Ugo Mulas
Italian 1928–1973

In the first half of the 1960s, the Argentine–Italian artist Lucio Fontana created Spatial concept (fig. 1), an abstract painting that is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.1 Enrico Crispolti, the author of the catalogue raisonné of Fontana’s work dates this canvas to 1960. See E. Crispolti, Fontana: Catalogo generale, vol. 1, Milan, 1986, p. 246 (60 B42). The National Gallery of Victoria records, based on information obtained in 1973 from the vendor, the Arditti Gallery in Paris, date the work to 1964–65. The discrepancy is difficult to resolve as there is no date inscribed on the work. Crispolti, who has worked closely with the Ludo Fontana Foundation for many decades and is the acknowledged authority on the artist, has grouped the Gallery’s picture with a small series of oil paintings exhibiting similar features, an oval-shaped pattern of holes surrounded by an incision, to 1960. However, there are very similar works among those Crispolti dates between 1963 and 1968. Given the alternative date in the Gallery’s records and the fact that the research for the catalogue raisonné was conducted after the work had moved to Melbourne, it is the opinion of this author that further investigation is required to establish the precise date of this work. In this work Fontana took an unorthodox approach to his medium; after punching a series of holes through the canvas with a knife, he applied an even coat of metallic paint to the ravaged surface. The process may imply violence, but the resulting composition is characterised by the utmost simplicity: a dialogue between a monochrome surface and the rupture of that surface. For this reason Fontana is often compared to twentieth-century modernist painters who have sought formal purity by reducing painting to its bare essentials. Beneath the surface of Spatial concept, however, are layers of rich and complex meaning that belie this apparent simplicity. Fontana’s painting represents neither destruction nor a reduction of painting. On the contrary, it is an eloquent visual argument for a radical expansion of the medium. To appreciate this we need to look beyond the purely visual qualities of this painting and the immediate context of its production to examine the artist’s early career, his theories of spatial art, and the large series of works beginning in 1949 to which Fontana gave the enigmatic title Spatial concept. 

Lucio Fontana was the leader of the ‘spatialist’ movement and one of Italy’s most innovative artists of the twentieth century. Although he is best known today for his punctured abstract canvases, this was not always so. His earliest paintings were created more than twenty years after his first exhibition as a practising artist. Fontana, who trained as a commercial sculptor in his father’s workshop in Rosario, Argentina, from 1922 to 1924, moved between Italy and South America several times in the first half of the twentieth century, establishing a successful career as a sculptor in both countries. Although he produced a wide variety of works during this period, including both figurative and abstract sculpture, a common thread unites them: an interest in polychrome or multicoloured sculpture. This aspect of his work frequently drew the ire of conservative art critics during the 1930s. An unknown reviewer commenting on a Milan exhibition in 1934, which included Fontana’s gold, red and black sculpture Seated young woman, argued that the artist’s work ‘would benefit from the abandonment of a coloration of questionable taste’.2 Verita sulta V sindacate’, II Popolo di Lombardia, 1934. This use of colour in Fontana’s work had an express purpose. As he explained to an interviewer from the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nacion in 1943, ‘my coloured sculpture aimed at breaking the sense of stasis with colour, giving the material a connection with space’.3 ‘El temperamento en el arte argentino: Lucio Fontana,’ La Nacion, 6 June 1943. Fontana applied highly reflective paint or iridescent glazes to his work that, by creating interdependence between sculptural surface and ambient light, connected his sculpture to the empty space around it.

After settling permanently in Milan in 1947, Fontana continued practising as a sculptor. However, as he began to argue in letters and interviews at this time, he had ambitions to transcend the limits of that medium. In a 1949 draft of a letter to the Italian art critic and author Giampiero Giani, Fontana described a recent sea change in his thinking. He was now convinced that the traditional materials and techniques of sculpture, such as cast bronze or marble carving, had to be completely abandoned:

From this moment on, I became ever more convinced that art had concluded an era and that we had to go beyond it through new experiences that have nothing to do with painting or sculpture and to use all of the most modern techniques, such as neon, television, radar, the spatial era, spatial art.4 L. Fontana, ‘Drafts of letters to Giampiero Giani (1949)’ in Lucio Fontana: Idea per un ritratto, by G. Ballo, Turin, 1970, p. 248.

 Fontana’s idea of spatial art, a concept that would underpin all of his work after the Second World War, involved two things: a revolution in the materials used to make art – a shift toward new media technology – and a transformation in the conventional relationship between art object and surrounding space.

The first real demonstration of this new spatial art, Spatial environment (fig. 2), was exhibited in February of 1949 at the Naviglio Gallery in Milan. In a darkened room Fontana suspended a series of papier-mâché forms coated in fluorescent paint from the ceiling to which ultraviolet tamps gave an eerie glow. Visitors to the exhibition remarked that the forms appeared not to be solid objects but rather open and spatially diffuse. More significantly, as the art critic Guido Ballo noted, ‘The gallery was transformed … [the spectator] did not contemplate a detached form before his eyes, he entered into the pictorial environment’.5 Ballo, ‘Pitture a gran fuoco’, Bellezza, no. 9, September 1949, p. 65.

Fontana had taken his idea of giving the material a connection with space to its logical conclusion: an installation work that had expanded to fill the entire gallery interior, breaking down the distinction between the art object and the space around it.

In spite of this achievement, after the exhibition of Spatial environment closed, Fontana was fullof uncertainty. As he admitted to Giani, ‘sometimes I have the feeling of having thought or done something that goes beyond intelligence, something lunatic or crazy … today I remain with a terrible doubt’.6 Fontana, ‘Drafts’, p. 248. The nature of the problem Fontana faced is clarified in the artist’s notebooks between 1951 and 1952. There, among his many attempts to give a more precise definition to the term ‘spatial art’, are the following passages:

An earth-bound form occupies a place, if I empty this form I create a space, a form above the earth occupies a place, if I put a hole in it I create a void, I don’t conquer space … A form (and in saying a form it is understood that I mean a sculpture or a painting) occupies a space … but this is not a means for the conquest of space … No form can be spatial.7 Fontana, ‘Writings on Spatialism 1951–52’, Fontana Foundation Archive, Milan, pp. 9, 14, 59.

 As these notes show, Fontana had reached a difficult conclusion. Having defined spatial art as nothing less than a complete and total merger between the work of art and the surrounding space, he soon discovered that aside from the considerable practical problems this raised, what he had defined was a conceptual oxymoron. Not even the suspended, glowing shapes in the 1949 Spatial environment would satisfy this definition of spatial art, within which no form can be spatial’. Due to the impossibility of what he was trying to achieve, no matter what the medium, Fontana adopted a different approach. Having worked most of his life as a sculptor, in a surprising move he turned during 1949 to the tradition of easel painting and embarked on theseries of works titled Spatial concept to which the Melbourne picture belongs.

In many respects this work conforms to the standard definition of painting, consisting of a length of canvas covered in gold paint and fastened to a rectangular stretcher. At the same time, Fontana also distanced his work from the conventions of that medium. Bringing his sculptural skills to bear on the canvas, he treated the picture surface as a kind of sculptural object. Piercing the canvas roughly with a knife so that the canvas shreds displaced by the punctures (buchi) are clearly visible, in this work the materiality of the surface is greatly emphasised. Neither a painting nor yet quite a three-dimensional object, Spatial concept exists halfway between two mediums. In this sense, Fontana had satisfied the demand, explicit within his theory of spatial art, to produce a work of art that was ‘neither painting nor sculpture’.8 Fontana, letter to Gio Ponti, July 30 1951, in Lucio Fontana e Milano (exh. cat.), Museo della Permanente, Milan, 1996, p. 57.

Fontana distanced his work from the conventions of late modernist easel painting by refusing a paradigm of artistic practice that was prevalent in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s – the gestural school of Informal painting. One of the leading painters of this movement, the French artist Georges Mathieu, was inspired by the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing, wherein the artist abdicates a degree of control by allowing the pencil or pen to roam freely over the page.9 See G. Mathieu, From the Abstract to the Possible: Pointers Towards an Elucidation of Western Art, Paris, 1960. Mathieu had utterly transformed this technique by turning it into a ritualised performance where he literally attacked the canvas with violent strokes of paint. The result was a kind of spectacular graffiti art in which the gesture became a sublime trace of the artist’s presence, making the author the subject of the work.

Although the punctures in Fontana’s Spatial concept demonstrate that an event of sheer physical impact has occurred, Fontana was completely averse to Informal painting and the types of psychological readings that were attached to it. ‘I am not informal’, he declared, the informal seeks the result in the gesture … my nature is attracted rather to space’.10 Fontana, quoted in M. Valsecchi, ‘L’uomo ora é nello spazio d l’arte viaggia con lui’, Tempo, Milan, 9 May 1964. One cannot deny that Fontana’s works are the result of a certain kind of action but they were not intended as records of his own physical or intellectual presence. As Fontana insisted, ‘The artist must have the courage to stop idolizing himself, to stop seeing himself as the centre of the earth and of all things.11 Fontana, ‘L’uomo’. As evidence of this, the puncture technique in Spatial concept with its repetitive, machine-gunned appearance, does not allow for the kind of expressive effects common to gestural art. Rather, as contemporary viewers noted, this technique has more in common with the mechanical punches made in a tram-ticket.12 A. Cederna, ‘Cosi bella quando é bella’, L’Europeo, 30 April 1953. As Lawrence Alloway observed of an exhibition of earlier punctured paintings in 1957, ‘like holes in a punched card, like bullet holes in a wall, the holes carry information’.13 L. Alloway, ‘Commentary’, Ark!, no. 24,1959. Furthermore, the fact that the mark is a lack – an absence of canvas – in the pictorial field pointedly withdraws the artist’s figure from the work in order toallow another dimension of painting to emerge.

To introduce this dimension and continue his pursuit of spatial art, Fontana paradoxically came to rely on the pictorial quality of his paintings, their capacity to furnish an illusion of shapes and forms floating in space. Antonio Cederna, for example, writing in L’Europeo in 1953, described them as ‘paintings of monochrome paper or canvas with lots of holes disposed in lines or in various forms, round, square, triangular’.14 Cederna, ‘Cosi bella’. The very fact that shapes are identifiable, such as the loose oval shape formed by the holes in the NGV work, necessitates a reading that involves the pictorial language of figure and ground. When Fontana began the series, however, the holes were not generally grouped to form discrete shapes and patterns. His gradual shift towards the more figurative type of composition seen in the Melbourne picture can best be understood by examining the different types of composition that appear in Fontana’s early punctured paintings, all of which are titled Spatial concept.

 

In these works Fontana attempted to reduce, as far as possible, any illusion of represented space, arranging holes to put greater emphasis on the canvas as physical object. An example dated 1949–50 belongs to the most random type of composition that Fontana produced within the series (fig. 3). A number of punctured holes are more or less evenly distributed across the canvas surface. Their scattered array not only avoids creating any figure but also fails to convey atmospheric space, reducing all pictorial illusion. In another composition, neat rows of holes are positioned across the canvas (fig. 4). Here the suggestion of pictorial space is also very minimal. The holes are aligned with the rectangular edges of the canvas, highlighting the materiality of the painting as an object. As the holes completely fill the canvas surface, there is no sense of figure on ground or of atmosphere.

In another type of punctured painting, Fontana employed a concentric or spiralling composition (fig. 5). There is a sensation of vaporous atmosphere in these works, particularly as in certain areas the holes are small and massed in groups. However, due to the concentric nature of the composition, and its relationship to the format of the canvas itself, the distinction between figure and ground is very difficult to establish. The opposed elements of canvas and space are intertwined with each other and not absolutely discrete.

Further study of Fontana’s early paintings reveals that the artist often created compositions that give the impression of an ornamented surface. An example produced in 1950 presents the viewer with uneven geometric shapes that may be viewed as floating on a background (fig. 6).

However, the sense of space is extremely attenuated as the repetitious, concentric shapes suggest decorative surface patterns. One review of the artist’s first solo show of punctured paintings in 1952 did in fact interpret the paintings this way. A critic suggested that these works

could perhaps tend themselves to decorative applications, for example ceilings of rooms, or even walls. More or less like the maligned art of drilling sometimes suggested to our grandfathers’ tasteful firescreens or characteristic brazier domes, and more besides.15 ‘Mostre milanesi: Mola e Fontana’, Milano – Sera, 5–6 June 1952.

 This technique brought Fontana’s works into comparison with unsophisticated art forms and disassociated them from the claim of traditional painting to create an illusion of space. Indeed, as some critics noted, when we peer through the canvas to see what awaits us on the other side – perhaps in a moment when no-one is there to witness – nothing is revealed to us but the flat wall of the gallery.16 ‘To take a canvas and puncture it … is a desire to escape from the old painting formulas, to go beyond the canvas, even if we don’t know what is waiting for us on the other side. But in this case we know; what is waiting for us there is the watt of the Naviglio gallery. It is pointless for us to go and look through the holes of Lucio Fontana’s canvases as one looks through a keyhole. On the other side we only see darkness, nothing other than darkness.’ Picus [pseud.], Candido, 3 May 1953. This demonstrates the dependence of easel painting on its literal architectural support and, in that awkward moment of expectation and disappointment produced by peeping through the canvas as if through a keyhole, we become the self-conscious subject of an implied other’s gaze. In both instances the transcendent ideal of painting’s illusory space is deflated and the viewer is made powerfully aware of the painting’s existence in the material space of the gallery.

At a certain point in 1950, Fontana passed to more loosely figurative arrangements of holes. In this group of works, to which the NGV picture belongs, a peculiar effect occurs. An illusion of figure on ground is produced by holes in a surface. This sense of illusionistic space is reinforced in the Melbourne picture by the oval-shaped incision that surrounds the holes and serves to distinguish them from the empty canvas beyond and the gold colour, a traditional pigment for backgrounds in the history of religious painting. In this work the form identified by the viewer is literally made of space. Using a technique that Alloway aptly described as ‘a kind of drawing by negative’,17 Alloway, ‘Commentary’. Fontana produced the extraordinary effect of looking at a spatial form: the impossible object that the artist had failed to achieve in his earlier installations.

There is a powerful negation of painting in this work and a stark insistence on the materiality of the punctured fabric. Nevertheless, by employing a figurative composition, Fontana used the illusionistic conventions of a centuries-old artistic medium to represent his futuristic dream of the union of a work of art and space. In 1967, in response to the charge that these works were paintings rather than sculptures, the artist complained, ‘Who told you it is painting, the holes are painting for you? … to me they are punctured canvases that represent a sculpture, a new thing in sculpture’.18 Fontana in C. Lonzi, Autoritratto, Bari, 1969, p. 107. On another occasion Fontana insisted that ‘the “hole” is the beginning of a sculpture in space’.19 Fontana quoted in M. Pancera, ‘Sfregia I quadri alla ricerca del dolore degli astronauti’, La notte, 19 December 1962. While he had concluded after working on Spatial environment that ‘no form can be spatial’, it seemed that form might approach the condition of space within the artificial realm of a punctured canvas. As Gillo Dorfles noted, ‘The presence of an aperture in the canvas… disrupts its two-dimensional spatiality, and allows the void behind the canvas to project in front of its surface’.20 G. Dorfles, ‘Lucio Fontana and his influence’, Art Since Mid-Century:The New Internationalism, Greenwich, 1971, p. 149. By exploiting the conventional figure-on-ground distinction of traditional painting, Fontana allowed space to take centre stage. This space is no faraway illusion, but is woven into the material existence of the canvas itself.

There is one more concept of space that comes into play with Fontana’s work at this time and that is the idea of outer space. In 1957 the first Russian sputnik was launched, closely followed by the US Explorer. The idea of space travel captured the public imagination, including Fontana’s. As he later told Carla Lonzi in a 1967 interview:

Now in space there is no Longer any measurement. Now you see infinity … in the Milky Way, now there are billions and billions … The sense of measurement and of time no longer exists … and so, here is the void, man is reduced to nothing … And my art too is all based on this purity[,] on this philosophy of nothing, which is not a destructive nothing, but a creative nothing … And the stash, and the holes, the first holes, were not the destruction of the painting … it was a dimension beyond the painting, the freedom to conceive art through any means, through any form.21 Lonzi, Autoritratto, pp. 319–22; in Lucio Fontana (exh. cat.), Palazzo delta Esposizioni, Rome, 1998, p. 246.

 The extraordinary discoveries of space travel were for Fontana a licence to completely rethink the traditional boundaries of the art work.

In 1912 the Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni proclaimed: ‘Let us open up the figure like a window and close within it the environment in which it lives’.22 U. Boccioni, ‘Technical manifesto of futurist sculpture’ in Modern Artists on Art: Ten Unabridged Essays, ed. R. L. Herbert, New Jersey, 1964, p. 54. In so doing he announced a theme that Italian art would return to many times in the twentieth century: the relationship between the work of art and the space that lies outside it. Boccioni’s sculpture Development of a bottle in space of 1912 addressed this issue by breaking open the solid form of traditional sculpture. In 1968 the arte povera artist Giovanni Anselmo assembled raw materials such as cotton and steel directly on the floor, bringing the work closer to the everyday space of the viewer. The series of works by Lucio Fontana titled Spatial concept, different as they are from both futurism and arte povera, belong within this lineage. In the punctured and slashed paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, of which the NGV picture is a prime example, the desire to connect art with real space is conveyed with extraordinary economy. Cutting the canvas surface open with the knife, Fontana did not intend to destroy painting. Rather, he showed the viewer what lay beyond the canvas: real space, as opposed to the traditional illusory space of painting. Through this means, Fontana came close to realising his impossible dream of spatial art.

Dr Anthony White, lecturer, School of Art History, Cinema, Classical Studies and Archaeology, University of Melbourne (2005).

Notes

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are by the author.

1      Enrico Crispolti, the author of the catalogue raisonné of Fontana’s work dates this canvas to 1960. See E. Crispolti, Fontana: Catalogo generale, vol. 1, Milan, 1986, p. 246 (60 B42). The National Gallery of Victoria records, based on information obtained in 1973 from the vendor, the Arditti Gallery in Paris, date the work to 1964–65. The discrepancy is difficult to resolve as there is no date inscribed on the work. Crispolti, who has worked closely with the Ludo Fontana Foundation for many decades and is the acknowledged authority on the artist, has grouped the Gallery’s picture with a small series of oil paintings exhibiting similar features, an oval-shaped pattern of holes surrounded by an incision, to 1960. However, there are very similar works among those Crispolti dates between 1963 and 1968. Given the alternative date in the Gallery’s records and the fact that the research for the catalogue raisonné was conducted after the work had moved to Melbourne, it is the opinion of this author that further investigation is required to establish the precise date of this work.

2     Verita sulta V sindacate’, II Popolo di Lombardia, 1934.

3      ‘El temperamento en el arte argentino: Lucio Fontana,’ La Nacion, 6 June 1943.

4      L. Fontana, ‘Drafts of letters to Giampiero Giani (1949)’ in Lucio Fontana: Idea per un ritratto, by G. Ballo, Turin, 1970, p’ 248. 

5      Ballo, ‘Pitture a gran fuoco’, Bellezza, no. 9, September 1949, p. 65.

6      Fontana, ‘Drafts’, p. 248.

7      Fontana, ‘Writings on Spatialism 1951–52’, Fontana Foundation Archive, Milan, pp. 9,14,59.

8      Fontana, letter to Gio Ponti, July 30 1951, in Lucio Fontana e Milano (exh. cat.), Museo della Permanente, Milan, 1996, p. 57.

9      See G. Mathieu, From the Abstract to the Possible: Pointers Towards an Elucidation of Western Art, Paris, 1960.

10      Fontana, quoted in M. Valsecchi, ‘L’uomo ora é nello spazio d l’arte viaggia con lui’, Tempo, Milan, 9 May 1964.

11      Fontana, ‘L’uomo’.

12      A. Cederna, ‘Cosi bella quando é bella’, L’Europeo, 30 April 1953.

13      L. Alloway, ‘Commentary’, Ark!, no. 24,1959.

14      Cederna, ‘Coal bella’.

15      ‘Mostre milanesi: Mola e Fontana’, Milano – Sera, 5–6 June 1952.

16      ‘To take a canvas and puncture it … is a desire to escape from the old painting formulas, to go beyond the canvas, even if we don’t know what is waiting for us on the other side. But in this case we know; what is waiting for us there is the watt of the Naviglio gallery. It is pointless for us to go and look through the holes of Lucio Fontana’s canvases as one looks through a keyhole. On the other side we only see darkness, nothing other than darkness.’ Picus [pseud.], Candido, 3 May 1953.

17      Atloway, ‘Commentary’.

18     Fontana in C. Lonzi, Autoritratto, Bari, 1969, p. 107.

19       Fontana quoted in M. Pancera, ‘Sfregia I quadri alla ricerca del dolore degli astronauti’, La notte, 19 December 1962.

20      G. Dorfles, ‘Lucio Fontana and his influence’, Art Since Mid-Century: The New Internationalism, Greenwich, 1971, p. 149.

21     Lonzi, Autoritratto, pp. 319–22; in Lucio Fontana (exh. cat.), Palazzo delta Esposizioni, Rome, 1998, p. 246.

22     U. Boccioni, ‘Technical manifesto of futurist sculpture’ in Modern Artists on Art: Ten Unabridged Essays, ed. R. L. Herbert, New Jersey, 1964, p. 54.