With its blazing red surface pierced by a single vertical incision, Concetto Spaziale, Attesa is a rare and totemic masterwork that stands among Lucio Fontana’s six largest single-cut paintings. Of the four red works in this grouping, it is one of only two remaining in private hands, with others residing in the Menil Collection, Houston and the Kunsthaus Zürich. Executed in 1966, two years before Fontana’s death, the work brings the drama and lyricism of his oeuvre to a grand crescendo, offering a radiant vision of pure, elemental clarity.
Working at the height of the Space Age, the artist pioneered a radical new art form—known as “Spatialism”—that sought to reflect contemporary advancements in science and technology. Five years earlier, Yuri Gagarin had completed his seminal orbit of the Earth; three years later, the Apollo 11 mission would land humankind on the Moon. With the cosmos opened up as never before, Fontana carved a new fourth dimension for art, revealing the uncharted space behind the canvas. Though he employed a rich chromatic spectrum throughout his oeuvre, as indicated by the inscription on the back of the present work, red remained one of his most iconic hues. The following year, he would immortalize the color in his landmark installation Spatial Environment in Red Light, reconstructed for the Met Breuer’s acclaimed retrospective in 2019.
The roots of Spatialism may be traced to the 1940s, when Fontana—along with a group of avant-garde artists in his native Argentina—published the Manifesto Blanco (1946). As the world attempted to regain its bearings in the aftermath of the Second World War, the document proposed that art should look beyond the confines of the Earth. “We live in the mechanical age,” it declared. “Painted canvas and upright plaster no longer have a reason to exist.” Instead, it called for a new form of art “based on the unity of time and space” (L. Fontana et al, Manifesto Blanco, Buenos Aires, 1946). By perforating the surface of the canvas—initially through his series of buchi (“holes”), and later through the theatrical sweeps of the tagli (“cuts”)—Fontana succeeded in producing a visual record of temporal motion, capturing the creative gesture as it unfolded in real time. The stretched canvas was no longer simply a support for representation, nor even an object in the sculptural sense. Instead, it had become a field of possibility in which invisible energetic forces collided: an interdimensional concetto spaziale (“spatial concept”), surrounded by an infinite void. “I do not want to make a painting,” said Fontana. “I want to open up space” (L. Fontana, quoted in J. van der Marck and E. Crispolti, La Connaissance, Brussels, 1974, p. 7).
Begun in 1958, Fontana’s tagli represent the culmination of his artistic ambitions. Unlike the buchi, which conjured constellations and solar systems, the balletic, near-calligraphic beauty of the slashes evoked comets rippling through space or the explosive upward motion of rocket launches. Such imagery is particularly potent in relation to Fontana’s single-cut works, such as the present, in which the isolated incision conveys a sense of speed, direction and progress. These canvases might also be seen to relate to the sublime power of Barnett Newman’s “zip” paintings—such as the monumental Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) —which Fontana is likely to have encountered during a trip to New York in 1961. While Newman sought emotional transcendence, however, Fontana intended his tagli to inspire solemn contemplation of humanity’s place within the universe. The word “attesa”, appended to many of his titles, translates as “waiting” or “expectation”, capturing the sense of philosophical reflection and suspense that his works aimed to induce. “They are the mystery of the Unknown in art,” he said of his cuts; “they are the Expectation of something that must follow” (L. Fontana, quoted in Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2006, p. 47).
The notion of “expectation” also corresponds with Fontana’s own deeply contemplative approach. In preparation for each of his tagli, he would sit and watch the canvas for extended periods of time, waiting for the right moment to strike. “I need a lot of concentration,” he explained. “… Sometimes I leave the canvas there propped up for weeks before I am sure what I will do with it, and only when I feel certain do I begin” (L. Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 82). The artist would begin by applying waterpaint to the canvas using a brush, ensuring that the surface remained free from any trace of his hand. Then, with great care and methodical precision, he would slice the canvas from top to bottom with a knife, using a single, sweeping gesture.
While many of Fontana’s early tagli feature multiple small incisions, he gradually refined his process, lengthening the cuts and reducing their number. The distilled clarity of the present work not only speaks to the sophistication of Fontana’s technique by the mid-1960s, but also hints at the relationship between his work and the burgeoning aesthetics of Minimalism. Indeed, his works formed an important precedent for many of the artists associated with this movement, proposing a vital elision of form and content.
For Fontana, who died just ten months before Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind”, the works produced in his final years take on a quiet, retrospective poignancy. For a decade, the tagli had prophecized “something that must follow”: in 1969, the human race would conquer one of its most important frontiers to date. Like his fellow artist Yves Klein, who would also never live to see this event, Fontana never lost faith in the notion that art should strive to exceed the visible world. “My cuts are above all a philosophical statement,” he explained, “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” (L. Fontana, quoted in Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, op. cit., p. 23). In the present work, this conviction is expressed in a gesture of solemn, iconographic surety: a tantalizing portal to the unknown, surrounded by a flaming, incendiary field of scarlet.