‘With the slash I invented a formula that I don’t think I can perfect. I managed with this formula to give the spectator an impression of spatial calm, of cosmic rigor, of serenity in infinity’ (L. Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: Catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, vol. I, Milan, 2006, p. 105).
Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases are his most important trademark, exemplifying the Spatialist movement that he pioneered. At once iconic and iconoclastic, his cuts forever altered the once hallowed surface of painting and became one of the most emblematic contributions to the evolution of post-war art. The present work, Concetto spaziale, Attese, is an early example of this revolutionary discovery in the artist’s practice. Executed in 1959, it was created mere months after Fontana began cutting his canvases for the very first time. Although he had been working with the hole for almost ten years, this pristine white surface riven through with two elegant tapering incisions typified a new minimalist direction for the artist. The painting belongs to a period in which Fontana sought to strip away his Baroque inclinations for something more austere and impactful. He dispelled the scattershot holes and ambiguous painterly atmospheres of previous years for an utterly spare mode of painting whereby the monochromatic void meets the void of actual space.
This highly reductive tendency was in part due to the influence of a younger generation of artists whom Fontana encountered and mentored in the late 1950s. Among them was Yves Klein, whose landmark exhibition of identical monochromatic blue paintings at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in January 1957 impressed Fontana so much that he was compelled to buy one for himself. Fontana’s compatriot, Piero Manzoni, also provided significant stimulus as he had abandoned painterly nuance and expression to create his self-determining Achrome works that same year. Manzoni himself expressed great admiration for the older artist, declaring in the year the present work was made: ‘Fontana, who may be today the most interesting Italian artist, whose work has opened and continues to open new paths’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni: catalogo generale, vol. I, Milan 2004, p. 124).
Fontana, Klein and Manzoni were part of a zeitgeist that established the destruction of the picture and the assertion of the void as a new vision for art making in the wake of World War II. They saw the egocentric outpourings of the soul presented by the prevailing Arte Informel and Abstract Expressionist movements as a dead end and instead presented a tabula rasa, a clean slate, which signalled as-yet unimagined possibilities. This notion closely relates to Buddhist philosophies about the inherent potential that lies within emptiness. Indeed, Concetto spaziale, Attese has a certain Zen-like quality that invites prolonged contemplation. The emphatic simplicity of the syncopated double incisions belies the artist’s profound consideration of abstract concepts surrounding nature, matter and existence. In an age dominated by science, Fontana demanded that art explore concepts of space and time and his blade has penetrated the purity of this white canvas to open the viewer’s consciousness to the infinite universe that exists beyond and around the object before us. The painting also presents a series of paradoxes where plane and void exist between two and three dimensions, being and nothingness, creation and destruction.
Much like the meditative practice of calligraphy, this white canvas has been scored in an unexpected instant after an extended period of pondering the painted surface. The result is a careful pacing of the apertures that simultaneously evinces a sense of spontaneity and control. As Fontana once explained, ‘they think it’s easy to make a cut or a hole, but it’s not true. You have no idea how much stuff I throw away. The idea has to be realised with precision’ (Lucio Fontana quoted in G. Ballo, Lucio Fontana, New York, 1971, p. 45). In the artist’s studio, Fontana would prepare himself, standing some distance from the easel until he could muster the appropriate physical and mental concentration. ‘I really have to be in the right mood to perform this task’, he told the photographer Ugo Mulas (Lucio Fontana quoted in S. Whitfield, Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 2000, p. 31). The cuts themselves were enacted in a sequence, first by saturating the canvas in white emulsion paint, allowing it to partially dry, and then by dragging a razor-sharp blade swiftly down the canvas. The fabric support would then firm and dry out with time, the cut having been eased apart with the flat of the artist’s hand. These openings created a conduit for light to pass through the painting’s surface, but Fontana has deliberately sealed the back with black gauze – a theatrical device that helped emphasise the sense of deep space lurking beyond the canvas.
The twin tagli (cuts) are thereby thrown into sharp focus against the white picture plane, just as a pencil or brush mark might appear on a blank sheet. But this misleading relationship between figure and ground only serves to highlight the duality of absence and presence at play in the work. It is in the striking contrast between the pristine white surface and the darkness of the voids, that Fontana’s Spatial concept finds its best expression. White was significant for Fontana because it represented the ‘“purest, least complicated, most understandable colour,” that which most immediately struck the note of “pure simplicity,” “pure philosophy,” “spatial philosophy,” “cosmic philosophy” to which Fontana more than ever aspired during the last years of his life’ (J. van der Marck & E. Crispolti,?Lucio Fontana, vol. I, Brussels, 1974, p. 137). Indeed, this severe contrast was something he would return to on an architectural scale at the Venice Biennale in 1966, where he created a white maze in which the apparently seamless and expansive space was disrupted by the ‘cracks’ of his tagli paintings. Concetto spaziale, Attese, then represents the birth of Fontana’s most sophisticated material realisation of his long-standing conceptual aims. The strong, simple beauty of his cutting gestures assaults and transforms the traditional medium of painting, heralding the beginning of a new era of immaterial art created in the full knowledge and awareness of space and the boundless nature of the cosmos.