Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale was painted in 1961 and, with its shimmering, luscious golden surface, the shining blue stones embedded in the surface, the incised lines and the punctures that pierce the canvas, it perfectly encapsulates the sumptuous beauty of his Olii while also encompassing the ideas of Spatialism, the movement that the artist had founded.
Fontana had begun creating the lush Olii in 1960, only the year before Concetto spaziale; it was in 1961 that, invited to participate alongside artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Asger Jorn and Mark Rothko in Paolo Marinotti's exhibition Arte e contemplazione at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Fontana created one of his most celebrated series of pictures, the Venezia works. With its golden appearance and the island-like circular form of the rings that surround the punctures and stones of Concetto spaziale, it is clear that this work relates to that series. Like Concetto spaziale, Fontana's series of pictures dedicated to Venice managed to capture a range of references and evocations in their surface. Concetto spaziale has elements of the Byzantine and the Baroque, while also recalling the golden light, the reflections on the lagoon and the island nature of La Serenissima itself. Fontana knew Venice well, having been a regular exhibitor at the Biennale since 1930 and also having a large number of friends and acquaintances there.
The gold and blue of Concetto spaziale appears to reveal this relationship: it recalls the famous altarpiece in the Basilica di San Marco, the Pala d'oro, much of which consists of twelfth-century Byzantine gold and enamels framed within a Gothic structure from the Fourteenth Century. Fontana is presenting a luminous icon for a new age, where science has replaced religion, and he has deliberately co-opted and surpassed the visual language of ancient religious art in order to show both the continuation of and break with tradition that is enacted in this bold painting. Fontana's visual references to religious art are extended in the warm light of Concetto spaziale, which echoes the scintillating Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica itself. Meanwhile, the flashes of blue within this expanse of liquid-like gold elicit memories of the famous Renaissance altarpieces by artists such as Bellini, Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo that are still to be seen in the churches and galleries of that city.
In its swirling sense of movement and its resplendent use of gold, Concetto spaziale also clearly references the Baroque that features so prominently in the churches, palaces and Scuole of Venice. There is a similar sense of opulence in the surface of Concetto spaziale, which begs to be touched, and crucially, there is a sense of movement. It was this characteristic that had led Fontana to look at the Baroque throughout much of his career. Where his earlier ceramics echoed the arabesques of the Baroque in their attempt to convey a sense of movement, of the presence of the third and indeed fourth dimensions, in Concetto spaziale motion is captured within the surface, the artist's gestures preserved like insects in amber in the incised lines, the affixed pieces of glass and the gouged holes. Already ten years earlier, Fontana had discussed the relevance of the Baroque to Spatialism in terms that apply equally to Concetto spaziale:
'It is necessary to overturn and transform painting, sculpture and poetry. A form of art is now demanded which is based on the necessity of this new vision. The baroque has guided us in this direction, in all its as yet unsurpassed grandeur, where the plastic form is inseparable from the notion of time, the images appear to abandon the plane and continue into space the movements they suggest. This conception arose from man's new idea of the existence of things; the physics of that period reveal for the first time the nature of dynamics. It is established that movement is an essential condition of matter as a beginning of the conception of the universe. At this point of evolution the requirements of movement were so powerful that the plastic arts were unable to respond' (Lucio Fontana, Manifesto tecnico dello Spazialismo, trans. C. Damiano, 1951, reproduced in L. Massimo Barbero (ed.), Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., Venice & New York, 2006, p. 229).
The idea of movement is made all the more explicit by the holes in Concetto spaziale, which allow light and air to pass through them. Fontana has used the lush substantiality of this painting, which appears almost to drip with liquid gold and is punctuated by glittering stones, to emphasise the contrast between that materiality and the void that he has enshrined, like a relic, within the surface. In this way, his Olii can be seen to explore similar territory to the Natura series of globe-like sculptures that he had created during the previous two years, tunnelling holes into the surface of large balls of clay and preserving that sense of movement and crucially of the evidence of Mankind's presence and activity within them. But in Concetto spaziale, he has replaced the brutalism of his Natura sculptures with the elegance and refinement of the Baroque to create a fitting altarpiece for the Space Age.
The notion of creating an icon to the Space Age was all the more pertinent in 1961, as it was that year that the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to human to voyage to outer space, leaving Earth's atmosphere and orbiting around it. This was the ultimate Spatialist act for Fontana. His incorporation of punctures, be they holes of slashes, within the surface of his paintings was a way of introducing space with a small 's' into his work, as well as evoking the idea that he had preserved a shard of the vastness of Space itself. In Concetto spaziale, this is made all the more dramatic by the darkness of the holes, which contrasts so much with the reflective surface. Fontana's use of metallic paints in Concetto spaziale and its sister-works reveals an artist able to plunder the past for inspiration while also creating a gleaming artform for the new technological era that he inhabited. The gold of this painting recalls the foil used in the construction of spacesuits and satellites and as a filter for the visors of astronauts. With its incredible sheen and the three blue stones on the surface, Concetto spaziale evokes the hi-tech control panels of the spaceships that so fascinated Fontana as well as the Baroque and Byzantine treasures of Venice.