‘In his nocturnal tribute Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita, we sense the forms and rhythms of the empty spaces of the colonnades of the Piazza immersed in a “black light” that vibrates with the device of the coloured pietre, like tessere torn from a destroyed mosaic and tossed in the air’
LUCA MASSIMO BARBERO
‘If, at first, closed in his towers, the artist represented himself and his stupor and the landscape he saw through the panes of glass, and, then, descended from the castles into the cities, knocking down the walls and mixing with other people, he saw at close hand trees and objects, today, we, Spatial artists, have escaped from our cities’
‘I moved beyond the limits of perspective…pushing towards a discovery of the universe and a new dimension; that of infinity. 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…’
An ever-changing, animate play of light, space, colour and pictorial concept all interacting on a dark, flat, thickly-painted square surface Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita (‘Spatial concept, In piazza San Marco at night with Teresita’) is a defining work from Lucio Fontana’s much-celebrated cycle of paintings: the Venezie. This sequence of twenty-two large-scale, sumptuously ornate and often dazzlingly reflective, Baroque–inspired oil paintings, made between the spring and summer of 1961 and dedicated to the theme of Venice, are today recognised as the painterly culmination of Fontana’s Spatialist research.
Taking the form of an oil painting made on canvas, Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita is, as its title suggests, a ‘spatial concept’ centred upon the image, architecture and idea of one of the most famous, historic, romantic and frequently-painted places on earth: St Mark’s Square in Venice. More than this however, it is an image of the piazza San Marco by night. Shimmering, dark, and also illusive in its play of light, shadow and fluid surface, the painting is therefore, also reflective of nocturnal Venice and of the floating city’s illustrious history as a place of love, mystery, romance and illusion.
Here, the abstract and the celestial are linked to the figurative and the terrestrial through the conceptual language of Fontana’s Spatialist vision. In a simple, visually associative way, Fontana has employed the elegant abstract and conceptual language of his art – his highly tactile and seemingly still fluid, light-reflecting black paint, radiant, sparkling Murano-glass stones (pietre) and an architectural grid of punctured holes (or buchi) – to conjure an image in the viewer’s mind that approximates the sensation of the piazza San Marco by night, as if seen from a multitude of viewpoints.
Among the first of this rare and magnificent sequence of ‘paintings’ dedicated to the city of Venice, Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita is unique among the Venezie, however, in the way in which, within its single image, it not only encapsulates many of the themes and ideas of the cycle as a whole but renders them in a way that is both universal, and also distinctly personal at the same time. Fontana’s title for this work specifies the unique time, place and locale of this Concetto spaziale (‘Spatial concept’), inscribing the picture as being at night, in St Mark’s Square, and, uniquely, with his wife, Teresita. This inclusion of his wife in the scene is a dedication that bestows upon this Venezia not merely an invocation of Venice as a famous locale of romantic dreams but also as a place of particular personal significance for the artist. Through the prism of Venice, therefore, Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita is a work that spectacularly combines both a highly personal and specific sense of earthly time and place with a broader, Spatialist understanding of the universal play of light, space and time throughout the cosmos.
Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita was one of the initial eleven Venezie that Fontana conceived specifically for a major exhibition held in July 1961, entitled Arte e Contemplazione (‘Art and Contemplation’), which was organised in the Palazzo Grassi by the French critic, curator and champion of the Informel, Michel Tapié. Deliberately ostentatious and Baroque Spatialist visions, these works were conceived as an homage to and evocation of Venice and its tradition in art. They are the most painterly of all Fontana’s creations and marked an exultant culmination of the artist’s long-term pictorial experiments with light and space, along with a more recently developed interest in the physical possibilities of paint, and its capacity for both artifice and abstraction. Rendered in a thickly impastoed, glossy, black, synthetic oil, the fluid, glass- encrusted surface of Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita declares a sensuous materiality that also imbues the picture with a distinctly sculptural quality. It has been constructed with such an insistent focus on the rigid geometry of this iconic architectural site, that it appears also to amalgamate much of Fontana’s lifelong interest in architecture. In this way, Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita is a work that, like many of the Venezie, seamlessly integrates painting, sculpture and architecture – the three principal areas of Fontana’s artistic research – into a triumphant union.
A city he knew intimately, Venice was a site of enormous significance, both personal and professional, for Fontana. It was the place in which he had made his reputation as a pioneering Spatialist artist in the Biennales and forged important relationships with collectors, gallerists and dealers, many of whom became his lifelong friends. More importantly however, it was the city in which he and his wife had spent their honeymoon and, over the following years, the couple frequently returned to the city together, with Teresita often accompanying Fontana for his stays during the Biennales.
While the image itself is an abstract Spatialist construction, the title that Fontana has bestowed upon Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita is one that immediately imbues the work with a suggestion of romanticism. A number of works of the Venezie have these unabashedly romantic, gently lyrical subtitles – ‘Night of Love in Venice’, ‘At Dawn Venice was all Silver’ or ‘Moon over Venice’, but this is the only example in the series in which Fontana appears to make reference to a specific moment in time spent in the city along with its direct biographical reference to his wife. With many of these romantically inspired titles, Fontana was playing with the idea of the kitsch, romantic sentimentality that had come to define Venice in the more recent past. Cut off from the rest of the world, the floating city with its sparkling light, intense colours, opulent gilded architecture and picturesque vistas and winding walkways offered a magical fantasy, a place of romantic escapism far removed from the real world. It was the British Romantics and the pleasure-seeking tourists of the Grand Tour of the 18th and early 19th Century that propagated the idealised version of Venice, fictionalising the city as a place of hedonism, romance, indulgence and fantasy. This concept continued to perpetuate over time. The archetypal city of love, honeymoons and marriage proposals, the city became the ultimate romantic cliché; a place for starry-eyed lovers to cruise the canals in gondolas, serenaded by musicians, or wander the deserted moonlit streets holding hands; an overblown parody of itself that was expounded in popular culture, mass-media and advertising. Seen within this context, Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita captures a sense of this kitsch romanticism for which Venice had become so well known. Hovering between romance and overt cliché, it amalgamates, like the rest of the Venezie, both the romanticism of Venice’s past and the populist myth of the contemporary city, blending high and low culture in one enigmatic, deeply poetic image.
Fontana executed Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita and the Venezie in his Milan studio, working simultaneously and intensively on different works in the group. Abstract in their appearance yet nearing narrative in their supposed subject, together they play out like an imaginary diary of fleeting yet vivid sensory and visual memories, presenting a tale of life wandering through the city at different times of day. Unusually for Fontana, he inscribed each of the Concetti spaziali – the all-encompassing title he had used for his multi-faceted production since the late 1940s – with descriptive subtitles that directly reference memories, both seen, felt or experienced, of Venice: ‘Venice was all Gold’, ‘At Dawn Venice was all Silver’, ‘Venice Flooded’, or ‘Festivity on the Grand Canal’. Of the twenty-two Venezie that Fontana made in total, the artist bestowed such titles upon almost all of them. Only four works remain untitled. Following the Palazzo Grassi show, Fontana immediately made at least four more Venezie, three of which he included in a selection of ten ‘Venice’ paintings that he chose to represent him at his first ever one-man show in America, held at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, in November 1961. At some point during 1961, Fontana also made seven other ‘Venice’ paintings, all on the same, 150 x 150cm square-canvas format. The Venezie offered two different experiences of Venice: some conjure contemplative, poetic atmospheric conditions and light effects – the moon rising over the lagoon, or the city at dawn, for example – while others are based on specific architectural locations and anecdotal impressions – the site of a wedding taking place, the image of swirling Baroque marble volutes of church façades in the city, and most prominently, the Piazza San Marco.
With its black, shimmering surface, Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita presents a unique combination of these two distinct themes, blending atmosphere, topography and autobiography in a single image. Serving as the symbolic embodiment of the beauty, culture and distinction of the city as a whole, the Piazza San Marco with its elegant colonnades, geometric pattern of polished white tiles, sweeping vistas and bustling day-to-day activity had provided rich subject matter to artists across all ages. Fontana was no exception: the powerful iconography of the square served as the inspiration for four of the Venezie series, and was the only topographical site to which he returned more than once.
Initially, the Piazza served as the starting point for the present work and one other, Concetto spaziale, Mezzogiorno a piazza San Marco (‘Spatial concept, Noon in Piazza San Marco’) (Private collection), which presents a dazzling day time impression of the heaving energy of the square at noon, filled with people and flooded with an all-encompassing golden light. Encircled with an amorphously shaped ring of gold, the centre of the glowing, almost lurid yellow canvas is punctured with a swarming array of randomly sized and placed buchi, heightening the sense of light flooding in from all angles across the densely packed square. Hanging next to each other in the Palazzo Grassi exhibition, these two pendant works worked in perfect accord, creating an emphatic yet deeply poetic juxtaposition of night and day, darkness and light, ordered geometry and organic arbitrariness.
The insistent geometric structure of Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita is heightened by the linear rows of constellation-like holes that puncture the surface of the canvas. The most radical act of Fontana’s artistic idiom, these linear trails of perforations create minute chasms of intangible darkness, serving, as in all of Fontana’s buchi, as portals to another realm; an infinite, unknown and boundless space filled with possibility and mystery. In this way, the real, topographical space of the square exists within a wider, more conceptual spatial realm; transcending the specific location from which it was inspired, to exist in a universal spatial dimension. Its centre strewn with glass pieces that appear like an astral vision of stars and cosmic matter, it is a work that both instantly evokes Venice as much as the artist’s otherworldly Concetti spaziali of the previous years; a bold new conception of an earthbound location set within a cosmic realm.
The formation of the holes also carries an architectural implication. The enclosed rectangular shapes created by the rhythmic rows of perforations form the outline of the elaborate three-tiered colonnades that line the square, creating an aerial vision of the architecture, as if viewed from the Campanile or from an even higher vantage point: from outer space. Fontana’s interest in architecture was deep and long lasting and therefore it is not surprising that the geometric structure of the Piazza, complemented and repeated by the rectangular formation of the Basilica nearby, were of particular interest to him. The studies that Fontana executed in preparation for the present work emphasise the clear connection he made between the square and its inherent geometry. In all of the small sketches, Fontana drew squares within squares, speckled with different arrangements of holes.
With all his work of various media, Fontana, who had once called himself a ‘space artisan’, was looking to explore how matter exists within space, seeking to sculpt space itself and integrate it as an active component of his artwork. In the present work, Fontana has constructed form from negative space. The holes that puncture the canvas – black chasms of emptiness – serve paradoxically as physical entities, implying the rhythmic pattern of architectural pillars that intersect the all-encompassing black void of night. Enveloped in darkness, the cavernous, empty square is conveyed via its essential architectural framework, implying, through absence, its presence. In this way, Fontana has revealed the inherent order and essential structure that lay beneath the extravagant ornamentation of the city. At night, when all the lavish confections and architectural adornments were shrouded in darkness, the light no longer catching the gilded domes nor sculpted marble façades, and the hoards of people gone, all that remains is the architectural imprint of the city; in this case, the regulated, geometric formations of the columns that line the enclosed rectangle of open space.
As with a number of the Venezie, in Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita, Fontana returned to the pieces of coloured Murano glass that he had affixed to the surface of the punctured canvases with the series of Pietre (‘Stones’) begun in the early 1950s. While in previous Pietre, these glass pieces conjured stellar-like constellations, in the Venezie, the addition of this embellishment had a resonant iconographic significance. Nowhere were these jewel-coloured pieces more ubiquitous than in the fantastically ornate Basilica of Saint Mark. In addition to the dazzlingly decorated façade and mosaic-lined walls and cupolas, standing in the centre of the church is the Pala d’Oro, a rectangular-shaped Byzantine gilded altar panel embellished with enamel plaques and a plethora of precious stones. Sparkling against the black surface, the jewel-coloured stones of Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita have clear allusions to these extravagantly decorative designs, their rectangular enclosure particularly reminiscent of the jewel-encrusted Pala d’Oro. Capturing the essence of the gilded wonders for which St Mark’s, and Venice as a whole is known, Fontana created a modern day version of these spectacular adornments, relishing the architectural splendour of the city and distilling it into his unique Spatialist form.
The imposing physicality and self-declaring materiality of Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita was achieved through Fontana’s adoption of a new plastic, synthetic-based paint. Spread, poured, dabbed, raked or even applied by the artist’s own hand, the surface of the work takes on a thick and visceral sculptural quality. Applied with a palette knife, the densely applied black pigment covers the surface of the canvas like a pool of water, its soft undulations creating the effect of gentle ripples reverberating across the top of this reflective surface. The enhanced fluidity and manipulability of this medium encouraged a heightened painterliness and an even further breaking down of the traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture. Most of all, the new plasticity of this shiny paint allowed Fontana a freedom to engage with the whole history and tradition of oil painting and picture-making which, in Italy at least, was rooted strongly in the history and idea of Venice and the story of Venetian art. The result of this was that, in part, what Fontana created in the cycle of Venezie that he made in 1961, was a series of playful and highly inventive anti-paintings: pictures that appear to pastiche and mock the art of oil painting at the very same time that they pay tribute to it and to the magical city where, in Italy least, it had begun.
In this way, Fontana, in Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita and the rest of the Venezie, produced not only the most complex, multi-layered, painterly expressions of his entire career, but also an outstanding series of works that also seem to reveal and reflect upon the endless fascination, elemental nature and ultimate redundancy of their own medium. Openly ambiguous, complex, fascinating, radiant and dazzling, these paintings are gloriously faux, Baroque articulations of light, colour energy and material form all coalescing together into a single concept or idea. It is a concept that, like Venice itself, however, seems somehow to be suspended in space – somewhere between heaven and earth. In this way, Fontana’s magnificent pictures are an expression of the Spatialist artist’s deeply held belief that, in the end, as with the city of Venice itself, it is spirit that triumphs over matter and the idea of the place that transcends its material, earthbound reality. In the new Spatialist era of the future, Fontana wrote: ‘art is going to be a completely different thing...Not an object, nor a form...Nothing more to do with bourgeois consumption, beauty attached to a sellable object. Art is going to become infinite, immensity, immaterial, philosophy... Enough with the bourgeois function of art. Open the doors’ (L. Fontana, Art et création I, 1968, p. 78).