‘My cuts are above all a philosophical statement, an act of faith in the infinite, an affirmation of spirituality. When I sit down to contemplate one of my cuts, I sense all at once an enlargement of the spirit, I feel like a man freed from the shackles of matter, a man at one with the immensity of the present and of the future’
‘A butterfly in space excites my imagination: having freed myself from rhetoric, I lose myself in time and begin my holes’
‘All colours bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature’
Against a sea of deep monochrome blue, five vertical slashes rip through Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese, sending never-ending ripples of energy through the immaculate surface. Executed in 1966, this work belongs to Fontana’s iconic series, the tagli, or ‘cuts’, which became the most emblematic symbol of the artist’s practice and the complete artistic encapsulation of his radical Spatialist theories. An act that was at once destructive and revelatory, iconoclastic and iconic, with the slash Fontana tore through the previously sacrosanct surface, integrating a new spatial dimension into the picture plane and in so doing, significantly redefined the boundaries of painting. Unlike the searing, fiery red or the virginal white monochromes that dominate the tagli, the velvety blue surface of the present work exudes a transcendent mysticism that engulfs the viewer. Looking at the black chasms of darkness that penetrate this luminous hue, it is as if one is gazing upwards from the earth and seeing, beyond the seemingly endless blue realm of the sky, slivers of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness: a glimpse of infinity.
With its saturated mystical blue surface, Concetto spaziale, Attese is reminiscent of the radiant International Klein Blue or IKB monochromes of Yves Klein. Fontana had first met the radical French artist in 1957, at his inaugural exhibition at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan. It was here that Fontana became transfixed by the exposition of eleven dazzling, equally sized, monochrome canvases; each one painted in Klein’s famously patented pigment, IKB. He immediately acquired one of these radical paintings, and the pair forged a lasting friendship, both sharing a mutual respect and deep admiration for the other’s work. Fontana would later recall that Klein ‘was very generous, very respectful also for my age. Each time that I went to Paris, he waited for me at the station’ (Fontana, quoted in A. White, ‘Industrial Painting’s Utopias: Lucio Fontana’s Expectations’, October, vol. 124, Spring 2008, p. 104).
Fontana immediately recognised in Klein’s monochromes an aesthetic that aligned with his own pioneering Spatialist aims. In an era of incredible scientific and technological developments, when man’s conception of the universe was significantly redefined, both artists were on a quest to create art that embodied the newly discovered concept of boundless cosmic space, moving beyond the material to the realm of the immaterial. For Klein it was colour – in particular his iconic azure shade of blue – that served as the best vehicle through which to transcend the material world and evoke a mystical, immaterial dimension. Eliminating all other traces of artistic expression – lines and forms – and expunging all traces of his own hand, Klein created a uniform monochromatic surface that could completely absorb and engulf the viewer, conjuring an endless infinite realm. ‘It is colour which bathes in cosmic sensibility’, Klein explained. ‘The line does not have the ability to impregnate, as colour does. The line cuts space... Colour impregnates it. Line rushes through infinity; colour just ‘is’ in infinity’ (Klein, quoted in T. McEvilley, ‘Yves Klein: Conquistador of the Void’, pp. 19-87, Yves Klein 1928-1962: A Retrospective, exh.cat., Houston, 1982, p. 45).
After seeing Klein’s exhibition, Fontana was, it could be argued, emboldened to return to the same all-over monochrome type that he had pioneered with his earlier buchi or ‘holes’. In the autumn of this same year, Fontana made a radical breakthrough when he slashed through the canvas in one, vertical cut, inaugurating the tagli. The first taglio was revealed to the world on the cover of the 1958 Venice Biennale, and, perhaps in homage to his friend and collaborator Klein, the work he chose to present was blue. In 1968, two years after the executed the present work, Fontana stated, ‘Klein is the one who understands the problem of space with his blue dimension. He is really abstract, one of the artists who have done something important’ (Fontana, quoted in T. Trini, ‘The last interview given by Fontana’, in W. Beeren & N. Serota (ed.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Amsterdam & London, 1988, p. 34).
Like Klein’s monochromes, Fontana’s tagli served as portals to another spatial dimension. With this series, Fontana was able, after many years of experimentation, to fully achieve his desire at creating truly Spatial artworks. In piercing the previously inviolable, infallible surface of the canvas, Fontana revealed chasms of dark, mysterious space beyond it, offering the viewer an experience of a new realm, an infinite and unknown dimension. These physical perforations also transformed the two-dimensional picture plane into a three-dimensional spatial object, incorporating space within, as well as surrounding, its physical structure. With the cut, all superfluous elements and superficial embellishments were eliminated, leaving only the supremely elegant artistic gesture, which resonates with a powerful purity and stillness. ‘With the taglio I have invented a formula that I think I cannot perfect’, Fontana emphatically declared, ‘I succeeded in giving those looking at my work a sense of spatial calm, of cosmic rigour, of serenity with regard to the Infinite. Further than this I could not go’ (Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 58).
For Fontana these cuts were not an act of destruction or violence, but were instead creative, generative and above all, emancipating marks that opened up new possibilities for art. ‘I moved beyond the limits of perspective…pushing towards a discovery of the universe and a new dimension; that of infinity’, Fontana explained. ‘It was this research that drove me to perforate the canvas, the base that had always supported all of arts, and so in doing, I created an infinite dimension, a value x that, for me, represented the base of all contemporary art…’ (Fontana quoted in P. Campiglio (ed.), ‘Milan, 10 October 1967: Carla Lonzi interviews Lucio Fontana’ in Lucio Fontana Sedici sculture, Sixteen sculptures 1937-1967, exh. cat., London, 2007, p. 39).
The inherently emancipatory nature of the slashes is also reflected in the sense of anticipatory optimism evoked by the titles of the tagli themselves. Every Attesa or ‘expectation’, a word affixed to the title of Fontana’s slash paintings, evokes not just the immeasurable space beyond the surface of the earth, but also the vastness of the human mind. Opening up the boundaries previously instilled by the confines of the canvas, Fontana was likewise seeking to expand the confines of human consciousness, leading the viewer into a new realm of heightened spiritual awareness. Embodying the mystery of an unknown future, these works are endowed with a visionary dimension. As Fontana stated, ‘In future there will no longer be art the way we understand it… No, art, the way we think about it today will cease…there’ll be something else. I make these cuts and these holes, these Attese and these Concetti… Compared to the Spatial era I am merely a man making signs in the sand. I made these holes. But what are they? They are the mystery of the Unknown in art, they are the Expectation of something that must follow’ (Fontana, quoted in L. M. Barbero (ed.), Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 47).