fontana rejected the traditional constraints of particular artistic materials and techniques, choosing instead to invent his own media and methods in response to the rapidly changing world he inhabited. Fontana reinterpreted the physical and theoretical limits of art by considering art works as concepts of space, often using surprising gestures that created holes and cuts in canvases to reveal unseen spatial regions. Fontana embraced paradoxes, destroying physical and intellectual traditions in order to create new discoveries.

Accomplishments

Progression of Art

1931

Figure Nere (Black Figures)

Figure Nere is an example of Fontana's early ceramic sculpture, featuring a rough-hewn, rectangular terra-cotta slab with two black silhouetted figures, a taller one behind a shorter figure in the front. The surface of the sculpture reveals the artist's hand, with visible marks indicating the development of the form. Fontana recalls the art of earlier civilizations and introduces elements of modern art in this work, harkening back to Ancient Greek black-figure pottery in both style and name while playing with the multiple perspectives that fascinated modern abstract artists, such as the Cubists and Futurists.

The shape of the terra-cotta slab resembles the grave stones and funerary sculpture that Fontana's father had created for his clients, yet Fontana decided to disrupt this resemblance by adding implied depth to the image rather than allowing the flat surface to support similarly flat visual or textual content. By depicting one black human figure seemingly in front of another, with a significant strip of white clay obscuring the left side of the black figure to the right, Fontana reveals a physical gap in space between the two figures, showing the depth of the ambient space as it appears and is experienced in the real world. Even though his early works like Figure Nere are meant to be seen from one, frontal angle, Fontana was already exploring the idea of manipulating the materials to evoke a sensation of physical space in the image.

Painted clay - Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan

1950

Concetto spaziale (Spatial Concept)

One of Fontana's first cycles of works, the buchi (holes) series features the opening of the canvas surface to expose the space behind it. Rather than creating an image by layering colors and lines on top of the canvas, Fontana's work creates an image through the direct engagement of both the canvas's physical properties and the space that exists around it. While the viewer's mind may fill in the spaces between the punctures, creating whirling lines across the canvas, the composition is not intended to be strictly representational. Concentrated in the center of the canvas, not quite reaching the edges, the shapes and overall spectacle suggested by the holes create another dimension beyond the typically flat surface of a regular painting.

Fontana chose to call these works concetti spaziale (spatial concepts) rather than paintings, revealing his intense interest in recognizing the role of the surrounding space. Through his punctures to the surface of these works, he made the invisible space an important, visible component of the art making practice and product. Fontana was aware of the potential tension between objects and space, noting in his writings that art forms, such as paintings and sculptures, can occupy space by adding to the existing environment through tangible materials and through intangible effects (such as shadows). Yet, these forms in themselves are not the same as the space around them, prompting Fontana to search for methods to rectify these inherent boundaries.

No longer confined to physical materials, Fontana's art can exist in the infinite realm of space. Just as modern life was quickly embracing forms that could be experienced without being physically seen or felt, such as telecommunications and advancements in math and physics, modern art could similarly be composed of intangible elements, like bright lights and shadows, and reflect movement and stillness.

At the time Fontana was creating his buchi cycle, he was also working closely with post-war Italian architecture projects, including ceiling decorations for cinema houses that included punctures, or holes, creating an illusion of the cosmos hovering above. The holes suggest the realms of stars in outer space that were becoming more accessible and understood than ever before, and Fontana's embrace of the unknown voids of space reveal his fascination with the laws of physics, his excitement about man's journey into new physical and intellectual realms, and his genuine belief in the productive partnership of science and art during a time of post-war optimism and innovation.

Acrylic on canvas - Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

1951

Luce spaziale (Neon Structure)

Originally designed with architects Luciano Baldessari and Marcello Grisotti to be installed above the main stairway of the IX Triennale of Milan, this amorphous neon sculpture is an example of Fontana's Ambienti spaziali, or spatial environments - a fascinating thread of fleeting installation works that reflect the artist's interest in diverse media. These ambienti spaziali immediately followed the First and Second Spatialist manifestos of the late 1940s, in which Fontana and other artists called for the integration of science and art through the embrace of modern technology in artwork and the recognition of the creative possibilities within scientific discovery. By assembling these environments, Fontana challenged viewers to understand the artwork as a spatial experience rather than a fixed object.

The elegant bends of this neon sculpture appear as random meandering, the quintessential doodle on paper, yet the expansive scale and modern medium elevates the object to a sensational and environmental status. Moreover, by inhabiting a transitional space of the stairwell, and hanging from the ceiling above viewers' heads, the work forces the viewers to alter their traditional positioning in relation to a piece of art, with their heads raised and eyes focused above the usual line of vision. Fontana deliberately wanted his audience to feel disoriented when experiencing these installation works - sometimes keeping the installation environments in darkness, with the neon lights as the only illumination in the exhibition space - drawing attention to the unsettling sensations that accompany journeying into the unknown. Just as human kind continued to push beyond the familiar boundaries of time and space in scientific and mathematical realms, so too did Fontana ask artists and viewers alike to reimagine the established norms.

Neon lighting

1956

Concetto spaziale

Not long after Fontana experimented with punching holes in his canvases, he also experimented with adding objects on top of his canvases. In his series known as the pietre (stones) Fontana added small pieces of colored glass to his paintings that contained his signature holes. Not only was he extending the space of the artwork behind the canvas by exposing this area through punctures, he was also extending the space forward, as the colored glass pieces projected toward the viewer. What's more, the colored glass pieces allowed the physical element of light surrounding the painting to become an active agent in the image as light was captured and reflected by the individual objects.

With the addition of the glass pieces, Fontana transformed the space of the painted canvas into a kinetic field, where the properties of the physical world came in contact with the imagination and creative actions of the artist. Fontana intended to add movement to these works, hoping the light could travel through the pietre on top of the painting and also through the canvas itself with the buchi. To further encourage the energetic quality of these works, Fontana added impasto (large clumps of paint) in swirling patterns around the holes and glass pieces. These swirls of paint drag the viewer's gaze back and forth and up and down across the canvas, inviting the viewer to participate in the energetic journey into the space of the artwork. In these abstract works, Fontana anticipates later art practices that involve the physical movement of parts in artworks, such as Kinetic art, as well as those that engage real-time interactions between artist and viewer, such as Performance art.

Synthetic paint and glass fragments on canvas - Collection La Gaia, Busca

1960

Concetto spaziale, Attese (Spatial Concept: Expectations)

Once he broke the surface of the canvas with his buchi series, Fontana's experiment with more pronounced punctures on the picture plane continued. His new gesture of slicing through the canvas material gave a new series of works begun in 1958 the name tagli (cuts). This medium-sized work (measuring 40 x 32 inches) is a warm, ochre-toned monochromatic plane, sliced by one of these signature tagli, which created a dynamic vertical, slightly right-leaning diagonal line down the center of the canvas. With the tagli, Fontana abandoned any effort to provide additional ornamentation on top of the canvas, as he did with buchi works. The cut itself would serve as the concept, the process, and the product all in one, creating a new image out of both the desire to break apart assumed barriers and the gesture to open up new visible and invisible spaces.

The works in the tagli cycle, were given unique subtitles that depended on the number of cuts present in the canvases. For works with only one cut, the subtitle was attesa, the Italian word meaning expectation or anticipation. With this label, Fontana draws attention to the ongoing possibilities that lie in the unknown future, as well as man's perception of time as a psychological experience as much as a physical one. By 1960, Fontana restricted the number of tagli to between one and five after initial experimentations with several cuts running across the material's surface.

The bold monochrome colors of the tagli works resemble the abstract monochrome canvases of Fontana's contemporaries, such as Yves Klein and his signature blue monochrome paintings. Mocking the seriousness that accompanied expressive, colorful abstract painting in the post-war years, Klein ironically challenged viewers to find deeper meanings and nuanced differences in canvases that were complete monochromes in identical shades of Klein's own individual color: International Klein Blue. As a close friend of Klein, Fontana shared this rejection of the dominant tendencies, although Fontana is not considered to be the unorthodox, satirical imp of abstraction as Klein was. In Fontana's tagli paintings, the monochrome gave the slices center stage, as opposed to Klein's monochrome, which celebrated the color on its own and the genius the artist claimed in its simplicity.

The tension between presence and absence in the tagli canvases forces the artist and viewers alike to rethink common assumptions about the creative process, allowing a seemingly destructive gesture to be a constructive moment, as it creates a new region for art to exist by breaking apart another. Moving away from the creative gesture that directly stemmed from the physical, inspired movements of the artist's hands, Fontana's cuts are products of a sharp knife that minimize the trace of the artist's body and mind. The repeated cuts appear almost machine made, insisting on the productive quality of modern mechanisms rather than the timeless value of the artist himself. With an economy of means, Fontana asserts his fascination with the technologies that increasingly dominated modern life in the post-war years.

Slashed canvas and gauze - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

1959-60

Natura (Nature)

Fontana's early training in sculpture and carving is evident in a series of sculptural concetti spaziale works: terra cotta shapes subsequently cast in bronze, each work subtitled Natura (Nature). Here, much like the simple yet impactful shapes produced by the cuts in his painted canvases, Natura has an elemental, raw appearance. Fontana's rough-edged bronze sphere is interrupted by a horizontal slit across the center, lending a surprisingly energetic quality to this fixed object, which sits directly on the gallery floor. As with his holes and cuts, the horizontal gash in the Natura sculptures are the physical traces of a decisive artistic movement, implying the motion and energy of the art making process while also suggesting the opening up of new areas where art can exist. Despite Fontana's earlier interest in removing the physical trace of the artist's hand in his paintings, Fontana created this series of sculptures that could only have been shaped by the artist himself. Thus, Fontana never completely gave up on the role of the artist, though the shapes he produced were intended to draw attention to the natural phenomena surrounding us that are not direct products of man's creation. Instead, these phenomena are properties and forces that man constantly interacts with. In attempting to further remove the distinctions between different objects and the spaces they occupy, including living beings and their natural environments, Fontana plays with different techniques that at once illuminate and obscure the artist behind the art work.

The title for this series of sculptures, Natura, recalls objects and experiences that are present if not strictly visible in the artwork, such as the elements of the natural environment on Earth as well as the natural elements orbiting around us in space. With these references in mind, Fontana's sculpture is not only a product of a past creative moment that exists in the present for the viewer, but it also indicates the timeless quality of objects in space. Fontana conveys these themes through his simplicity of forms, allowing the materials to carry meaning even in their understated appearances.

Bronze - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

1968

Concetto spaziale (Spatial Concept)

This late concetto spaziale work, completed during the final year of the artist's life, features thick, impasto oil paint surrounding the central hole, representative of Fontana's olii (oil) technique. Here, we are presented with a monochromatic white canvas that defies its apparent simplicity with the artist's delicate, serpentine marks, making three rings around an aggressive puncture in the center. Fontana further enhanced the spatial complexity of the puncture by applying thick layers of white oil paint around the opening's edges. Unlike the smooth surfaces of the monochrome tagli works and the precise, straight edges of the cuts along the canvases, the textured holes of the olii series reveal the physical movements of the artist in an anxious, fretful way.

In these later olii works, Fontana made aesthetic choices that implied emotions, such as anxiety and restlessness, offering a raw, almost primitive, glance at the creative impulse. Thick amounts of paint, energetically ripped holes in the canvas, and scratched lines into the paint surface seem hastily made, remnants of frenetic physical movements and an unsettled state of mind. With this series of works, Fontana returns to constructing layers of paint upon the surface of the canvas while also rendering gaps in the physical support, forcing the artwork to spread out in different directions that project towards viewers and recede from them at the same time. As he had with his early ceramics, Fontana used his bare hands to enlarge the holes in the olii canvases. Even as Fontana encouraged active conversation between technological mechanisms and sophisticated scientific principles with the process of art making, he was able to maintain the central role of the artist, the human presence. The eventual tension and psychological conflict that results from the constant march of progress is not ignored by Fontana, regardless of his tireless curiosity.

Oil on canvas - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Biography of Lucio Fontana

Early Life and Training

Lucio Fontana was born in Rosario de Santa Fe, Argentina in 1899 to Lucia Bottini, an Argentinian actress of both Swiss and Italian descent, and Luigi Fontana, an Italian sculptor of commemorative and funerary monuments who had emigrated to Argentina. His parents never married and eventually separated in 1905, when Fontana moved to Italy for schooling, living with relatives in Varese, where his studies included architecture, physics, engineering, math, and the arts. As a young scholar, Fontana was enamored with the Futurists' rejection of older ways of making and seeing art, encouraging art to be of its time rather than to perpetuate the norms of the past that no longer serve the contemporary artist.

Like many Futurists, Fontana volunteered for the Italian army during World War I, serving from 1916 to 1918. He reached the rank of second lieutenant in the infantry regiment and was discharged from service with a silver campaign medal after suffering an arm injury. Although Fontana showed an early attraction to the "action squadrons" of the nascent fascist movement in Italy immediately after the war, he was weary from his war experience and distanced himself from the growing political energy in Italy. He continued his university studies after the war, graduating as a master builder from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera. Leaving the growing political unrest of Italy and the rest of Europe behind, Fontana and his family returned to Argentina in the early 1920s, when Fontana joined his father's firm, Fontana y Scarbelli, which specialized in graveyard sculptures. However, rather than carry on his father's firm upon his retirement, Fontana decided to open his own sculpture workshop in Rosario in 1924.

Early Career

By the mid-1920s, Fontana had begun to exhibit his sculpture in Argentinian biennials, salons, and group exhibitions, including the VIII Salon de Bellas Artes in 1925. Fontana's competitive spirit guided him to prove himself as "the best sculptor," and not only of the funerary busts he had become known for. Through these exhibition opportunities, Fontana was able to experiment with his aesthetic approaches to sculpture, moving beyond the commercial styles he had completed so far.

Fontana returned to Italy in 1927 to study under the famed sculptor Adolf Wildt at Milan's Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera once more. Wildt's expressive and grandiose style in his marble busts contrasted the measured, realist tendencies in academic art in Italy at the time. In this program, Fontana excelled at carving and was considered his mentor's protégé, inspired by Wildt's dramatic contrasts to experiment with distortions of human representations through shape, color, and material. He received his diploma in 1930, coincidentally the same year that he first participated in the Venice Biennale.

After this monumental achievement, greater recognition followed, beginning with his participation in a group exhibition at the Galeria del Milione in Milan in 1930, followed by his first solo exhibition at the same gallery in 1931. In his solo show, Fontana revealed his most innovative works to date, displaying sculpture that experimented with abstracted human forms and unexpected materials, such as the layer of tar on a now-lost life-sized sculpture called Homo nero (1930).

Throughout the 1930s, Fontana often entered competitions with monetary prizes, finding a way to make a living when a lucrative career as an artist seemed tentative at best. He also made many sculptural and architectural works for the Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini, including a now-lost bust of Benito Mussolini himself. Fontana's willing acceptance of the government's commissions proved a lasting difficulty for the artist, as his connection to fascism marred his reputation for decades. Even though he was not a fascist, nor particularly political, as Anthony White asserts, Fontana's readiness to complete commissions for private patrons and the fascist state reflects his yearning for public recognition and financial freedom in these years.

Fontana's artistic output from this early period is strikingly conservative in contrast to his later work, although he began experimenting with abstracted forms by the early 1930s. Indeed, in 1935, he participated in one of the earliest known group exhibitions of Italian abstract art, held in Turin, and he was among the artists who signed the "Manifesto for Abstract Art" in the exhibition brochure. Over the course of the next several years, Fontana became known for his experimental, polychromatic ceramic work, earning him the reputation as an "abstract ceramicist," as described by F. T. Marinetti in the 1938 Futurist manifesto, "Ceramica e Aeroceramica (Ceramic and Aeroceramic)." Working alongside other Futurist artists in the small town of Albisola in Italy's Ligurian coastal region, Fontana earned a decent income selling his ceramic sculptures, especially figurines of land and marine animals. In his ceramics, Fontana played with both abstract and figurative subject matter, striking colors and unorthodox processes, finding ways to manipulate the forms to suit aesthetic preferences and his personal fancies.

In 1937, Fontana spent time in Paris, learning techniques from the famous Sevres porcelain workshop and becoming friends with other contemporary artists, including Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, and Joan Miro. Fontana admired the elegance of Brancusi's sculptures, while being fascinated by the unlimited prospects of abstraction. At the dawn of the Second World War, Fontana left what would become war torn Italy in 1940 at his father's urging. Though Fontana initially resisted leaving, enjoying the financial rewards of his art and the increasing public acknowledgement he was receiving in Italy, Fontana finally joined his father and stepmother back in Argentina. Some have speculated that he wanted to avoid further military service, whereas others believe Fontana wanted to participate in art competitions in Argentina, such as a competition for the "Monument to the Flag" sculpture in Rosario. Though he did not win this particular commission, Fontana pressed on in Argentina. In 1944, he was awarded first prize at the XXXIV Salon Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires for his sculpture, Mujer herida (Injured Woman). The precise and painful realism of this work gained Fontana critical attention, marking a significant shift in his confidence and perception of his place in the artistic community of Argentina.

While Fontana taught at traditional art schools in Argentina, such as the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes 'Manuel Belgrano', he also helped found the more experimental Altamira cultural center. This dichotomy between tradition and experimentation is evident throughout Fontana's early career, undoubtedly influenced by working alongside his father, who died in 1946. In the fall of 1946, together with students from the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, Fontana drafted the "Manifesto Blanco" (White Manifesto). Taking after the Futurists and their manifestos of artistic purpose, the Manifesto Blanco called for a "completed reformation of society through science and art". In 1947, Fontana returned to Europe. Waiting for him in Italy when he arrived was Teresita Rasini, whom Fontana had met before he left for Argentina and had maintained casual contact with while he was away. They would marry, but not until 1952, over two decades after they first met.

Mature Period

Fontana returned to Italy with a renewed sense of artistic purpose: creating a new experience of art that transcended traditional boundaries of media, blending the realms of painting, sculpture, and architecture, and letting the principles of science help redefine the physical existence of works in space. In Milan, he discovered that his studio and his works had been destroyed by the Allied bombing of Italy. As art historian Pia Gottschaller observes, this discovery could have been at once psychologically depressing and liberating. And, the destruction of the city itself led to his work on reconstructing and redecorating the city, beginning a new phase of collaboration with other artists and taking advantage of the chance to work with larger architectural and natural environments. Artists themselves in Milan were divided, as the Communist Party favored realism, pushing abstract artists to form their own ideological stances. For his part, Fontana threw himself in the artistic and cultural debate, encouraging heated conversations between art authorities, such as the critic Giampiero Giani and the art dealer Carlo Cardazzo, among other writers, architects, and visual artists.

Most notably, he embarked upon the formation of Spazialismo (Spatialism) in 1947, formalized with the publication of the "Primo Manifesto dello Spazialismo" (First Spatialist Manifesto). In the manifesto, the artist and co-authors call for a liberation of art from the elements it is made from, choosing to focus on art's meaning beyond the life of its materials. With the "Secondo Manifesto Spaziale," (Second Spatialist Manifesto), from March 1948, the Spatialists emphasized using modern technology to achieve new forms and encouraged artists to be at the forefront of scientific innovation. Fontana pushed the potential of these ideals, challenging himself, other artists, and his viewers to experience space and time beyond the traditional borders of the image's surface and its designated exhibition area. Greatly influenced by Einstein's theories of space-time, Fontana saw the potential for creating "a new dimension of the Infinite" with art, allowing the creative impulse to transcend man's previous understanding of the universe.

In January 1957, Fontana turned from creator to collector after a visit to the Apollinaire Gallery in Milan. It was here that Yves Klein first exhibited his Blue Monochromes. Fontana was one of only two buyers to purchase works from the exhibition, marking the beginning of his friendship with Klein, which benefitted both artists personally and professionally. Fontana was an early admirer and supporter of Klein's work, while Klein helped introduce Fontana to the contemporary art scene by inviting Fontana to visit him in Paris.

Coincidentally, 1957 was also the year that Russia launched "Sputnik" into space. Fontana viewed humanity's journey to space as a piercing of the unknown. Similarly, Fontana sought to mine the infinite possibilities of art. The artist explained his particular inspiration to Carla Lonzi in 1967, asserting that "Now in space there is no longer any measurement...The sense of measurement and of time no longer exists ... and so, here is the void, man is reduced to nothing ... And my art too is all based on this purity[,] on this philosophy of nothing, which is not a destructive nothing, but a creative nothing..."

Late Period

Fontana continued working on his Spatialist projects during the 1960s, and he received significant international attention in the last decade of his career. Beyond his previous themes and series, he was unsatisfied with the conventional practice of painting canvases that rest on easels and invited unconventional painting methods into his experiments in Spatialism, including painting canvases on the floor.

Throughout the 1960s, Fontana also began reintroducing evidence of his own hand in his works. He created paintings and sphere-like sculptures with gaping holes in their centers, with thick accumulations of paint and clay built up at the holes' edges, as if they were ripped apart by sheer force. In an interview from 1962, Fontana states that his work of these years "indicates the restlessness of contemporary Man. The subtle tracing...is the walk of Man in space, his dismay and fear of getting lost; the slash...is a sudden cry of pain, the final gesture of anxiety that has already become unbearable". Even as he experimented with new ideas, the powerful lines, holes, and cuts continued to captivate him, signaling possibilities for further exploring the unknown and, at the same time, serving as evidence of the unsettling anticipation he shares with the rest of humankind about the very same unknown space and time.

All the way up to his death of cardiac arrest in 1968, at age sixty-nine, Fontana never stopped exploring the possibilities of dissolving the distinctions between forms and the surrounding space.

The Legacy of Lucio Fontana

Fontana's contributions did not exist in a vacuum, but rather permeated current and future creative experiments in contemporary art in Europe and beyond. During his lifetime, Fontana's abstract works encouraged a younger generation of artists known as the ZERO group, an international cadre of experimental artists, largely based in Germany. The ZERO group sought to diminish the role of the artist in the creative process, focusing instead on the behaviors of the materials and the environmental contexts in which they exist. Like Fontana, these artists viewed features of the physical world, such as light, space, and movement, as key actors in art. Fontana actively supported these younger artists, both philosophically and financially, even purchasing at least one work by the group's cofounders Heinz Mack.

As a friend and fellow artist, the highly innovative Yves Klein was inspired by Fontana's conceptual forays into the "infinite possibilities of the fourth dimension" and his inclusion of natural elements in his art practice. He was encouraged by Fontana's constant pursuit of the unknown, and shared Fontana's belief that art and art making was an adventure and a reflection on the contemporary human spirit rather than a static object or tradition.

Within Italy, Fontana's work was closely associated with the ideology of Arte Povera, or "poor art," an Italian movement marked by its members' use of ordinary materials, first described by the Italian critic Germano Celant in 1967. Rejecting traditional materials and methods, Arte Povera artists used textiles, metals, and organic materials to reference both natural phenomena and human activity in their art. For example, the art of Giovanni Anselmo experiments with the laws of physics and gravity in his sculptures that balance objects between the gallery walls. Just as Fontana's art invited the surrounding space into the realm of the image and even tried to disintegrate the boundary between the art work and its ambient environment, works by Arte Povera artists challenged the borders between the image space and the viewing space, blurring the lines between fine art and the physical world, between artistic materials and unconventional objects.

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