Progression of Art
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
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
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.
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
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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York
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 - Tate Gallery, London
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