‘What we want to do is to unchain art from matter, to unchain the sense of the eternal from the preoccupation with the immortal. And we don’t care if a gesture, once performed, lives a moment or a millennium, since we are truly convinced that once performed it is eternal’ – L. Fontana
‘The discovery of new physical powers, the conquest of matter and space gradually impose on man conditions which have never existed before the application of these discoveries to the various forms of life brings about a substantial transformation in our way of thinking. The painted surface, the erected stone, no longer have a meaning’ – L. Fontana
With its five rhythmic slashes elegantly scored across the pristine white surface of the canvas, Concetto Spaziale, Attese is a pure and lyrical example of Lucio Fontana’s tagli or ‘cuts’. Executed in 1964, it is situated at the peak of this landmark series of works, presaging the artist’s legendary exhibition of white tagli at the XXXIII Venice Biennale just two years later: an installation for which he was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting. Penetrating the very fibre of the canvas to reveal the uncharted void beyond, Fontana’s tagli represent the most important realisation of his ground-breaking Spatialist theories. Inspired by the scientific advances of the Space Age, Fontana sought to create a new art form equipped to translate the newly-discovered dimensions of the cosmos. By piercing the canvas with a near-balletic series of calligraphic gestures, the artist gave birth to a visual language rooted in space, movement, time and energy: elements whose properties had been wholly redefined by man’s exploration of the universe. In the minimal simplicity of the singular slashing gesture, Fontana gave expression to the wake left by parting particles – the mysterious ripples in space and time. In articulating this radical vision, Fontana found white to be the ‘purest, least complicated, most understandable colour’, that which most immediately struck a note of ‘pure simplicity’ and ‘spatial philosophy’ (J. van der Marck and E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana, vol. I, Brussels 1974, p. 137). In the present work, the contrast between the blazing white surface of the canvas and the infinite darkness beyond invokes a revolutionary creative dawn: a brave new world of limitless possibility that mankind had only just begun to explore.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, theories of modern physics shook the very foundation of the way man perceived himself in the universe. Fontana was fascinated by recent technological advancements that showed space as an indeterminate cosmos without confines or external points of reference. He felt it essential to change art’s nature and form in order to match the spirit of the time, and in 1946, Fontana, along with other avant-garde artists in Buenos Aires, published the Manifesto Blanco, postulating that ‘we abandon the practice of known art forms and we approach the development of an art based on the unity of time and space’ (L. Fontana, Manifesto Blanco, 1946, reproduced in R. Fuchs, Lucio Fontana: La cultura dell’occhio, exh. cat., Castello di Rivoli, Rivoli, 1986, p. 80). By piercing the canvas, initially through his series of buchi (‘holes’) and subsequently through his tagli, Fontana united temporal and spatial phenomena, creating a language grounded in the gestural act and its physical residue. For the artist, the capturing of movement in art was the last frontier – one that had only become conceptually possible in light of recent scientific advancements. The canvas was no longer simply a support: it was a space in which invisible energetic forces collided to create a new, multi-dimensional object. As Fontana wrote in the First Spatialist Manifesto of 1947, ‘What we want to do is to unchain art from matter, to unchain the sense of the eternal from the preoccupation with the immortal. And we don’t care if a gesture, once performed, lives a moment or a millennium, since we are truly convinced that once performed it is eternal’ (L. Fontana, First Spatialist Manifesto, 1947, reproduced in E. Crispolti et al. (eds.), Lucio Fontana, Milan 1998, pp. 117-18).
Fontana’s white tagli are widely considered to represent the purest articulation of the theories that underpinned his practice. Perpetually haunted by the blazing expanse of bright Argentinian sky beneath which he was born, white resonated with him more than any other colour. Its stark absence of pigmentation encapsulated the sense of boundless, unfathomable space that he sought to convey in his work. His installation at the 1966 Venice Biennale, which he titled Ambiente Spaziale (Spatial Environment), brought this conviction to a head. Created in collaboration with the architect Carlo Scarpa, the exhibition consisted of a luminous white labyrinthine room filled with examples of white tagli similar to the present work. As Fontana explained to Pierre Restany, ‘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’ (L. Fontana, quoted in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1999, p. 200). The white tagli thus became the vehicles through which Fontana would translate his vision onto a fully immersive scale, transforming the traditional experience of encountering art into a transcendental journey to the centre of the void. ‘I have invented a formula that I think I cannot perfect’, he wrote. ‘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’ (L. Fontana, quoted in P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles 2012, p. 58).