‘In future there will no longer be art the way we understand it… 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).
With five slashes rhythmically slicing through the brilliant scarlet canvas, Concetto spaziale, Attese is from one of Lucio Fontana’s largest and most important series, the tagli or cuts, which he first began in 1958. Executed in 1964, this work displays Fontana’s most iconic gesture: the cut, which served as the embodiment of the artist’s Spatial explorations. With this emphatic gesture, Fontana, one of the central pioneers of post-war avant-garde art, was reflecting the technical and scientific developments of the space age, exploring the infinite in a quest to understand the universe. Glowing against the rich red of its monochrome field, in Concetto spaziale, Attese the rhythmic sequence of bold and elegant slashes not only creates a rippling dynamism that flows through the surface of the canvas, but by perforating the flat picture plane, Fontana reveals to the viewer a limitless and mysterious dark void, a new and unknown dimension.
In Concetto spaziale, Attese Fontana has applied red waterpaint to the surface of the canvas using a paint brush, carefully ensuring that the surface remained perfectly smooth, free of any brushstrokes or evidence of the artist’s own hand. Following this preparation, Fontana, with methodical care and precision, slashed through the canvas from top to bottom with a knife. The subtly varying lengths of each of the five slashes in Concetto spaziale, Attese, and their rhythmic placement across the width of the canvas demonstrates Fontana’s scrupulous attention to detail and his extreme dedication to refining the minute details of his technique. The elegant, almost balletic slices are the result not of an impulsive and unplanned gesture, but instead are born from a period of immense concentration and contemplation spent before he sliced the blade through the canvas. In describing his technique Fontana stated, ‘I need a lot of concentration. That means I don’t just walk into my studio take off my jacket, and boom, I make three or four tagli. No, sometimes I leave the canvas there propped up for weeks before I am sure what I will do with it, and only when I feel certain do I begin, and it is rare that I waste a canvas; I really need to feel in shape for doing these things’ (Fontana quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 82).
The iconic gesture of the cut had developed as a logical continuation of Fontana’s earlier artistic explorations. In 1947, Fontana returned to Italy from Milan and emerged as a pioneer of post-war avant-garde art with the foundation of Spazialismo ‘Spatialism’, a movement which sought to rejuvenate and revolutionise art. Awed and intrigued by the monumental leaps in science, technology, quantum physics and space travel, Fontana conceived of an art that would emulate to the spirit of the time, embodying the new conception of space as an indeterminate universe without confines or limits. By puncturing, piercing, slicing or slashing the canvas, Fontana found a way of invoking this infinite space; therefore creating a new form of art that was freed from tradition and in keeping with the times. ‘I make a hole in the canvas’, the artist explained, ‘in order to leave behind the old pictorial formulae, the painting and the traditional view of art and I escape symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface (Fontana quoted in T. Trini, ‘The last interview given by Fontana’, in W. Beeren and N. Serota (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Paris, 1987, p. 34).
Following his buchi or ‘holes’, works in which he deliberately punctured the canvas creating a constellation of small stabs, in 1958 Fontana first vertically sliced the canvas, revealing a thin strip of darkness behind, a dramatic glimpse into the mysterious space beyond. In contrast to his buchi and barocchi of the mid-1950s – the latter of which Fontana punctured holes as well as adding thick painterly impasto and other materials to the richly textured surface of the canvas – the slash has a dramatic yet serene and minimal elegance. It has been suggested that Fontana had first cut through the canvas in a gesture of anger and frustration. Jan van der Marck claimed that Fontana had become ‘irritated by his own indulgence in surface embellishment. In frustration he slashed into an unsuccessful canvas and suddenly realised the potential of that gesture’ (A. White, Lucio Fontana: Between Utopia and Kitsch, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 2011, p. 208). In a desire to expand his spatial explorations, the cut served as an absolute and final gesture free from embellishment or excess. At first, the artist marked the surface of his pictures with large sequences of small slashes, gradually developing his process and technique, lengthening the cuts and reducing their number on the canvas. These first tagli were exhibited in a one-man show of the artist’s work at the Galleria del Naviglio, Milan in February 1959. By 1964, the year that Fontana executed the present work, he had perfectly honed his technique creating works like Concetto spaziale, Attese in which the dramatic impact of the elongated and rhythmically poised cuts are heightened by the pristine monochrome surface of the violated canvas.
For Fontana these cuts were not an impulsive gesture, nor an inherently destructive act, but instead represented the synthesis and culmination of his Spatial explorations. ‘It’s not true that I made holes in the canvas in order to destroy it, no, I made holes in order to discover’, Fontana explained, ‘to find the cosmos of an unknown dimension’ (Fontana quoted in M. Gale and R. Miracco, Beyond Painting: Burri, Fontana, Manzoni, exh. cat., London, 2005-6, p. 38).
Every Attesa or ‘expectation’, a word affixed to the title of Fontana’s slash paintings, possesses a subtle dimension of the infinite beyond the surface, evoking not just the immeasurable space beyond the surface of the earth, but also the vastness of the human mind. Opening up the boundaries previously instilled by the confines of the canvas, Fontana was likewise seeking to expand the confines of human consciousness, leading the viewer into a new realm of heightened spiritual awareness. Speaking of the spiritual implications of his slashes, Fontana stated, ‘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’ (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. 23).