‘We have entered the space age, man has discovered the distances between earth and the planets, man’s goal is to conquer them, man with his inventions of the last one hundred years has sped humanity to achieve the impossible - all this has influenced the artist’s creative spirit ’ (Fontana quoted in E. Crispolti & R. Siligato, Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Milan, 1998, p. 146).
Three sweeping incisions rhythmically slice through the spectacular red of the monochrome canvas in Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese of 1963-64. The three incisions grow in length as they spread like ripples across the pure, unblemished surface of the canvas. Neither destructive nor violent, these iconic slashes open up the surface of the canvas to reveal an enigmatic dark space behind. With the apparently simple gesture of striking through the canvas, Fontana was elucidating the mysteries of light and movement, inviting the viewer to be consumed by the dark infinity beyond the picture plane. In doing so, Fontana opened up, both literally and figuratively, a whole new dimension of possibilities to further advance the course of art in a new spatial era.
In 1947, Fontana returned to Italy from Argentina and emerged as a pioneer of the post-war avant-garde through the foundation of Spazialismo, a movement concerned with freeing artists from the constraints of artistic tradition and evoking the new contemporary era in which they lived. Fontana’s fascination with the recent technological advancements that showed that the image of space had become an indeterminate universe without confines and external points of reference laid the basis for his own spatial research. Shocked by the overwhelming power of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the world acutely realised the huge potential nuclear technology, elemental particles and the atom itself possessed to alter the planet and open the door to an unknown reality. In the wake of these events, Fontana felt a change in art’s essence and form was needed in order to arrive at a greater art, one which could conform to the needs of the spirit of the time. This new art would be free of any genre classification and would be ‘neither painting, nor sculpture, nor lines outlined in space, but continuity of space and matter’ (Fontana quoted in ‘Letter to G. Giani, 2 November 1949’, P. Campiglio, Lucio Fontana: Lettere 1919-1968, Milan 1999, p. 243). This new concept of the creative ‘gesture’ was the direct result of the artist’s ability to pick up the pieces of destruction and render effective that new plasticity of space understood as Matter.
Fontana had been watching these innovations in space travel and quantum physics with fascination, and considered existing modes of painting and sculpture outdated, unable to reflect the accelerated process of contemporary change. In the new age of Space-exploration, mankind would gain, he believed, a new spiritual awareness that would ultimately transcend everything about the earth-bound world of matter and all materialistic thinking. In this new age, Fontana believed, the aesthetic or artistic expression of man’s intelligence would take on new non-material forms. Liberated from the stuff of matter, this new art would be made with light and space. His trademark puncturing and slashing of the canvas was, in this respect, as much an attack and an act of destruction upon this traditional but out-dated material surface and bearer of illusionistic imagery, as it was one that attempted to transform the two dimensional canvas into an inter-dimensional object. Concetto spaziale, Attese is a perfect evocation of Fontana’s objectives with its three delicate cuts echoing the vastness of the universe. Behind each one, lies the darkness of an infinite space, full of possibilities and mystery. With deliberate flicks of the wrist Fontana produces his elegant incisions which literally open the canvas to new possibilities and interpretations. Enforcing the three-dimensional nature of the canvas, Fontana brings his earlier incarnation as a sculptor to the practice of painting, combining its different processes to forge a hybrid object that is no longer constrained by traditional classifications.
The importance of Fontana’s background as a sculptor is clear in his decision to transform the canvas from a two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional object. With his Concetto spaziale, Attese he is not only transforming the canvas but in addition, Fontana incorporates the physical act of cutting into the work so it becomes an important part of the artistic process. These two tangible forces come to be Fontana’s medium and support and the graceful gesture becomes his equivalent of using the brush on the surface of the canvas. There is a degree of beauty in the precision with which Fontana arrives at the results; no superfluous gestures, no hesitation, just calm, controlled movement produced with scientific clarity. The cleanliness of the act bringing about an almost religious purity.
The characteristics of the work are necessarily influenced by the absolute gestural quality of the slash itself. For Fontana, these cuts were neither a romantic, impulsive gesture nor a destructive act; they represented the synthesis and emblem of his spatial poetry. The slashes in the canvas are a pause, gracefully and simply conveying his concept of reduction to the essential, they are a place where time does not exist or a space that is filled with nothingness. Perhaps as a clarification of how he perceived the slash, ‘As a painter, while working on one of my perforated canvases, 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 J. van der Marck and E. Crispolti, La Connaissance, Brussels 1974, p. 7).
‘When, in the final burning moments of the universe, time and space no longer exist, no-one will remember the monuments built by man although not one hair of his head will have been lost. We do not intend to abolish art or stop life: we want paintings to come out of their frames, and sculptures from under their glass case. An aerial, artistic portrayal of a minute will last for thousands of years in eternity’ (Second Spatialist Manifesto, 1948, in E. Crispolti and R. Siligato (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Milan, 1998, p. 118).