Italian Painter, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist
Rosario de Santa Fe, Argentina
Comabbio, Varese, Italy
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.
- In the wake of WWII, Fontana joined other artists in determining a new form of art that was informed by the rapid technological and scientific advancements of their time. Establishing a new movement called Spatialism, Fontana called for an art that would aptly reflect and respond to the experiences of space and time by unifying them in new ways. In this effort, Fontana broke away from traditional forms of painting and sculpture, making instead what he called concetti spaziale (spatial concepts) that turned objects into three dimensional spaces and turned mundane spaces into experimental environments.
- Fontana is known for creating deliberate openings in canvases, allowing the work of art to not only rest upon the surface of the support, but also to encompass the hidden spaces in between and behind the traditional surface image. He created holes, called buchi, and cuts, called tagli, that pierced the canvas materials and exposed the space behind it. These holes and cuts provide an opportunity for the unseen parts of the work to come to the fore and carry meaning.
- In addition to works that opened up canvases, Fontana was also interested in building layers on top of canvases to heighten awareness of the broader spaces of the art work. Small pieces of glass and stone were applied to the surface of canvases, inviting the natural effects of light reflection and refraction as equal actors influencing the viewer's perception of the image. Thus expanding the flat canvas, Fontana brought attention to the concept of the void, asking viewers to consider the unmapped parts of the universe and the uncertain quality of the future. Simultaneously, the glass and stone pieces show how we fill such voids, through physical objects we create as well as natural phenomena in our environment.
Biography of Lucio Fontana
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.
Important Art by Lucio Fontana
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Lucio Fontana
- Lucio FontanaSarah Whitfield / London: Hayward Publishing / 1999
- Lucio FontanaEnrico Crispolti / Milano: Electa / 1998
- Lucio Fontana: The Spatial Concept of ArtMinneapolis: Walker Art Center / 1966
- Lucio Fontana: Venice/New YorkBy Luca Massimo Barbero / New York: Guggenheim Museum / 2006
- Lucio Fontana: Ambieni SpazialiBy Germano Celant / Milan: Skira; New York: Gagosian Gallery / 2012
- Lucio Fontana: The Artist's MaterialsOur PickBy Pia Gottschaller / Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute / 2012
- ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60sBy Valerie Hillings / New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum / 2014
- Lucio Fontana: Between Utopia and KitschBy Anthony White / Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press / 2011
- Lucio Fontana, 1899-1968: A RetrospectiveOur PickNew York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / 1977
- Drawing With Light, Before Others DidBy Blake Gopnik / The Daily Beast / May 29, 2012
- Gallery View; Lucio Fontana: Slashing His Way Toward InfinityBy Michael Kimmelman / The New York Times / April 30, 1989
- Lucio FontanaBy Richard Shone / Artforum, February 2000
- Art: Works by Fontana, a Stage-Setter, On ViewBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / December 5, 1986
- Art in Review; Lucio FontanaThe New York Times / March 17, 2000
- Slashes, Scribbles and Delirium: 'Lucio Fontana: Ambienti Spaziali' at Gagosian in ChelseaOur PickThe New York Times / May 3, 2012
- Lucio Fontana, Autour d'un chef-d'oeuvre retrouveTournabuoni Art, Belgium, 1962
- Dance for preview of Lucio Fontana's ExhibitionFootage of a dance performance that was performed at the Members’ Preview of 'Lucio Fontana: The Spatial Concept of Art' - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1966
- Lucio Fontana, 'Concetto Spaziale, Atteste' (1965)Overview of work at auction by Sothebys
- Artisti del'900- Lucio FontanaOverview of Fontana - in Italian