Lucio Fontana: a primer

An examination of the life and work of the multifaceted founder of Spatialism, who blurred the space between sculpture and painting to create an ’endless void’

Italian artist Lucio Fontana at the Venice Biennale in 1966

Lucio Fontana at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Photo: Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche / Getty Images

How did Lucio Fontana lay the foundations for Spatialism?

Born to Italian parents in Rosario de Santa Fé, Argentina, in 1899, Lucio Fontana began his artistic career as a sculptor, working under his father Luigi before setting out on his own. Throughout his early years, Fontana split his time between Argentina and Italy, studying at the Accademia di Brera under Adolfo Wildt and exhibiting his works at the Milanese gallery, Il Milione.

In 1940, he returned to Argentina, in part to escape war-ravaged Europe. It was there, in 1946, that Fontana founded the Altamira academy and, with several of his students, penned the White Manifesto, wherein they stated, ‘Matter, colour, and sound in motion are the phenomena whose simultaneous development makes up the new art,’ laying the foundations for what would become Spazialismo, the Spatialist movement.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1961. Waterpaint on canvas. 24¼ x 18⅜ in (61.5 x 46.7 cm). Sold for £1,842,000 on 28 February 2023 at Christie’s in London

Slashing to create an endless void: an explanation

After the destruction of two world wars, Fontana asked himself, ‘What can I now paint?’ He felt a need to start again, from the beginning.

On returning to Milan in 1948, Fontana embarked on his Concetto spaziale (‘spatial concept’) series, which became signature — layered, monochromatic canvases riddled with buchi (holes) and tagli (cuts), the deep lacerations in the canvases 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.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Concetto spaziale, 1960. Aniline and graphite on canvas. 15⅛ x 21⅜ in (38.3 x 54.3 cm). Sold for £239,400 on 1 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

‘By slashing the canvas to create an endless void, Fontana was able to create a third dimension from which everything else would emerge,’ says the art dealer Axel Vervoordt, who has sold many of the artist’s works over the years, retaining prime examples for his personal collection. ‘It was through my understanding of this concept that I discovered the power of abstract art.’

In time, the works in the slash series were complemented by a suite of light, wood and metal works; some 22 luminous canvases studded with Venetian glass, ‘icons for a new age’ that were created for a 1961 exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi; and a series of pure white works for which Fontana designed special environments for the 1966 Venice Biennale and Documenta IV in Kassel, just before his death in September 1968.

How has the market for works by Fontana developed in recent years?

The market for Fontana has taken in the past two decades, with more than 300 works having passed the $1 million mark at auction since 2000. Among these are the radiant, egg-shaped Concetto spaziale, La Fine di Dio (1963), which sold for an artist record of $20.9 million at Christie’s New York in 2013; another work with the same title, from 1964, realised $29,173,000 in the same saleroom two years later (this remains a record price for the artist). Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (1963) realised £16,282,823 in 2018 at Christie’s in London.

The current market surge has been buoyed, no doubt, by a landmark 2014 retrospective of more than 200 Fontana paintings, ceramics, sculptures and installations, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Il Guerriero (The Warrior), 1948. Reflective glazed ceramic. 42½ x 17⅜ x 13⅜ in (108 x 44 x 34 cm). Sold for £1,362,000 on 28 February 2023 at Christie’s in London

While Fontana’s canvases have escalated in price, his editioned works — sculptures and ceramics — are in ever-increasing demand. ‘Ceramics, which a decade ago rarely sold for more than €20,000 are now commanding multiples of that,’ says Michele Casamonti, founder of Tornabuoni Art Paris, a gallery the first opened in Florence in 1981. Works by Fontana have been a mainstay of the gallery, which also has outposts in Milan, Portofino and Crans-Montana near Geneva.

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The escalation in price, Casamonti explains, is due not only to an increase in popularity but also to the limited number of works available: ‘Fontana created some 2,000 pieces over the course of his career, an output that was considerably less than that of contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.’

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