Concetto Spaziale, Teatrino (giallo e nero) is a uniquely hybrid object. At once a painting and a sculpture, it is also designed to harness the immaterial qualities of space, light and time. The bold black and yellow diorama belongs to the Teatrini (‘little theatres’) series that Fontana completed between 1964 and 1966, when he was still occupied with his buchi, tagli and olii, and was finishing the acclaimed cycle La fine di Dio. Abstraction had dominated Fontana’s work for the best part of two decades, but the Teatrini introduced a playful figurative element that directly responded to contemporary art developments. The pierced canvas with its enveloping box-like frame depicting stylised organic forms was a kind of ‘realistic Spatialism’, Fontana claimed. It was also ‘a little bit in the fashion of these Pop Art things . . . but still in my way. They were forms that Man imagines in space’ (L. Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 114).
Ever-eager to push the boundaries of his art, Fontana now sought to reflect the idealised, industrial aesthetic of Pop, and enlisted the assistance of master woodworkers to fashion the lacquered Teatrini frames based on his drawings. He saw the exquisite finish of these casings, which act as a kind of stage set, as a means of enticing viewers to meditate on his essentially conceptual practice. ‘My figurative forms . . . were devised by a basically philosophical mentality’, Fontana explained. ‘I am not a materialist, in all of my works nothing really remains of the materialist form. If I use lacquered wood, then of course it is it is exclusively in order to make a record: I render it more beautiful with the help of a technique, but in fact it is pure documentation. I could use raw wood and the effect would be understood all the same . . . In this way, however, someone might be attracted by the beauty of the material, by the form (L. Fontana, quoted in ibid., p. 118).
In the present work, the forms emerging from the black lacquered frame are thrown into sharp silhouette against the yellow canvas, with cast shadows enhancing the impression of spatial depth. Where other works in the Teatrino series feature shapes reminiscent of waves, mountains, trees and mushroom clouds, this Concetto spaziale delineates a stacked, bulbous form that evokes Fontana’s series of Nature sculptures created in 1959?60. The Nature were crafted from giant terracotta spheres ripped open with rough gashes or holes, which suggest asteroids, split seedpods, or primordial generative matter. These sculptures were a brooding physical response to the idea of the infinite universe in Fontana’s imagination. The optimism once presented by the prospect of mans’ cosmic excursions had been replaced by existentially unsettling thoughts in Fontana’s mind, and he now reflected upon the anguish of the astronauts and their encounter with the ‘atrocious unnerving silence’ of outer space.
Here, the slashed globular form appears cast adrift in a desolate landscape with an arc of perforations charting a dynamic trajectory in the ‘sky’ above. These holes, or buchi, piercing the painted canvas support represent Fontana’s first breakthrough in his Spatialist ideas. They invite the viewer to contemplate beyond the limitations of foreground shapes, the picture plane and even the scope of the horizon, into deep space. Indeed, the use of the landscape motif in the foreground introduces a sense of the epic, a sense of vast scale, where Fontana’s momentous breach of the canvas floats on high with terrestrial existence belittled far below.