Angela M.H. Schuster examines the work of the multifaceted founder of Spatialism and the man who created the endless void
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.
Slashing to create an endless void: an explanation
‘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 tastemaker Axel Vervoordt, who acquired his first work by the Spatialist from the late Belgian painter Jef Verheyen in 1968, when Vervoordt was just 21. It was Verheyen’s profound grasp of Fontana’s work, says Vervoordt, that led to the dealer’s own ‘aesthetic awakening’.
On returning to Milan in 1948, Fontana embarked on his Concetto Spaziale (spatial concept), his signature slash series of layered monochromatic works 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.
‘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, who has sold some 40 Fontana works over the years, retaining three 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 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 off, with some 200 works having passed the $1 million mark at auction since hitting that benchmark in 2004. 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 November 2013; Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio, 1964, which realised $29,173,000 in the same saleroom two years later; the white 10-slash Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1965, which passed its £6 million high estimate at Christie’s London in July 2014; Concetto spaziale, Attese, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresite, which realised £10,021,250 in October 2017; and Concetto spaziale, Attese, also from 1965, which achieved £8,671,250 in March 2018. 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.
While Fontana’s canvases have escalated in price, his editioned works — sculptures and ceramics — are in ever-increasing demand. ‘Ceramics, which five years ago rarely sold for more than €20,000 are now commanding five times that,’ says Michele Tornabuoni of her eponymous family-run gallery, which opened its doors in Florence in 1981. Works by Fontana have been a mainstay of the gallery, she says, which now has outposts in Milan, Portofino, London and Paris.
The escalation in price, Tornabuoni 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 Picasso and Miró.’