‘The form here is finished, I go beyond it, I wish to document the New’
(Fontana quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 21)
‘My art is directed towards this purity, it is based on the philosophy of nothingness, a nothingness that does not imply destruction, but a nothingness of creation…’
(Fontana quoted in P. Campiglio (ed.), ‘Milan, 10 October 1967: Carla Lonzi interviews Lucio Fontana’ in Lucio Fontana Sedici sculture, Sixteen sculptures 1937-1967, exh. cat., London, 2007, p. 35)
Standing at nearly a metre high, Concetto spaziale, Attese is an exquisite and monumental monochrome tagli that the pioneering avant-garde artist Lucio Fontana executed in 1967 at the pinnacle of his prolific career. Six long, elegant, cuts tear through the pure white surface of the canvas with a cadenced harmony, each incision following the intuitive rhythm and graceful momentum of the artist’s hand as the knife penetrated the surface. Only a year before he executed Concetto spaziale, Attese, Fontana had been awarded the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale for his installation of large, white tagli. It is in the striking contrast between the pure white luminosity of the surface and the darkness of the enigmatic voids in Concetto spaziale, Attese that Fontana’s Spatialism, the movement he founded in 1947, finds its best expression. With the dramatic gesture of the cut, Fontana opened up the two-dimensional surface of the canvas to incorporate the space surrounding it and reveal the limitless black void behind: the enigmatic fourth dimension. Revelatory in its concept and infinitely poetic in its appearance, Concetto spaziale, Attese immortalises the fleeting moment of the gesture for eternity; a crystallisation of the artist’s career-long formal and conceptual concerns.
The pervading sense of absolute calm and majestic harmony that radiates from Concetto spaziale, Attese is heightened by the inscription that Fontana has written on the back of the canvas: ‘Un profondissimo,/tragico, silenzio,/dopo lo scontro’, ‘A very deep, tragic silence, after the collision’. Fontana often wrote phrases on the back of his Attese, ranging from short references to friends, visitors or the weather, to longer, more poetic or philosophical statements and sentiments such as the present work.
Fontana began his series of tagli in 1958. Having already punctured the canvas with constellations of small holes in a series known as buchi, Fontana extended this concept by slashing the canvas in vertical cuts. With the downward thrust of a razor blade, Fontana severed through the site that had served as the basis of artistic creation for centuries. Splitting apart the haloed surface of the canvas, Fontana destroyed the traditional illusory space of the picture plane and revealed to the viewer the dark space that lies beyond the canvas. ‘I make a hole in the canvas’, the artist stated, ‘in order to leave behind the old pictorial formulae, the painting and the traditional view of art and I escape symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface’ (Fontana quoted in T. Trini, ‘The last interview given by Fontana’, in W. Beeren and N. Serota (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Amsterdam and London, 1988, p. 34). This performative act was one of the most decisive breakthroughs of twentieth century art; a radical innovation that revolutionised the conception of painting.
Writing in the Technical Manifesto of 1951 – one of a series of Spatial manifestos that Fontana and a group of artists had begun to publish in 1947 – Fontana declared: ‘The discovery of new physical forces, the control of matter and space gradually impose on man conditions that never existed earlier in history. The application of these discoveries to all forms of life creates a considerable change in ideas. The painted cardboard, the upright stone, no longer make sense; the plastic arts consisted in ideal representations of known forms and images to which reality was ideally attributed’ (E. Crispolti and R. Siligato (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Rome, 1998, p. 174). At the dawn of a new technological age, where particle physics and space exploration had completely redefined man’s understanding of the world and his place within it, Fontana realised that traditional forms of artistic representation had little use and no meaning. Instead, Fontana understood that the artist, like the scientist, had to compete with a vision of the world exclusively comprised of time, matter, energy and above all, the pervasive void of deep space. Faced with this reality, Fontana called for artists to embrace this revolutionary, exciting age and produce a new art entrenched in the extraordinary developments of science and space travel.
It was with the buchi and subsequently the tagli that Fontana realised these conceptual aims, transforming the canvas into a three-dimensional object that combined the dynamic elements of time, space and movement to become neither painting nor sculpture but instead a spatial concept that existed in real time and space. By piercing the canvas, Fontana created a portal to another dimension, revealing another world akin to the unchartered territory of the infinite cosmos. Behind each cut lies a pool of dark, perpetual space, full of mystery and possibilities. In this way, the mystical openings visible in Concetto spaziale, Attese invite the viewer to engage with the dark infinity beyond the picture plane, creating an almost transcendent experience. Unlike the gesturality and physicality of the buchi, the dramatic, singular gesture of the tagli resonated with an elegant minimalism, serving as the embodiment of the artist’s formal and theoretical concerns. ‘With the taglio’, Fontana stated, ‘I have invented a formula that I think I cannot perfect…I succeeded in giving those looking at my work a sense of spatial calm, a cosmic rigor, of serenity with regard to the Infinite. Further than this I could not go’ (Fontana quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 58).
For Fontana, the monochrome white surface of the canvas enabled him to attain the sense of limitless, infinite space that he wanted to convey through his tagli. Space had always enthralled the artist. Fontana was born in Argentina to Italian parents. Having lived in both countries it was the expansive, endless landscapes of Southern Argentina that left their mark on the artist. Guido Ballo recalled that Fontana was haunted by the Argentine sky and asked his step-brother to photograph it for him ‘thousands and thousands of times’ (S. Whitfield, Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., London, 1999, p. 29). Having experimented with a range of monochrome colours, it was white which most encapsulated the sense of boundless, unfathomable space that Fontana sought to convey in his work. White, he said, is the ‘purest colour, the least complicated, the easiest to understand’, that which most immediately and most successful attained a ‘pure simplicity’ and the ‘pure philosophy’ which he sought to attain in the works of the last years of his life (Fontana quoted in E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, Tomo I, Milan, 2006, p. 79).
The year before Fontana executed Concetto spaziale, Attese, he had explored the visual potential of white in a critically acclaimed installation at the XXXIII Venice Biennale for which he was awarded the Grand Prize of Painting. Created in collaboration with the architect Carlo Scarpa, Fontana’s Ambiente Spaziale (Spatial Environment) consisted of a luminous white labyrinthine room filled with examples of white tagli. Fontana explained the impetus behind his design: ‘I wanted to create a ‘spatial environment’, by which I mean an environmental structure, a preliminary journey in which the twenty slits would be as if in a labyrinth containing blanks of the same shape and colour’ (Fontana quoted in S. Whitfield, Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., London, 1999, p. 200). In 1968, he created a similar maze-like room for the ‘Documenta 4’ in Kassel, Germany, placing a single, large, revelatory slash in a totally white room.
Executed at the end of his life, Concetto spaziale, Attese demonstrates Fontana’s continued desire to push the artistic discoveries he had made with his tagli to their extreme, creating with a brilliant simplicity of means, a vision of resonating purity and harmony. In 1967, the year that he executed the present work, Fontana reflected on his career in an interview with Carla Lonzi. Speaking of his artistic discoveries he surmised, ‘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…’ (Fontana quoted in P. Campiglio (ed.), ‘Milan, 10 October 1967: Carla Lonzi interviews Lucio Fontana’ in Lucio Fontana Sedici sculture, Sixteen sculptures 1937-1967, exh. cat., London, 2007, p. 39).