This work is registered in the Archivio Lucio Fontana, Milan, under no. 4059/1.
On a deeply saturated field of opulent red, a single, slow, vertical cut reveals a dark inner void. A sense of hermetic quietude surrounds this sensuous exemplar of Lucio Fontana’s series, Concetti spaziali, begun in 1947 and elaborated in various forms throughout his career. Holes punctured in canvases (buchi), surfaces encrusted with stones and glass in his pietre (stones), and canvases sliced through (tagli) explore the notion of opening up a material surface to espy metaphysical vistas. In the present work, the monochrome canvas is pure saturated color, its matte finish—a fracture of the smoothest texture—making the vertical slice all the more a harsh violation of the planar field. This taglio, or cut, however, is as much an expressive gesture as a violent one. In this iteration of the cuts, Fontana seems not so much to be rending a canvas as to be carefully opening up to view the extraordinary spatial properties that beckon boundlessness, that like the space age Fontana was entering at the time, would allow traditional explanations of our universe to give way to new understandings. In this manner, the present work is both hermetic and revealing, closed to interpretation and open to multivalent meanings. And even as Fontana suggests the illimitable, he leaves on the surface of the canvas a material trace—or index—of his own presence, a gesture that remains in view.
Whether this work should be understood as a painting or a wall relief, an easel picture or a form of sculpture, begs further the question of the viability of traditional categories of art making. In fact, through this act of “violation,” Fontana was putting forward a spatialist proposition, one which posited that opening of the physical artwork through holes and cuts allowed the object to claim the space around it. In this way, the artist would overcome the material and enjoin the spatial, in effect closing the separation between the materiality of the artwork as such and the space it inhabits. Fontana makes space palpable through violating the material out of which the work is made.
It may be hard at this distance to imagine the shock of Fontana’s first slice of the canvas, made when the artist was nearly fifty. His desire to represent space catalyzed years of searching for just the medium, just the mark that would make such a thing possible. His goal was to render space part of the material itself or to shape the material such that space would be perceived as fact. Indeed, before his death, Fontana said “a single cut would have sufficed to make his concept plain” (K. Hegewisch, “Lucio Fontana,” in Lucio Fontana: Works, 1958-65, New York, 1988, n.p.). It was only in 1948 that through constructing a spatial environment, Ambiente spaziale, a darkened environment through which the viewer made his/her way to a floating shape, shimmering with phosphorescent light that Fontana grasped the material form of his concept. As a sculptor early in his career, his goal had been to free himself from three-dimensions to discover the fourth, space/time. The idea of space, the Concetti spazieli, occupied him in one form and another for the rest of his career. Fontana began his talgi (cuts) in 1959, which through a single movement, destroyed the monochrome surface. The act was “unrepeatable and uncorrectable” (Ibid.,” n.p.). Fontana backs his canvas with black gauze to give the appearance of endless depth, moving the eye beyond the picture plane into seemingly interminable space. Thus, the “image,” the cut on the surface is simply a byway, not foregrounded as an interpretable statement, but rather functions as an entryway, an opening, a way “in.” As Fontana averred, “It’s not true that I tore the canvas to destroy it, no, I tore at it to find something. I’d add, to find ‘the cosmos,’ which is an unknown dimension” (L Fontana, Ultima intervista in vita, Comobbio, July 19, 1968, in T. Trini, Burri e Fontana 1949-1968, exh. cat., Roma, 1996, n.p.). For Fontana, space is not concrete, but rather an idea, a concept. “I’m not interested in the space you’re talking about. Mine is another dimension… There can be no spatial painting or sculpture, but only a spatial concept of art” (Ibid.). And further, “The perforation was outside the paintings’ dimension, it as the freedom to conceive art” (L. Fontana, in Lucio Fontana: Materia, Spazio, Concetto, ed. J. de Sanna, Milan, 1993). In this way, Fontana turned the easel picture into a dynamic form. It is both an object and an action, something visible to the eye, and something—ill-defined, but present—invisible, a way toward something as yet unseen.
Concetto spaziale, 1968, was created in the last year of Fontana’s life. An extraordinarily beautiful aesthetic object, this work is also underpinned by the energy and purpose of his early statements about the release of the spirit through material, scientific, and artistic means. In 1946, Fontana had signed the first manifesto of the Spatial Movement, a Spanish-Language document called the White Manifiesto. In 1947, the first manifesto in Italian was written and the second manifesto followed the next year. In 1949, a summation of these documents was penned, recognizing Fontana as the initiator and founder of the Spatial Movement: “The Spatial Movement aims to create an at form using the new media made available to artists by technical progress … The Spatial Artist does not impose a figurative topic on the viewer, but makes it possible for him to create his own, using his imagination and feelings” (L. Fontana, “Proposal for the Regulation,” in Neither Painting, Nor Sculpture: Forms, Colours, Sounds in Space: Lucio Fontana, Rome, 2006, p. 39). Among the most compelling of his final works, the brilliantly glowing red monochrome surface of Concetto spaziale, 1968, contrasts with the immeasurable depth of space revealed by a single vertical perforation, stunningly illustrating Fontana’s belief that a new art of his making will open on to a spiritual cosmology of unimagined freedom: “making a hole was a radical gesture that broke the space of the picture and that said: after this, we are free to do what we want” (L. Fontana quoted in G. Ballo, “On Lucio Fontana,” Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizione, Rome, 1998, p. 247).