A DOOR TOWARDS INFINITY
“We are living in the mechanical age. Painted canvas and standing plaster figures no longer have any reason to exist. What is needed is a change in both essence and form. What is needed is the supercession of painting, sculpture, poetry, and music. It is necessary to have an art that is in greater harmony with the needs of the new spirit.” - Lucio Fontana
Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) forged a legacy with experimental new ideas that continue to influence artists today. Fontana founded a modern art movement known as Spazialismo (Spatialism), in which he tried to synthesize colour, sound, space, movement, and time, searching for innovation and confronting the mysterious properties of space. Known primarily for his I Tagli (Slashes) — a series of monochromatic canvases, painted and sliced lengthwise — arguably no other artist has been as influential with a single gesture. Fontana’s artistic career began as a sculptor, before he moved on to painting and finally his experimental neon light installations. To an extent he defies categorization, as in his own words, he didn’t want to be a painter, he didn’t want to be a sculptor, he wanted to be a spatial artist. Through a series of spatial experiments, at once a meditation and a performance, he investigated concepts of light and space, and the way he could use those two elements to create innovative and contemporary works. “Now in space there is no longer any measurement. Now you see infinity…here is the void, man is reduced to nothing,” Fontana said in 1967, in reference to the dawn of the space age, “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.”
Born at the turn of the 19th century in Rosario de Santa Fe, Argentina, Fontana moved with his family to Milan, Italy, in 1905. He initially studied sculpture with his father, Luigi, and later at the Accademia de Brera. Inspired by the belligerency of Futurism, he spent two years enlisted in the Italian army during World War I; the pure annihilation and destruction he witnessed first hand, would later feed into his art. Escaping the political turmoil of Europe, Fontana moved back to Argentina in 1922 and began making busts for his father’s workshop, which specialised in funerary monuments. As early as 1925, Fontana was gaining critical acclaim for his sculptures featuring abstract human forms and unusual materials, including a now lost life-size sculpture, Homo nero (1930), which he layered with tar. Returning to Milan in 1928, Fontana enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera where he studied with the prominent Milanese sculptor Adolfo Wildt (1868-1931). His first solo exhibition was held at the Galleria Il Milione in Milan in 1930. Throughout the 1930s, Fontana entered numerous competitions in order to gain visibility, grants, and other monetary prizes; finding a way to make a living when a lucrative career as an artist seemed tentative at best. To this end, he undertook a number of commissions for sculptural and architectural works for the fascist regime of of Benito Mussolini, including a bust of Il Duce himself, now-lost, a connection that marred his reputation for decades.
At his father’s request in 1940 he moved back to Buenos Aires, where he remained “an inveterate Germanophile,” as he confessed in 1940; three years later lamenting the fall of Musolini, whom he regarded a martyr. To Fontana Argentina was, and always would be, a cultural hinterland, yet despite this, he founded the experimental Academia de Altamira. As the professor of sculpting, he helped to promote the school’s philosophy; that in light of recent scientific discoveries, a new art was necessary to reflect the modern world. He encouraged his students to embrace new conceptual approaches to creating art, urging them to forsake painting to make innovative art, for example, encouraging them to experiment with projections, lights, and mirrors. The Manifesto Blanco (White Manifesto), published in 1946 by the artists and students of Altamira School of Arts (under the direction of Fontana), introduced the concept of Spazialismo, stating that, “Matter, colour, and sound in motion are the phenomena whose simultaneous development makes up the new art.” It advocated art’s integration with science (developing what Fontana called “the fourth-dimension”) and the renunciation of traditional materials, so as to achieve a radical new format that melded architecture, sculpture and painting, as well as embracing the subconscious.
In 1947 Fontana returned to Milan to survey the bombed-out remains of his studio on via Boccaccio. “After the terrible destruction following two world wars, Fontana asked himself, ‘What can I now paint?’ He felt a need to start again, from the beginning,” says dealer and gallerist Axel Vervoordt (A. Vervoordt quoted in “Lucio Fontana: A Primer”, 8 March 2018). For Fontana, he didn’t see it as a traumatic experience, but as a new beginning, not only for his career, but for mankind. He was obsessed by the concept of space and space travel, seeing man's move into space as not only as a pivotal moment in scientific advancement and discovery, but also as an emancipation, bringing about the end of art and man’s concept of God. He insisted that man would “no longer have materialistic ambitions... (he) will become like God, he will become spirit. This is the end of the world and the liberation of matter, of man.”
With a group of writers and philosophers, Fontana officially introduced the Spatialist movement, signing the Primo manifesto dello spazialismo (First manifesto of spatialism). In 1947, not long after the first ever photographs of Earth taken from a rocket appeared in magazines around the world, he founded the Spazialismo modern art movement. Then he had his great epiphany, in 1949 embarking on his Concetto Spaziale (spatial concept), puncturing the canvas with I buchi (holes), revealing a dark ground within. Complementing them are series of monochrome ceramics, their surfaces brutally slashed and punctured. Evocative of lunar landscapes, they too are at once rugged and serene.
“My holes are the indication of Nothingness, of Void,” Fontana wrote, likening them to the unfathomable universe. “Einstein’s discovery of the cosmos is of the dimension of the infinite, without end . . . [When] I puncture, Infinity passes there, light passes, there’s no need to paint . . . Everyone thought I wanted to destroy, but it’s not true, I’ve created.” The next decade was extremely important for Fontana, he developed the idea of spatial art through perforations in many different ways; creating Le Pietre (Stones), “icons for a new age”, some 22 luminous canvases studded with Venetian glass stones, which combined not only the spatial perforation (in the form of spiraling constellations of holes) but also the influence of light and reflections. In 1958 he had a new breakthrough idea — perhaps his most iconic — I Tagli (slashes). He started with several, attese (waiting) , with the intention of going beyond the surface of the canvas itself, a passage, a door towards infinity, reducing it to one single slash, attesa (wait).
“By slashing the canvas to create an endless void, Fontana was able to create a third dimension from which everything else would emerge,” says Vervoordt, “It was through my understanding of this concept that I discovered the power of abstract art” (ibid). These voids, created by punctured holes and gestural cuts, would, Fontana believed, always exist, despite the passage of time and material degradation of the canvas; thus imbuing his works with a sense of the eternal. By the 1960s Fontana’s “spatial concepts”, invoking the mystery of the cosmos gained newfound relevance. The space race established the moon as the next step in human exploration of an infinite and timeless universe, and as Yuri Gagarin pierced Earth’s thin shell of atmosphere, Fontana embarked on his own spatial journey, entering a new artistic realm.
La Fine di Dio (The End of God), a series of 38 single-colour oil paintings made between March 1963 and February 1964, represent the culmination of what the artist once described as his life-long artistic “research”. Fontana explained the choice of names to Carlo Cisventi in an interview in 1963: “For me, they signify the infinite, something inconceivable, the end of figurative representation, the beginning of nothing.” The pictures in the series, which are enormous, 178cm (just slightly taller than the artist himself), all egg shaped, single-colour canvases, are a marriage of avant-garde and ultra-baroque aesthetics. Deeply mystifying, Strange, mysterious and profoundly universal, these punctuated ovoid canvases emerge as the zenith of Fontana’s Concetti spaziali —evoking the primary mystery of the cosmos by expressing the beginning and ending of all existence.
Like galaxies, these oval canvases, seemingly both two and three-dimensional — invoking the fourth dimension of time and space — are a symbol of rebirth, both of a country in a stage of total transformation, and of modern man, looking out toward the stars. The influence of Fontana’s work can been seen all the way to the American minimalists, because he opened up a path. He was the first one who managed to create something — an artwork — that was neither pure painting, nor pure sculpture, it was an art object. Fontana was a visionary, man wasn’t on the moon, yet he brought man to the moon with his work, he forshadowed that man would be out there walking, carving paths on the surface, towards the future. The tendency of abstract art is not to give answers, but to ask questions; not everyone likes questions, and thus it invites attack. “It’s not true that I made holes in the canvas in order to destroy it,” Fontana once said. “I made holes in order to discover, to find the cosmos of an unknown dimension.”