‘Gold is as beautiful as the sun’ (L. Fontana, quoted in L. Massimo Barbero (ed.), Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Venice & New York, 2006, p. 24).
‘By 1959 Fontana had arrived at the means to perfect the cut (the ideal weight of canvas and the device of the gauze), and from then on his method did not change in any significant way’ (S. Whitfield, ‘Handling Space’, in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1999, p. 34).
Erupting in a blaze of yellow and gold like a radiant burst of sunlight, Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1959, is a rare work situated at the dawn of Lucio Fontana’s series of tagli, or cuts, that would come to embody the very essence of his Spatialist theories. Entitled ‘il sole’ (‘sun’) on the reverse, the work is unique in its explicit invocation of the glowing light that burns at the centre of the cosmos: a light too brilliant and intense to be seen by the naked human eye. For Fontana, who, two years later, would capture the sun-drenched and moonlit splendour of Venice and New York in gleaming gold and silver metal, the sun presents a poetic analogue to his own developing artistic ambitions. In the same way that its mystical golden rays penetrate the uncharted depths of the universe, so too did Fontana’s pioneering slashing gesture seek to access an unknown dimension beyond the canvas. Distinguished from Fontana’s previous monochromatic output by its dual palette, articulated in three bands over a fiery vermillion ground, the work belongs to a small but distinct group of works created in 1959, examples of which are held in collections including the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur and the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern. Following his exhibition at the 1958 Venice Biennale, Fontana sought new directions in his pursuit of an artistic language that adequately reflected the scientific advances of the space age. In Concetto spaziale, Attese, the conceptual grounding of the tagli is imbued with a new level of painterly poeticism, a programmatic attempt to give substance to the immaterial, non-dimensional quality of sunlight. With its five pristine cuts incised into a stretched support of heavy-grained burlap, the work suggests an opening in the luminous expanse of gold to the vast infinity of space beyond. Evocative of solar eclipse – that unearthly, disquieting phenomenon – the work embodies the sense of awe and wonder that accompanied man’s first tentative explorations of the universe.
Concetto spaziale, Attese occupies a unique position within the new artistic paradigm proposed by Fontana’s Spatialist theories. As an ode to the sun – the central life-giving source of light, energy and matter – the work is infused with a distinctly pictorial element, distinguishing it from the conceptual motivations of Fontana’s wider oeuvre. Through its subtitle and radiant palette, it invokes the magic and mysticism of the spatial exchange between the material substance of earth and the immaterial qualities of light. The heavy texture and surface of the burlap, with its five-fold incisions and deep yellow borders, conveys a sense of earthbound matter impregnated with colour, light and energy. Just as the sun itself unifies light and physical substance, so too does the work unite a sense of the intangible infinite with the unique properties of solid matter. The work prefigures the intense fascination with sunlight that the artist would cultivate in the luminous oil and metal works produced in response to his sojourns in Venice and New York in 1961. Though enraptured by the golden symbolism of Byzantium and St. Mark’s, as well the glimmering reflective surfaces of Venetian architecture, it was not until arriving in New York that Fontana experienced his true epiphany. ‘New York is a city made of glass colossi on which the Sun beats down, causing torrents of light’ (L. Fontana, quoted in G. Livi, ‘Incontro con Lucio Fontana’, in Vanità, vol. VI, no. 13, Autumn 1962, p. 53). Overwhelmed by the city’s futuristic dynamism, Fontana recounted with great excitement ‘yesterday I went to the top floor of the most famous of the skyscrapers … the one made of bronze and gilded glass … It seemed to contain the Sun’ (L. Fontana, quoted in L. Massimo Barbero, ‘Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York’ in Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2006, p. 42). The present work, with its lyrical tribute to ‘il sole’, may be seen as an early manifestation of the artist’s poetic response to the universe’s mystical, light-giving source.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, theories of modern physics shook the very foundation of the way man perceived himself in the universe. Fontana was fascinated by recent technological advancements that showed space as an indeterminate cosmos without confines or external points of reference. He felt it essential to change art’s nature and form in order to match the spirit of the time, and in 1946, Fontana, along with other avant-garde artists in Buenos Aires, published the Manifesto Blanco. This document outlined a new ideology known as Spatialism, postulating that ‘we abandon the practice of known art forms and we approach the development of an art based on the unity of time and space’ (L. Fontana, Manifesto Blanco, 1946, reproduced in R. Fuchs, Lucio Fontana: La cultura dell’occhio, exh. cat., Castello di Rivoli, Rivoli, 1986, p. 80). By piercing the canvas, initially through his series of bucchi (‘holes’) and subsequently through his tagli, Fontana sought to unify spatial and temporal dimensions, the penetrating action leaving behind a gestural trace that opened up the unknown void beyond the canvas. As the artist explained, ‘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... Einstein’s discovery of the cosmos is the infinite dimension, without end... I make holes, infinity passes through them, light passes through them, there is no need to paint’ (L. Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti, ‘Spatialism and Informel. The Fifties’, in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Milan, 1998, p. 146).
The present work is situated at the dawn of Fontana’s radical tagli, first initiated in 1958. In his simple, clean slashing gestures, Fontana gave birth to the most sophisticated material realisation of his long-standing conceptual aims. His stark cutting gesture united the invisible but fundamental elements of space, time and energy: like the rippling wake left by parting particles, Fontana’s cuts gave form to the very essence of movement. This, for Fontana, represented the final frontier in art: his incisions gave rise to multi-dimensional objects whose outer limits were unknown, scarred by the dynamism of their creation. As he once expounded, ‘what we want to do is to unchain art from matter, to unchain the sense of the eternal from the preoccupation with the immortal. And we don’t care if a gesture, once performed, lives a moment or a millennium, since we are truly convinced that once performed it is eternal’ (L. Fontana, First Spatialist Manifesto, 1947, reproduced in E. Crispolti et al. (eds.), Lucio Fontana, Milan 1998, pp. 117-18). For Fontana, the tagli represented both a conceptual and a visual solution within his search for a new artistic language. Following his exhibition at the 1958 Venice Biennale, Fontana had sought to curb the indulgent proliferations of texture and gesture that had come to mark his work. He had witnessed the stark contrast between the vacuity of Yves Klein’s blue monochromes at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in 1957, and the surface extravagance of Jackson Pollock’s paintings celebrated at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome the following year. In his tagli, Fontana uncovered a middleground: a way of retaining the corporeality of human gesture whilst simultaneously evoking the vast emptiness of the cosmos and the unknown dimensions of space and time.