‘I wanted to be a sculptor, I would have liked to be a painter, too, like my grandfather, but I realised that these specific art terms are not for me, and I felt like a Spatial artist. That’s exactly it: a butterfly in space exists in my imagination; having freed myself from rhetoric, I lose myself in time and begin with holes’
‘I can’t conceive of a new art being made with traditional means, canvases, colours, and sculpture – we can use these means in a transitional way, in order to prepare us for a new aesthetic, but we will achieve a real transformation in art only if we enter into the dominion of modern techniques…’
‘I use them [materials], I am not dominated by them: I use them to allude to something else, to something with an infinite quality’
‘the hole is the beginning of a sculpture in space’
‘[Fontana] is the enemy of media purity, and chooses the ambiguous borders between the arts, where paintings look like sculpture and sculpture meets painting halfway, in a series of overlappings and conflations’
A dazzling, cosmic vision of light and movement, Lucio Fontana’s [Concetto spaziale] is among the earliest metal buchi of this kind, a rare and important work that encapsulates the spirit of discovery and restless exploration that defines the artist’s groundbreaking career. A gleaming icon of early Spatialism, this work was executed in 1954, a period of intense experimentation in Fontana’s career, as he explored, with an indefatigable zeal, the myriad aesthetic possibilities of perhaps his greatest artistic act: the hole. Here, the luminous steel surface is punctured with rows of the artist’s signature holes or buchi that follow a loosely horizontal formation, all enclosed by a mysterious single line incised into the ever-changing reflective surface. Prefiguring the monumental, architectonic Metalli, [Concetto spaziale] is a fantastical fusion of material, light and space, the three central concepts that unite the artist’s diverse practice. Evading traditional definitions of painting, sculpture and architecture, it also anticipates the radical work of Burri, Manzoni and Castellani, as well as the American Minimalists of the 1960s.
The only work of its kind from this period, [Concetto spaziale] anticipates the Metalli, the iconic series that Fontana began just under a decade later, in 1962. This group was inspired by Fontana’s first and only trip to New York. Amidst the frenetic metropolis, he was overwhelmed by the skyscrapers, towering totems of metal and glass and soaring symbols of technological and mechanical might. The city’s sparkling skyline of blinking lights seemed to make visible the imperceptible workings of the cosmos. The Metalli that followed sought to capture these revelations. ‘How was I to paint this terrible New York?’ he asked himself. ‘Then all of a sudden I had an intuition: I took some sheets of shiny metal and set to work, sometimes scratching them vertically to convey the idea of sky-scrapers, sometimes puncturing them with a metal punch, sometimes flexing them to suggest dramatic skies… no other material so successfully captures the sense of this Metropolis made all of glass, of window panes, orgies of light, and the dazzle of metal’ (Fontana, quoted in L. Massimo Barbero, Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 45). Unlike the Venezie, the group executed a year earlier and the only other series to be directly inspired by a specific location, in which Fontana often lavished swathes of gold and silver metallic paint upon the surface of the canvas, before incising swirling patterns, holes or in one case, finger prints to echo the opulent Byzantine and Baroque architecture of the city, the Metalli embody the stark minimalism and modernity of New York. Austere sheets of copper, brass and aluminium were the only way he could capture the brash vitality of the city, as he incised both slashes and punctures into the unbending surfaces.
With its constellation-like trails of holes and reflective silver surface, [Concetto spaziale] appears like an artwork from outer space. Crafted from steel, an industrial, highly unorthodox artistic material, and imbued with a cosmic serenity that defines so many of Fontana’s Spatialist art works, it provides the perfect answer to the artist’s statement: ‘In the Space Age, spatial art’ (Fontana, quoted in S. Petersen, Space-Age Aesthetics: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and the Postwar European Avant-Garde, 1963, Pennsylvania, p. 47). Captivated by the revelatory scientific, cosmic and technological discoveries of the post-war era, Fontana believed that art had to embody the spirit of the times. As man’s conception of the universe and the cosmos was radically revised thanks to scientific and technological innovation, Fontana felt that conventional forms of painting and sculpture were no longer sufficient in aptly reflecting the world in which he lived. The Manifesto Blanco, written by Fontana’s students in Buenos Aires in 1946, explained the urgent need to overturn tradition: ‘The discovery of new physical forces, control over matter and space gradually impose conditions that have never existed in the whole course of history… Painted canvas and upright plaster no longer have a reason to exist… We need to go beyond painting, sculpture, poetry, and music. We need a greater art in harmony with the requirements of the new spirit’ (Manifesto Blanco, 1946, in E. Crispolti & R. Siligato, eds., Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Rome, 1998, p. 116-117).
In 1949, five years before he executed the present work, Fontana began to realise these ambitious artistic aims when he made his most important breakthrough: the hole. Beginning by puncturing pieces of white card before moving to canvas, he immediately realised the significance of this gesture. By breaking through the inviolable surface of the picture plane, he found that he could integrate space – both physically and conceptually – into the artwork. No longer was the pictorial support simply a flat repository for illusionistic descriptions or abstract outpourings, but it instead became a three-dimensional object that integrated space and light. On a metaphorical level, the black chasms of empty space that were revealed through these punctures, served, Fontana realised, as evocations of the cosmos and its infinite space: ‘When I hit the canvas I sensed that I had made an important gesture. It was, in fact, not an incidental hole, it was a conscious hole: by making a hole in the picture I found a new dimension in the void. By making holes in the picture I invented the fourth dimension’ (Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 21).
The inauguration of the buchi marked the beginning of a period of intense artistic exploration, of which [Concetto spaziale] dates from the peak. It was not long before he began experimenting with different materials in the creation of these punctured works. In 1951, he introduced colour to the monochrome canvases, often applying gestural sweeps and streaks of Informel-esque impastoed pigment; and the same year, he began another cycle, the Pietre or ‘Stones’, which saw him affix pieces of coloured Murano glass to the pierced surfaces, thereby integrating shimmering reflections of light. Alongside these canvas-based works, in 1954, Fontana returned to what Enrico Crispolti described as Sculpture spaziale: terracotta ‘tablets’, which were incised with various arrangements of buchi. Related both to the more sculptural terracottas as well as the canvas-based buchi, the present work is a rare synthesis of painting and sculpture, bridging these divisions to exist as a true ‘spatial concept’.
In this restless quest for artistic discovery, it is therefore not surprising that Fontana soon turned his hand to metal in the creation of the buchi. As Luca Massimo Barbero has noted, ‘metal, the way light reflects from it and at the same time penetrates, revealing its plasticity, had always represented a challenge for [Fontana]’ (L. Massimo Barbero, op. cit., p. 24). Over the course of his career, Fontana turned time again both to metal as well as metallic paint, revelling both in the cosmic allusions of this material – it conjures visions of aluminium space craft, reflective astronaut suits and the silver surface of the moon – as well as its reflective qualities, which allowed him to integrate light as a dynamic part of his art works.
While Fontana had used tin in a few earlier buchi, which feature densely impastoed surfaces and swirling formations of holes, it was not until 1954 that he enlisted the sleek, reflective surface of steel in the creation of his buchi. Using a large sheet of this material, in the present work, he pierced through the reflective surface from both sides, creating gently undulating constellations of holes in a horizontal formation – a similar composition to some of the canvas buchi he had executed the year prior. More than painted canvas or terracotta, the steel is constantly reflecting patterns of light and shadow, both across the punctured surface and into the space it occupies. As a result, it is not just real space that is integrated into the work itself, but, most importantly, light and movement. With its elegant formation of holes and shining surface, [Concetto spaziale] sees Fontana attain a visual and conceptual purity, as both material and gesture balance in perfect accord. With [Concetto spaziale], Fontana succeeded in creating art that transcended not only media distinctions but material itself; making, in his own words, work that was, ‘neither painting nor sculpture, [but] luminous shape in space – emotive freedom for the spectator’ (Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, op. cit., p. 18).