Concetto spaziale belongs to Lucio Fontana's Olio series of paintings, in which the artist explored the sensual qualities of oil paint applied so thickly that it blurs the line between painting and sculptural relief. Breaking through this surface with his signature slashes of the canvas, Fontana enacted a modern version of the baroque desire to break through the constraints of two and three-dimensional space to emotionally captivate the viewer. Concetto spaziale was created in 1961, the same year that he created his famous series of paintings inspired by Venice, eleven of which were exhibited later that year at the Palazzo Grassi. The present work relates to the series' celebration of the ethereal and shimmering qualities of the Italian city's legendary canals and mosaics, as well as its baroque heritage. The reflective surface the metallic paint of Concetto spaziale, which Fontana moulded into a richly striated surface, especially suggests the dynamic effects of light on the rippling water of Venetian lagoons.
Fontana's Venice paintings are considered to be the culmination of the Olio series. In them, the artist's experiments with richly encrusted painterly surfaces reached a new peak of opulence and expressiveness. The Venice paintings were a unique body of work in Fontana's oeuvre, as they were conceived as a unified group in which he systematically responded to different aspects of the city, from its distinctive architectural features of cupolas and mosaics to the unique effects of light that play upon its waters. The subtitles of the works refer to various sources of inspiration, such as Concetto spaziale, The Churches of Venice and Concetto spaziale, Noon in Piazza San Marco. Fontana experimented with a wide array of techniques to capture the dynamic beauty of the city - employing swirling vortexes of paint, piercing their surfaces rhythmically, and scattering colourful glass stones across the canvases - to instil a sense of constant movement. In this way, Fontana's abstract forms reflect not only on the physical landscape of Venice, but also how it takes shape in memory. Painting the suite of works in Milan, Fontana meditated on his extensive visits to the city. He was clearly inspired by the atmospheric play of light on the lagoons, declaring in the title of another painting of the same year, Concetto Spaziale, At Dawn Venice Was All Silver. Concetto spaziale relates most closely to the rippled surface of silver works such as Concetto spaziale, Venice Moon, that evoke this interplay of light and water.
Fontana used metallic paints, alternating between gold and silver in the Venice series, to channel the sense of eternal time for which the city is famed. In the same vein as these paintings, the heavily worked surface of Concetto spaziale is resolutely tangible, while its reflective surface also conveys a sense of dematerialization. Fontana used the uneven grooves of paint heighten this effect, as they further disperse light across the surface. In his Olio paintings, he used a variety of different tools that he pulled through thick layers of pigment, including brushes and painting knives of different shapes, but also his finger in some cases. The surfaces of such works are often so heavily loaded that he had to paint on a horizontal surface to prevent the paint from sagging. Using this method, he approached the canvas almost as a topographical surface, inscribing canal-like grooves in the silver paint.
While Fontana's metallic paint was intimately associated with his abstract evocations of Venice, silver is also the colour par excellence of the modern space age, alluding to both the gleam of technology and the much pursued surface of the moon. Fontana was fascinated by the frontiers of space exploration that were constantly being expanded, and the black gaps revealed by the incisions through the oil and canvas suggest the dark abyss of cosmic space. The jagged gashes in the paint's surface exhibit an element of force, attesting to Fontana's radical gesture of breaking through the hallowed surface of the picture plane, which had metaphysical connotations for him. In a 1962 interview, he declared: 'My cuts are above all a philosophical statement, 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' (Lucio Fontana, quoted in Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., Venice 2006, p. 23).
Concetto spaziale succeeds in bringing together two extremes of Fontana's painterly exploration. While its thickly impastoed paint asserts a dense materiality, this material certainty is both dispersed by the work's own reflective surface, and punctuated by Fontana's radical cuts that both allude to and open up the work up to the limitlessness of space and time.