Lucio Fontana - Biography and Legacy
Italian Painter, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist
Rosario de Santa Fe, Argentina
Comabbio, Varese, Italy
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.
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.
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..."
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.