‘My art is directed towards this purity, it is based on the philosophy of nothingness, a nothingness that does not imply destruction, but a nothingness of creation…’ (L. FONTANA)
‘We plan to separate art from matter, to separate the sense of the eternal from the concern with the immortal. And it doesn’t matter to us if a gesture, once accomplished, lives for a moment or a millennium, for we are convinced that, having accomplished it, it is eternal’
Eight white slashes penetrate the pristine white surface of Concetto spaziale, Attese, executed in 1964; a supremely elegant example of Lucio Fontana’s series of tagli (‘cuts’) that have come to define the artist’s prolific career. It is in the striking contrast between the pristine white luminosity of the surface and the velvety darkness of the enigmatic voids in Concetto spaziale, Attese,that Fontana’s Spatialism, the movement he founded in 1947, finds its purest and most complete expression. With the discovery of the cut or taglio, Fontana made his most monumental breakthrough, succeeding in opening up the previously inviolable two-dimensional surface of the canvas to incorporate the space surrounding it and reveal the limitless black void behind: the enigmatic fourth dimension. Creating a rhythmic cascade of gliding movement, the gently angled cuts of Concetto spaziale, Attese send ripples of energy coursing throughout and beyond the expansive surface of this work, turning it from a static, inert work of art into a dynamic object that interacts and encompasses the space surrounding it; neither painting nor sculpture but a ‘Spatial concept’. Revelatory in its concept and poetic in its appearance, Concetto spaziale, Attese immortalises the fleeting moment of the gesture for eternity; a crystallisation of the artist’s career-long formal and conceptual concerns. ‘With the taglio’, Fontana stated, ‘I have invented a formula that I think I cannot perfect…I succeeded in giving those looking at my work a sense of spatial calm, a cosmic rigor, of serenity with regard to the Infinite. Further than this I could not go’ (Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 58).
Fontana had begun his series of tagli in 1958. Since he had returned to Milan from Buenos Aires in 1947, he had sought to make art that would embody and reflect the dramatic developments in science, space travel and technology; all of which were at this time rocking the very foundations on which society had been founded. He wanted to create art that would transcend the inherent physicality and materiality of the canvas, and instead invoke a perpetual spatial realm that existed beyond the parameters of measurable time. Seeking to integrate light, real time and space into art, Fontana abandoned the traditional artistic modes of painting and sculpture, and instead began to create ‘Spatial concepts’, works that straddled definition and defied convention. In this way, his art could exist both in material space, and at the same time, denote the immateriality of the mysterious void. Penetrating the canvas with a single, irrevocable downward cut, Fontana was able to transform the art work from a receptacle of painterly illusionism into a three-dimensional object, whilst at the same time creating a portal to another dimension, revealing another world akin to the unchartered territory of the infinite cosmos. Behind each cut lies a pool of dark, perpetual space, full of mystery and possibilities. In this way, the mystical openings visible in Concetto spaziale, Attese invite the viewer to engage with the dark infinity beyond the picture plane, creating an almost transcendent experience. ‘I moved beyond the limits of perspective…pushing towards a discovery of the universe and a new dimension; that of infinity’, Fontana explained in 1967. ‘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…’ (Fontana, quoted in P. Campiglio (ed.), ‘Milan, 10 October 1967: Carla Lonzi interviews Lucio Fontana’ in Lucio Fontana Sedici sculture, Sixteen sculptures 1937-1967, exh. cat., London, 2007, p. 39).
The white monochrome surface of Concetto spaziale, Attese was for Fontana the ultimate vehicle with which to express infinity and liberation from matter – the two concepts that had driven his artistic experimentation since the late 1940s. Throughout his career, he experimented with a variety of colours for his monochrome tagli, however it was white that he concluded was the ultimate hue to attain the sense of limitless, infinite space and radiant luminosity that he wanted to convey with these works. White, he said, is the ‘purest colour, the least complicated, the easiest to understand’, that which most immediately and most successful conveyed a ‘pure simplicity’, and the ‘pure philosophy’, which he sought to attain in the works of the last years of his life (Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, Tomo I, Milan, 2006, p. 79). Two years after he created Concetto spaziale, Attese, Fontana furthered this exploration into the visual potential of white in his critically acclaimed and hugely influential installation at the 1966 Venice Biennale, for which he was awarded the Grand Prize. Consisting of a luminous white room filled with twenty monochrome white canvases of equal size, each with a single vertical incision down the centre, this installation was revelatory, and served as the summation of his prior experimentations into light, space and matter.
Fontana added the subtitle – Attese or ‘Expectation’ – to each of his tagli. With this addition, Fontana made reference to the sense of the infinite that lay beyond each of the thin elegant chasms of darkness revealed by the tears through the canvas. This boundless realm evoked not only the immeasurable space beyond the surface of the earth, but also the vastness of the human mind. By opening up and redefining the possibilities of art itself, Fontana was simultaneously seeking to unlock the parameters of human consciousness, liberating the potentials of human imagination that had been stifled by conventional society. As if to illustrate this point, Fontana has inscribed on the back of Concetto spaziale, Attese the phrase: ‘ATTESE 1+ 1 00 00 00 Buona sera’, a playful yet potent reminder of the limitless possibility he felt these Attese possessed.
Perhaps more than any post-war artist, Fontana’s work captures the anticipatory spirit of the epoch. A time of revelatory discoveries – both scientific and technological – man’s place within the universe had been completely redefined and human potential radically reconsidered. Contemporary life was filled with new questions and possibilities: if man could leave the earth’s atmosphere and exist in space, would it one day be possible for him to live on the moon? Space travel changed the course of the 20th Century and, by trying to capture and distil this same sense of pioneering exploration, Fontana too altered the course of post-war art. ‘In future there will no longer be art the way we understand it’, he declared. ‘No, art, the way we think about it today will cease…there’ll be something else. I make these cuts and these holes, these Attese and these Concetti…Compared to the Spatial era I am merely a man making signs in the sand. I made these holes. But what are they? They are the mystery of the Unknown in art, they are the Expectation of something that must follow’ (Fontana, quoted in L. M. Barbero, ‘Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York’ in L. M. Barbero (ed.), Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 47).