'We do not intend to abolish the art of the past or to stop life: we want painting to escape from its frame and sculpture from its bell-jar. An expression of aerial art of a minute is as if it lasts a thousand years, an eternity.
To this end, with the resources of modern technology, we will make
appear in the sky'
(Second Spatial Manifesto, 1948, reproduced in E. Crispolti & R. Siligato (ed.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Milan, 1998, p. 118).
A vast, rare and revolutionary art-work that borders on the architectural in terms of its scale, Decorazione di soffitto is one of Lucio Fontana's Ambienti spaziali. Relatively few of these 'Spatial Environments' have survived, as they were often constructed for temporary exhibitions. In them, Fontana brought his Spatialism into the architectural realm that so fascinated him, allowing him to experiment with form and, in the case of Decorazione di soffitto, with light: he has incorporated electric elements and neon in the top, meaning that this hanging, baroque form emanates a glow upwards, illuminating its own backdrop, the ceiling. That this work was created more than half a century ago, before the neons of, say, Dan Flavin, indicates the incredible pioneering nature of this work.
In the Manifesto Blanco which was written under Fontana's auspices in Argentina while he was living there after the end of the Second World War, the seeds of Spatialism were already indicated. A new art was sought for the new era of rockets, of television, of the immaterial. In his Ambienti spaziali, Fontana often manipulated light and space in order to harness these new media. In Decorazione di soffitto, he has deliberately done so while referencing the baroque aesthetic that had been so important to him. With its gilded areas of the surface of this curving, this swirling plaster form recalls the picture frames and cornices of Baroque interiors. For Fontana and for his fellow proto-Spatialists, the signatories of the Manifesto Blanco, the Baroque had been one of the great springboards towards a modern art, a break with the staid and static past. 'Baroque was a leap ahead,' they explained.
'[It] represented space with a magnificence that is still surpassed and added the notion of time to the plastic arts. The figures seemed to abandon the flat surface and continue the represented movements in space. This conception was the consequence of the concept of existence that was developing in man. For the first time, physics expressed nature by means of dynamics. It was determined that movement is an immanent condition of matter as a principle for the understanding of the universe. 'Having reached this point of evolution, the need for movement was so great that it could only be matched by the public arts... Art continued to develop in the direction of movement' (Manifesto Blanco, reproduced in E. Crispolti & R. Siligato (ed.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Milan, 1998, pp. 115-16).
That Fontana has blended the Baroque in the forms of Decorazione di soffitto with the high-technology use of light, of something intangible in itself, reveals the continuing process of evolution in the arts, as form dissolves towards the immaterial in the form of the light shining behind the plaster element, causing the ceiling to glow.
The forms in Decorazione di soffitto recall Fontana's early sculptures, even from the pre-War years, which often penetrated space in novel ways, tendrils of material puncturing and thus defining their surroundings. This is pushed to the extreme by the monumental Decorazione di soffitto, where the undulating forms snake and cur;, turbulent yet rhythmic. The fact that there is a hole, a void, in the centre appears both to reference Fontana's other works of the time: like them, it allows Fontana to incorporate space itself within the very fabric of the work. That space is made all the more dynamic by the jutting, sinuous forms that surround it in this sculptural work. Fontana has therefore used sculpture, the discipline that was his original vocation, in order to point to its own supposed obsolescence in the new age of Space and Spatialism.
This fusion of light, space and baroque forms was something that Fontana had already explored in one of his most important works: the 1949 Ambiente spaziale a luce nera which he installed and exhibited at the Gallera del Naviglio in Milan. There, interlocking, looping forms that likewise referenced the baroque were covered in paint that reacted to ultraviolet light, the 'black light' of the title. The installation of 'Wood's light' meant that, while the light itself remained invisible, as did most of the surroundings, the forms hanging from the ceiling were made electric and vivid, an unreal, effervescent presence. In Decorazione di soffitto, Fontana has honed his ideas, creating something that is simpler in its composition and conception, and therefore all the more elegant and successful. Here, rather than a darkened room, there is a lighted ceiling which thrusts the baroque composition hanging underneath it into bolder relief, each element activating the other. Crucially, Fontana has raised his sculpture away from the traditional pedestal, instead occupying the realm of Alexander Calder. His sculpture has risen, it seems, leaving a larger space below it where a conventional work would have been displayed. It hovers, material and ethereal, while the light illuminates the ceiling, that arena for the painters of so many Italian interiors.
In creating his Decorazione di soffitto and the other Ambienti spaziali, Fontana was adding to a legacy of avant-garde interiors that had progressed throughout the Twentieth Century. Be it in the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, the studio of Piet Mondrian, the Futurist installations of Giacomo Balla and his contemporaries, there was a continuous thread of revolutionary reaction to the interior. Fontana's architectural projects reacted to this legacy with his own works, which, rather than painting the walls with colours or words or decorating them with accumulated objects, instead redefined existing spaces. Placement was key here, and Fontana's expertise in transforming an extant space would lead to numerous commissions for interiors of houses, offices and art fairs. Already in the pre-war years, Fontana had been involved in creating works for specific locations, from private houses to public memorials, and this remained a key part of his oeuvre. Indeed, it was on this scale that he felt he was creating his truest Spatial works: in Decorazione di soffitto and its rare fellow Ambienti spaziali, Fontana was able to work on the scale he desired, in the media he desired, spearheading his progress towards a new art.