At the apex of Abstract Spatialism is a select body of work that radically expanded painting’s possibilities in the postwar age: Lucio Fontana’s celebrated Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio (Spatial Concepts, The End of God). The avant-garde series, of which the present vivid yellow work is a striking exemplar, consists of large, sumptuous, viscerally pierced “eggs” which Fontana painstakingly oil-painted in seductive, bold monochromes. The ovoid masterpieces communicate scientific and religious principles aesthetically, in a Neo-Modernist fashion. Fontana executed his magnum opus between March 1963 and February 1964 on the occasion of three important exhibitions of his work in Zurich, Milan, and Paris. Today, these works are viewed as the culmination of the artist’s philosophical and aesthetic explorations of space: the crystallization of these investigations into a form lyrically constellated with punctured voids. The rhythmically repeated, irregular hole (buchi) or puncture (graffiti) on a bright ground is instantly recognizable as a hallmark of Fontana’s distinctive aesthetic and was central to his ethos. To Fontana these epiphanic apertures didn’t only violate the picture plane; they were also a portal inviting the viewer to access a new conception of space befitting the age of astronauts, when technological advances were tearing apart long-held visions of the universe. In the Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio series, Fontana sought to represent a spiritual boundlessness, the embodiment of “infinity, the inconceivable thing, the end of figuration, the principle of the void” (L. Fontana quoted in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizione, Rome, 1998, p. 244). The decision to embed these punctures in an egg form—implicitly associated with regeneration, rebirth, and the cosmos and tied up with theories about the form of the universe—brought the generative potential of the holes to a peak. Shockingly contemporary, the La fine di Dio series transcends the limitations of painting and sculpture. Synthesizing space and form, Fontana’s series emerged as a “spatial concept” presciently predicting Rosalind Krauss’s influential essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field fifteen years before it was written. The La fine di Dio series is widely considered to be the aesthetic and conceptual pinnacle of the Modern master’s celebrated oeuvre, and equivalent works to the one at hand can be found in esteemed museum collections including those of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.
The present masterwork, a marriage of avant-garde and ultra-baroque aesthetics, consists of a large, sleek, monochromatic, egg-shaped canvas that has been dramatically punctured and perforated by allover holes. In their irregular patterning these heterogeneous holes, particularly gracefully in the present ovoid, swirl to form astral arabesques. The decision to violently, viscerally puncture the canvas—the Fontana autograph, as it were—had its basis in the artist’s belief that “making a hole was a radical gesture that broke the space of the picture and that said: after this, we are free to do what we want” (L. Fontana quoted in G. Ballo, “On Lucio Fontana,” Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizione, Rome, 1998, p. 247). The egg-shaped canvas, which is of human height (just slightly taller than the artist himself), required special made-to-measure stretchers. Fontana traced over the stretcher bar for a single, fine line that would circumscribe the egg, rendering the work wholly self-contained. The artist painted the canvas with thick, smooth coats of oil paint in a single bright yellow hue to form a gleaming seductive surface with a perfect finish. While the paint was still wet, Fontana used a sharp tool to gouge the piece. He then clawed at the canvas, poking fingers and even a whole hand through the punctures in order to enlarge them to a desired, occasionally craterous, size. He took great pleasure in the paint that encrusted around the holes during this process and often added to it to create projecting mounds that complicated the work’s topography. The lushly painted and perforated result of this painstaking process, Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio, is both “a sculpture, in the world, rather than a world itself” and a site through which “the metaphysical realm behind the world of illusions streams” (E. Crichton-Miller, “Review: Lucio Fontana at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris,” Apollo Magazine, 12 May 2014, n.p. [accessed online]). The viewer can get lost in the gorgeousness of La fine di Dio’s surface, the elegance of its ovoid form, or in the void behind it to which the holes permit access. Nearly two decades prior to the creation of the seminal series, the artist described his broad artistic vision in a Spatialist manifesto entitled “Manifesto Blanco” (White Manifesto): “What is necessary is to overcome painting, sculpture, poetry, and music. We need a more comprehensive art that meets the requirement of the new spirit” (L. Fontana in 1946 quoted in J. Nechvatal, “Lucio Fontana’s Proto-Technologism,” Hyperallergic, www.hyperallergic.com). In the present work, Fontana’s vision of a groundbreaking art befitting the zeitgeist finds its manifestation.
The La fine di Dio works emerged during a period of great prosperity in Italy. Following il miracolo economico in the 1950s, the country was booming financially and culturally. Milan in particular thrived as a chic metropolitan center whose automobile designers, film producers, and fashion designers inspired cosmopolites the world over. The new “international chic” associated with the Italian lifestyle developed its own brand of universally attractive visual formalism: Neo-Modernism. While Fontana’s work is profoundly philosophical, it also functions within this Neo-Modernist mode. The sleek, elegant egg with its flamboyantly colorful, shiny paint—in some iterations of La fine di Dio, the egg is also flecked with glitter—calls to mind the glossy luxury of 1960s Italy. Sculptor and painter Sidney Simon described the texture of the La fine di Dio works as “that of La Dolce Vita: flashy…and brilliant” (S. Simon in A. White, Lucio Fontana: Between Utopia and Kitsch, Cambridge, 2011, p. 262). At the same time, the period witnessed major scientific progress. Fontana was fascinated by the scientific advances of his day, most notably space travel, and he frequently explored the broad notions raised by these discoveries in his art. Just two years before Fontana began the La fine di Dio series, a human (Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) orbited the earth for the first time, and Americans had publicly proclaimed their goal to land a man on the moon (which they did, in 1969). Around the same time, photographs from space had become wildly popular, sparking the imagination in the picture press and cinema. Fontana believed that man’s progress in space had produced radical new ways of thinking and being, and a new perspective on the human experience. To him, the holes of Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio—tiny portals into the void—evoked “man’s suffering in space, the suffering of the astronaut, who is squashed and compressed…The man who flies in space is a new kind of man, with new sensations, above all painful” (L. Fontana cited in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Espsizioni, Rome, 1998, p. 244). The punctures, with their transgressions and open-ended distortions of space, have also been compared to black holes. Fontana believed the new understanding of matter and the universe catalyzed by space exploration had given spirituality a new context. He proclaimed, “Today it is certain, because man speaks of billions of years, of thousands and thousands of billions of years to reach, and so, here is the void, man is reduced to nothing…Man will become like God, he will become spirit” (L. Fontana quoted in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Espsizioni, Rome, 1998, p. 246). In line with Fontana’s conception of modern man, Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio is at once spiritual in its highly conceptual sculpting of negative space and physical in its embeddedness in a monumental form with great physical presence.
With outer space on his mind, Fontana brought a whole new dimension of space to modern art, a dimension that captured the existence of man in a limitless cosmos. To that end, La fine di Dio—“End of God” being a play on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous 1882 proclamation that God is dead—presents a conception of the divine retooled for the contemporary age. Fontana, who had been raised in the predominantly Catholic nations of Italy and Argentina, had taken several commissions from the Church throughout his artistic career. Not long before commencing the La fine di Dio series Fontana was commissioned to illustrate the bible. In this illustrative work the artist strove to evoke yet elevate, update, and universalize traditional religious imagery. Religion and religious iconography were certainly on Fontana’s mind as he conceptualized the mystic icon that characterizes the ovoid series.
“La fine di Dio,” wrote Gillo Dorfles, “means the beginning of a new semantics, the semantics of an eternal symbol that continuously renews itself in the diversity of its incarnations and the numerousness of its interpretations” (G. Dorfles, Lucio Fontana: Le Ova, exh. cat., Galleria dell’Ariete, Milan, 1963). Before solidifying the title for the series, the artist consulted a priest, who “confirmed that the Bible speaks of the Infinite, Invisible, and Non-Definable in relation to God” (P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 107). Reassured, Fontana went forward with his depiction of the divine as a universal, generative void in which human beings could lose themselves. In fact, the artist professed that the series was an “act of faith,” a way to convey his hybrid spiritual beliefs in a new Atomic Age (L. Fontana in conversation with Carla Lonzi, Autoritratto, Bari, 1969, p. 169).
The holistic egg form is replete with interesting connotations, both for Lucio Fontana personally and in the egg’s potent symbolism cross-culturally. During the artist’s classical training at the Scuola del Marmo at the Brera Academy from 1928 to 1930, his teacher Adolfo Wildt assigned him the exercise of sculpting a perfect egg in marble; this was likely the first ovoid ever created by Fontana. It is not difficult to imagine the artist wanting to revisit this exercise from the formative years of his academic training through the lens of his mature style of “creative destruction” (likely with another marble egg, Constantin Brancusi’s famous The Beginning of the World (1920), in the back of his mind). Fontana’s 1959-60 Nature cycle of large terracotta spheres evocative of seeds—or more cosmologically, meteorites—were a significant stepping stone to the fully formed egg canvas of the La fine di Dio series; the artist also anticipated La fine di Dio with a series of small sketches in 1962, pen-and-ink drawings which depicted dotted ovals and were inscribed with “la finedio.” The La fine di Dio works were originally exhibited in solo shows under the title “Le Ova” (“The Eggs”) at Galleria dell’Arte in Milan in 1963 and under the title “Les Oeufs célestes” (“The celestial eggs”) at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris in 1964. As an archetypal—biological—image of birth and regeneration, the egg was a potent symbol for Fontana’s exploration of the birth of a new way of being in the age of space travel and missile technologies. Culturally the egg is ascribed certain mystical, cosmological connotations, as evidenced by its role in creation stories of the Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek Orphic, Hindu, and pagan traditions. In Christianity, Easter eggs symbolize the tomb from which Jesus sprung and thus eternal life, while Judaism views the egg as a reminder of the circle of life. Fontana certainly had the egg’s virtually universal connotations of new life and a new universe—of an end that gave way to a beginning—in mind when he selected the highly symbolic, visually pleasing form of Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio.
Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), at their clear zenith with the La fine di Dio series, are “at once transcendent and technologizing, cosmic and material” (B. Fer, “Immodest Proposals: The Art of Lucio Fontana,” Artforum, November 2014, p. 238). The present piece, in a yellow evocative of the sun of a new day, beautifully encapsulates Fontana’s belief in a brave new world, accessible through punctures and gashes. In the artist’s own words, “Art is going to become infinite, immensity, immaterial, philosophy… Enough with the bourgeois function of art. Open the doors” (L. Fontana in 1968 quoted in A. White, “Lucio Fontana: Between Utopia and Kitsch,” Grey Room no. 5, Fall 2001, p. 73).