‘Man today is too bewildered by the vastness of his world, he is too overwhelmed by the triumph of Science, he is too dismayed by the new inventions which follow one after the other, to be able to find himself in figurative painting. What is needed is an absolutely new language, a ‘Gesture’ purified of all ties with the past, which gives expression to this state of despair, of existential anguish’
(Fontana quoted in L. Massimo Barbero, Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., Venice and New York, 2006-07, p. 23).
Two vertical, parallel slashes dramatically rupture the immaculate, rich red monochrome surface of Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese. Executed in 1964, this work is one of Fontana’s iconic series of tagli or cuts, which have come to serve as the epitome, both formally and theoretically, of Spatialism, the bold and radical movement that the artist founded in Milan in 1947. Inspired by the profound advancements in modern physics, science and space-travel, Fontana sought to create an art that corresponded with the newly discovered concept of the cosmos and the enigmatic fourth dimension. Iconoclastically incising the surface of the sacrosanct surface of the canvas to reveal a dark, mysterious space beyond and within, Fontana radically revised the conception of the picture plane, offering the viewer an experience of a new realm, an unknown and infinite dimension of the universe.
Fontana’s Spatialist theories were born out of a time of immense change during which scientific and technological advancements had led to radical reconfigurations in the way people regarded the universe and their place within it. Interplanetary travel and the galactic accomplishments of the era fascinated Fontana, as did Albert Einstein’s seminal scientific theories, which had introduced the concept of a space-time continuum: a fourth dimension of limitless, unfathomable and unconfined space. In the face of these explosive developments, the destiny of painting, particularly the brushstroke was, in the eyes of Fontana and his colleagues, outmoded and at risk of becoming antiquated and archaic. A new form of art was needed, one which would correspond to the dawning of a new spatial era: ‘I assure you’, Fontana stated in 1949, ‘that on the moon they will not be painting, but they will be making Spatial art’ (Fontana quoted in S. Petersen, Space-Age Aesthetics: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and the Postwar European Avant-Garde, Pennsylvania, 2009, p. 6).
While living in Argentina in the late 1940s, Fontana, along with a group of avant-garde artists, had conceived of an art that would emulate the spirit of the time. In 1946 they published Manifesto Blanco (White Manifesto), which called for art to transcend the traditional categories of painting and sculpture and instead explore the dynamic concepts of space, time and light; this new concept became known as Spazialismo (Spatialism). A year later, on his return Milan, Fontana founded the Movimento Spaziale (Spatial movement), which further expounded the necessity for an art that could explore the limitless possibilities of the universe. In the First Spatial manifesto, published in 1947, the artists emphatically stated: ‘We refuse to believe that science and art are two distinct facts, that the gestures accomplished by one of the two activities cannot also belong to the other. Artists anticipate scientific gestures, scientific gestures always provoke artistic gestures’ (First Spatial Manifesto, 1947, in E. Crispolti and R. Siligato (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Milan, 1998, p. 118).
With his buchi (holes) and subsequently, tagli (cuts), which Fontana first began in 1958, the artist found a solution to his conceptual aims, discovering a means through which to transcend the inherent materiality and physicality of the canvas and instead invoke a perpetual spatial realm that would exist beyond the parameters of measurable time. By piercing the canvas, Fontana created an object at once painting and sculpture, which could exist both in material space, while simultaneously denoting the immateriality of the mysterious void. With this act, Fontana, like the pioneering astronauts who probed the far-flung corners of the cosmos throughout the 1960s seeking to reveal the mysteries of the universe, sought to access and reveal to the viewer an unknown dimension beyond the surface of the canvas. Fontana 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... 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., Milan, 1998, p. 146).
The two elegant cuts that slice through the canvas of Concetto spaziale, Attese represent both a conceptual and visual encapsulation of Fontana’s search for a new artistic language. All superfluous elements are eliminated, leaving only the artistic gesture, which resonates with a powerful serenity and stillness. For Fontana, the cut was an eternal gesture that, unlike the material itself, which would inevitably decay over time, existed without end; a means of artistic expression that would endure through time and space. Fontana and his Spatialist colleagues had stated in 1947, ‘We plan to separate art from matter, to separate the sense of the eternal from the concern with the immortal. And it doesn’t matter to us if a gesture, once accomplished, lives for a moment or a millennium, for we are convinced that, having accomplished it, it is eternal’ (First Spatial Manifesto, 1947, op. cit., p. 118). Against the burning red canvas, in Concetto spaziale, Attese the evenly sized slashes have a sense of unique harmony, existing in a state of perfect equilibrium. The deep red monochrome background of Concetto spaziale, Attese imbues the work with a dramatic sensuality, accentuated by the violent yet elegantly refined cuts. It was with works such as Concetto spaziale, Attese, that Fontana achieved an absolute clarity, the highly concentrated act of slicing the canvas serving as the climax of his artistic explorations. As Fontana stated, ‘With the taglio I have invented a formula that I think I cannot perfect… I succeeded in giving those looking at my work a sense of spatial calm, of cosmic rigour, of serenity with regard to the Infinite. Further than this I could not go’ (Fontana quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 58).