This work is recorded under no. 283/1 in the Lucio Fontana Archives, Milan.
In March 1965, Alexei Leonov stepped from his spaceship and into the vast vacuum of the Cosmos. Although both the Russians and Americans had already been in space, this was the first ever space walk, an historical moment echoed a few months later when the Americans followed suit. During the 'space race' between the two superpowers, the cosmos seemed frequently to be filled with itinerant astronauts, a phenomenon that intrigued Lucio Fontana, the founder of Spatialism. Indeed, even before the momentous space walk, Fontana had written enthusiastically on this subject to his friend, the art critic, Enrico Crispolti:
'I am pleased with man's 'little trip' in space, between us and the non-figurative 'imaginists', or half figurative and the other half what the client wants, etc. etc. now the break is also physical, they are on earth and we are in space, ça va? Are you with us?' (Fontana, letter to E. Crispolti, 12 April 1964, in E. Crispolti, 'Beyond Informel, The Sixties', exh. cat., Lucio Fontana, Rome, 1998, p. 245).
From the 1940s onwards, Fontana had been intrigued by space and light. Indeed, he was one of the first artists to use light fixtures as a means of exploring, illuminating and therefore, in a new sense, illustrating space itself. His experiments with light and space involved media as diverse as torn canvases, ceilings, neon and clay. In the pictorial media, his great breakthrough had been to puncture the surface, opening up the area behind and importantly emphasising the three-dimensional aspects of the supposedly two-dimensional. In this sense, he believed his works were sculptures, regardless of their flatness or their reliance on artificial illumination, and this was the case as much with his light installations as with his canvases. As he himself said of his illuminated ceilings in particular, they were:
'sculptures full of light, but they were not light itself... It was an object and really I anticipated objects. They were objects, no longer pictures' (L. Fontana, quoted in T. Trini, 'The last interview given by Fontana', pp. 34-36, exh. cat., Lucio Fontana, Amsterdam & London, 1988, p. 34).
In this sense, Fontana performed the artistic equivalent of proving that the earth was not flat. He introduced an entire method of understanding the space occupied by the artwork and, by extension, the viewer.
Like Concetto spaziale: Teatrino, Fontana's light installations often used both holes and neon, for instance the 1953 ceiling of the Sidercomit Pavilion at the 31st Milan Fair, where the punctures were reminiscent of his Buchi, the neon lines prefiguring the slashes of the later Attese, the razor-sliced canvases. The effects of the light on the surfaces created a complex interplay of light and shadow. This was a theme Fontana continued to explore in his large-scale Ambienti spaziali, works in which he created an entire 'spatial environment'.
In many ways, Fontana's Teatrini should be seen in the context of his architectural work. Indeed, the title of these works, meaning 'Little Theatres', contains the idea that they are in themselves miniature 'environments'. In the dual level of the Teatrini, Fontana manipulated space and light in much the same way that his Ambientazioni did. The shiny, lacquered front was specifically intended to create complex plays of light and shadow. In Concetto spaziale: Teatrino this is intensified not only by the double use of black in both foreground and background, but also by the neon lighting from behind, which results in the work producing intense contrasts between light and dark. In this sense, Concetto spaziale: Teatrino appears to mimic in miniature form the architectural adventures that Fontana proclaimed were so central to his work, and to Spatialism in particular.
Until Fontana began producing the Teatrini in the 1960s, abstraction had dominated his art for the best part of two decades, as had new media. However, in the Teatrini, Fontana created a semi-figurative idiom, depicting for instance waves, trees and mushroom clouds in silhouette in the lacquered foreground. In Concetto spaziale: Teatrino, the vague shape of an astronaut can be discerned, with the life-support cable snaking towards him, reflecting the importance of space exploration to his work and thought. The cable snaking out and supporting the strange and distorted, almost foetal shape of the astronaut is like an umbilical cord, reflecting Fontana's belief that journeying into the cosmos was merely the first step in a vast evolutionary leap. This was likewise reflected in his views on the future of art:
'In five hundred years time people will not talk of art, they will talk of other problems and art will be like going to see a curiosity like the two rocks put together by the first caveman. What were they up to? Why did they cover walls with pictures? Today man is on earth and these things are all things that man has done while on earth, but do you think man will have time to produce art while travelling through the universe? He will only have time to travel through space and discover marvellous things, things so beautiful that things here will seem worthless. Today's young people are still too tied to the earth. Man must free himself completely from the earth, only then will the direction that he will take in the future become clear. Today we are still too firmly glued to the earth. And since I believe in man's intelligence - it is the only thing in which I believe, more so than in God, for me God is man's intelligence - I am convinced that the man of the future will have a completely new world' (L. Fontana, quoted in Trini, ibid, 1988, p. 36).
The backlighting in Concetto spaziale: Teatrino accentuates the impression that the spaceman appears freed with the dazzling starry sky behind him, lending this work an almost religious tone in its exultant celebration of the space walk, and of the cosmos itself.