‘I do not want to make a painting. I want to open up space, create a new dimension for art, tie in with the cosmos as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture’
(Fontana, quoted in S. Petersen, Space-Age Aesthetics: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and the Postwar European Avant-Garde, Pennsylvania, 2009, p. 87)
‘The discovery of the cosmos is a new dimension, it is infinity, so I make a hole in this canvas, which was at the basis of all the arts and I have created an infinite dimension...the idea is precisely that, it is a new dimension corresponding to the cosmos... I make holes, infinity passes through them, light passes through them, there is no need to paint'
(Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti ‘Spatialism and Informel. The Fifties’ in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Rome, 1998, p. 146)
Six lines of small, star-like holes puncture the unblemished, radiant white surface of Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, interspersed with four pieces of transparent, deep blue glass. Executed in 1958, at a time when the artist was reaching the height of his prolific career, this work belongs to an important, transitional series known as the pietre or ‘stones’, which Fontana had begun in 1952. Born out of the radical, minimalistic buchi or ‘holes’, and coinciding with the dramatic ostentation of the barocchi, ‘baroques’, the pietre are amongst the most lyrical, ethereal and visually beguiling Concetti spaziali of Fontana’s prolific career. With these works, Fontana affixed fragments of glass to the surface of the punctured canvas, integrating the dynamic elements of light and movement – central components of the artist’s Spatialist explorations – into the composition. In doing so, Fontana pushed the radical discovery of the buchi into another spatial dimension, activating the visual space in front of as well as behind the canvas. Unlike many of the pietre, in which Fontana added gestural swathes of impastoed oil paint to the already embellished canvas, the present work resonates with a clarity and elegance that is rare within this series of Concetti spaziale. One of the final, concluding works of this series, Concetto Spaziale demonstrates the visual purity and simplicity that Fontana had begun to seek and to realize in his work of the late 1950s. The exuberant materiality and abundant embellishment of the prior pietre is gone, leaving a simple, minimalistic vision. Fontana’s desire for a stripped down, minimalistic form of art was realised in the form of the tagli or ‘cuts’ that the artist had begun in 1957, just a year before he executed the present work. These tagli were exhibited for the first time in Italy in a seminal one-man exhibition at the Galleria del Naviglio, Milan in February 1958. It was in this exhibition, one of the most famous of Fontana’s career, that the present work was also exhibited for the first time, its purified, unadorned aesthetic demonstrating, along with the tagli, the new direction that Fontana had begun to take in his art.
With Concetto spaziale and the pietre, Fontana was building on what was arguably his greatest artistic invention: the hole. Fontana made this radical breakthrough in 1949, first piercing through the surface of white paper, before moving on to execute the same action with canvas. In breaking through and physically perforating the seemingly inviolable surface of the canvas, Fontana was integrating both literal and metaphorical space into his painting: introducing real space into the flat, previously illusory surface of the canvas, as well as revealing to the viewer glimpses of the dark, enigmatic, and crucially, boundless space that lay beyond the work itself. With the hole, Fontana opened up an infinite cosmic dimension. ‘When I hit the canvas I sensed that I had made an important gesture’, Fontana recalled. ‘It was, in fact, not an incidental hole, it was a conscious hole: by making a hole in the picture I found a new dimension in the void. By making holes in the picture I invented the fourth dimension’ (Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 21).
These ideas lay at the very heart of Spatialism, the movement that Fontana had founded in Milan in 1947. Living in an era of unprecedented technical and scientific discovery, Fontana ardently believed that a new form of art needed to be conceived, one that would emulate the pioneering spirit of this ground-breaking epoch and reflect the monumental scientific leaps that have come to define the 20th Century. If man could travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere and enter into a newly-discovered infinite, boundless realm of cosmic space, television sets present life in glorious sound-filled technicolour, and radio waves beam sound and data across oceans, then the conventional art forms of painting or sculpture, he believed, were redundant, unable to aptly reflect modern life. ‘Art is not on the decline, but is experiencing a slow transition phase, which is leading to a new development in artistic means’, Fontana explained in 1952. ‘Stone and bronze have to give way to new techniques in art, just as concrete, glass and metal spawned new styles in architecture. But a point has been reached where stone and colour can no longer advance art. A new art has to emerge, one which makes use of light and television; and only the truly creative artist can transform these technologies into art’ (Fontana, ‘Why I am a Spatial Artist’, in E. Crispolti & R. Siligato (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Rome, 1998, p. 176). Art, he believed, had to transcend traditional categories and instead explore the dynamic concepts of space, time and light. By piercing the canvas, Fontana realised these spatial, conceptual aims, transforming the picture plane into a three dimensional object that existed in real time and space. As Fontana later recalled, ‘…my creation of holes was a radical gesture that shattered the space of the painting and declared: after this, we are free to do as we like. We cannot close the space of the picture within the limits of the canvas, for it must be extended out to all the space around it’ (Fontana, quoted in D. Palazzoli, ‘Intervista con Lucio Fontana’, bt, no. 5, October-November 1967, in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., London, 2015, p. 212).
It was a few years later, in 1952, that Fontana made another leap in his visionary artistic adventure, adding an unprecedented sculptural dimension to the buchi with the pietre series. While his previous works had focused on the area beyond the canvas, with this series, Fontana once more turned his focus to the surface itself as he played with textural and material components. Adhering pieces of glass and stone to the surface of the punctured canvas, he introduced the dynamic elements of light and movement to the work. ‘When I began using the “stones”’, Fontana explained a few years later, in the 1960s, ‘I wanted to see if I could move forward… I thought that with the stones, the light would flow better – that it would create more the effect of movement’ (Fontana, quoted in S. Whitfield, Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., London, 1999, p. 17). In Concetto spaziale, dark shadows and coloured reflections pool across the surface of the composition, acting in a unique visual dialogue with the straight, geometric trails of holes that rhythmically traverse the canvas. While these punctures reveal the space behind the canvas, the stones add a novel and tangible sense of three-dimensionality; protruding frontally, they project into the space in front of the canvas. The transparent pieces of blue glass introduce a new type of materiality, creating a kinetic vision of light, space and mass that dramatically transforms the two-dimensional picture plane into a novel dynamic spatial experience.
In contrast to the majority of the pietre, in which Fontana often incorporated gestural swathes of oil paint and affixed clusters of stones or glitter onto the composition that had been punctured with scattered constellations of holes, the present Concetto Spaziale is paired back, stripped of all embellishment save for the four solitary pieces of coloured glass that adorn its white surface. A sense of order has been imposed onto the composition: the holes are aligned into five horizontal rows, and the pieces of blue glass fit neatly into this geometric arrangement. In this way, Concetto Spaziale could be seen to recall the contemporaneous colourless Achromes of Piero Manzoni that consisted of objects arranged in grid-like rows, as well as appearing to prefigure the geometric alignments of protrusions and depressions of Enrico Castellani’s white Superfici, which were initiated the year after the present work was executed, in 1959.
In 1957, the year before he executed Concetto Spaziale, Fontana had started to tire of the exuberant gestural materiality that characterized his output, seeking an alternative to, as he described, the ‘decadence’ of his work. By the end of this year, Fontana realised his aims. Taking a knife, he slashed through, with one sweeping gesture, the surface of the canvas, beginning his cycle known as the tagli. This quest for a pure, minimalistic mode of artistic expression can likewise be seen in the present work. Nearly all superfluous elements are eliminated from the composition, leaving only the artistic gesture – the rhythmic horizontal rows of holes – that resonates with a calm serenity and unfettered clarity, unobscured by ornamentation.