‘I moved beyond the limits of perspective…pushing towards a discovery of the universe and a new dimension; that of infinity … It was this research that drove me to perforate the canvas, the base that had always supported all of arts, and so in doing, I created an infinite dimension, a value x that, for me, represented the base of all contemporary art’
'The discovery of the Cosmos is that of a new dimension, it is the Infinite: thus I pierce the canvas, which is the basis of all arts and I have created an infinite dimension'
Executed at the apex of the space age, Concetto spaziale, Attese is completely unique in Lucio Fontana’s oeuvre. Fontana famously sought the fourth dimension by piercing his canvases, in spiritual union with the astronauts who were making bold new steps into space. Here, he has not only slashed through the pristine white surface with twenty-four of his iconic cuts – the greatest number that he would ever commit to one canvas – but has also added a further dimension to the work by enshrouding it in a black lacquer frame, which glistens with reflections of the world around it. It is an extraordinary object. Although he experimented with a wide range of hues in his works, white was Fontana’s ultimate colour of choice for his monochrome tagli. The cuts dance magically across the composition in musical harmony, their elegance belying the violence which has created them. The frame becomes a part of the object, shooting over the canvas in a futuristic diagonal and totally transcending any pictorial flatness. Blazing a trail like a comet in space, the overlaid beam enhances the work’s sheer beauty and dynamism, the play of shadows it produces furthering Fontana’s quest for dimensionality beyond the picture plane. Another singular feature is a dedication written by Fontana on the reverse: Yesterday Tro-tro Klein came to visit me. The visitor in question is Rotraut Klein, the sister of Günther Uecker, the widow of Yves Klein (who had died in 1962), and an artist in her own right. Originally owned by Carla Panicali for over thirty years, the work set the world auction record for the artist's tagli when it sold to the present owner in 1998. A highly intellectual object, it is also outstandingly beautiful.
As well as recording Fontana’s personal friendship with Rotraut Klein, the inscription bears witness to a key artistic exchange at the heart of the postwar European avant-garde. Fontana and Yves Klein had worked closely with Günther Uecker, Piero Manzoni, Heinz Mack and Otto Piene as part of ZERO, a group dedicated to a direct, tabula rasa exploration of light and space without representation or illusion, in which the purity of white played a crucial role. With its visionary use of white, black, shadow, reflection and balletic rhythm, Concetto spaziale, Attese is an unmatched expression of these ideas in Fontana’s art. The work’s provenance adds further art-historical pedigree: prior to its sale to the present owner in 1998, it was acquired directly from the artist by Carla Panicali in 1965. A major figure in the Italian art world, Panicali had opened the Rome branch of Marlborough Gallery in 1962; working with Marlborough London, she represented Italian and international artists including Fontana, Alberto Burri, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Kurt Schwitters, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and many others. After the closure of Marlborough Rome in 1980, she opened her gallery L’Isola, which held major shows by artists such as Carla Accardi, Alighiero Boetti and Michelangelo Pistoletto. With its dramatic, near-architectural presence, Concetto spaziale, Attese held a distinguished place in her collection for more than three decades.
White, Fontana’s optimal (non-)colour for his spatial explorations, provides a pristine contrast with the slits and frame of Concetto spaziale, Attese, plunging them into the abyssal blackness of boundless space. It also links the work, not coincidentally, to the project of the ZERO artists, who had founded their movement in 1957, ten years after Fontana’s own declaration of ‘Spatialism’. For the ZERO group, white embodied the ecstatic primary condition of light that Otto Piene called ‘a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning’ (O. Piene, ‘The Development of the Group “Zero,”’ The Times Literary Supplement, 3 September 1964, pp. 812–13); Piero Manzoni asserted that ‘Infinity is rigorously monochrome, or, better still, it has no colour’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, No. 2, Milan, 1960). A key element of ZERO’s regenerative postwar ethos, white represented a ‘ground zero’ that could open up previously unimagined freedoms, ideas and potentials. Fontana also saw that in a more concrete sense, as with Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of the early 1950s, a pure white surface could be a receptor for the movements of light and shadow in the gallery space, furthering his quest for direct interface between viewer and work. The year following the execution of Concetto spaziale, Attese, Fontana was awarded the Grand Prize at the 1966 Venice Biennale for an installation of twenty white canvases, each with a single vertical incision down the centre. White, he said, was the ‘purest colour, the least complicated, the easiest to understand’, that which most immediately and most successful conveyed the ‘pure simplicity’, and ‘pure philosophy’ which he sought to attain in the works of the final years of his life (L. Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, Tomo I, Milan, 2006, p. 79).
Engaging with a new form of conceptual purity that was emerging in the mid-1960s, Concetto spaziale, Attese also reflects Fontana’s fascination with the developments of American Minimalism. Minimalism’s proponents, including Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, had themselves learnt much from the use of real space and light and the rejection of picture-plane illusionism in Fontana’s art. While its iterated cuts conjure a dynamism that has an undeniable debt to Italian Futurist painting, the elongated, serial composition and slick objecthood of Concetto spaziale, Attese can also be seen in relation to such Minimalist formats as the boxes and ‘stacks’ created by Donald Judd, whose groundbreaking text ‘Specific Objects’ had been published in 1965. It is notable that Fontana’s only other work with twenty-four slashes was also produced that same year. ‘Half or more of the best new work in the last few years’, Judd declared in his essay, ‘has been neither painting nor sculpture. Usually it has been related, closely or distantly, to one or the other … The use of three dimensions is an obvious alternative. It opens to anything … Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface’ (D. Judd, ‘Specific Objects’, Arts Yearbook 8, 1965). Such ideas built closely on Fontana’s own radical revision of what a work of art could do in relation to ‘actual space’, as well as on the legacy of the ZERO artists. Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese, meanwhile, seems itself to learn something from the iterated form and hard-edged physical presence of Minimalist sculpture. As this dialogue indicates, Fontana was working at the very forefront of avant-garde art even late in his career, and advancing the ideas of the generation of artists who would succeed him after his death in 1968.
Concetto spaziale, Attese is not only unique in Fontana’s practice, but also stands as a supreme apotheosis of his philosophy. The serene white surface represents the purest distillation of his Spatialist thought. His rhythmic cuts energise the canvas and the void beyond, immortalising the gliding motions of his hand like trails of meteor or rocket. Echoing the sharp polish of Minimalism, the frame’s lustrous beam of black lacquer protrudes in stark counterpoint to the matte white, punctuating the tempo of the slashes to lend the composition a bold structural drama. Instead of acting as a simple physical barrier, the frame – not unlike the first glossy black ‘mirror paintings’ of Michelangelo Pistoletto, also commenced in the 1960s – reflects a shard of the viewer’s own surroundings, creating a direct continuum with the external space they occupy. Every change of light, every shift of the viewing angle, alters the play of sliced silhouette and cast shadow. Fontana employs the mechanics of light and space with virtuoso skill to redefine the work of art as a radically dynamic object. Surpassing the physicality of its materials, Concetto spaziale, Attese creates a transcendental experience, both existing in the tangible world and extending, like a portal, into the immateriality of a mysterious further realm. In front of the work, drawn into a profound symphony of reflection, shadow, surface and space, we stand at the threshold of infinity.