Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Spatialism in Action: Lucio Fontana at Gagosian Gallery

Lucio Fontana: Ambienti Spaziali at Gagosian Gallery

May 3 to June 30, 2012
555 West 24 Street
New York City, 212-741-1111

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1959. Waterpaint and oil on canvas, 49-1/4 x 65 inches. © Courtesy of the Fondazione Lucio Fontana and Gagosian Gallery. Private Collection, Milan.
Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1959. Waterpaint and oil on canvas, 49-1/4 x 65 inches. © Courtesy of the Fondazione Lucio Fontana and Gagosian Gallery. Private Collection, Milan.

You enter a labyrinth, white walls and floors, ceilings not too high and shrouded in a material that softens the overhead gallery lights. Smiles or averted eyes exchanged with the people in front and behind you, a playful gravitas, shared with others. What is striking about Lucio Fontana’s last Ambiente Spaziale (Spatial Environment) made in 1968, is the intimacy of its scale, and the sensation of being both inside and outside a work of art. Inside the innermost corridor is a cut-out opening in the wall, outlined in black. Like the televised vision of the Madonna from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita its appearance comes as a revelation for believers and non-believers alike, image and event rolled into one.

Fontana has the questionable fortune of being instantly recognized by and reduced to his signature gesture—a careful and quick incision, either a slice or a hole, into a canvas. This mark, or rather the absence of the mark, has absorbed extraneous social and political content with each new wave of criticism. A New York Times critic writing in the late 1980s labeled the distinctive cuts “misogynist” and noted the “intermittent violence” of the gesture. Today it is perhaps clearer that there can be no reconciliation of the sacred and profane in Fontana’s art, only an appreciation for how he fitted one inside the other. Gagosian’s sweeping retrospective, Lucio Fontana: Ambienti Spaziali, allows us to see each phase of his practice as part of a greater cosmology that extends beyond the frame of art’s edge, in order to reaffirm the limits and immanent presence of painting.

An Italian by birth, Fontana lived and worked in Buenos Aires, Paris and Milan, and like many European and South American artists of the mid-20th century, such as Jesús Rafael Soto and Yves Klein, sought to socialize a new public to abstract art through phenomenological means. Beginning in the 1930s he was a key player in many trans-European avant-gardes, such as Abstraction-Création, a collective of artists who upheld the values of abstraction in the face of Surrealism’s turn toward figuration. In 1946 Fontana contributed to the Manifiesto blanco (White Manifesto) and developed his concept of Spazialismo (Spatialism), the desire to access a fourth-dimension in art through systematically transgressing traditional painting boundaries.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio, 1963.  Oil on canvas, 70-1/8 x 48-3/8 inches.  © Fondazione Lucio Fontana. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Private Collection. Photography by Robert McKeever
Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio, 1963. Oil on canvas, 70-1/8 x 48-3/8 inches. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Private Collection. Photography by Robert McKeever

The exhibition opens with a selection of the first paintings made in accordance with the theory of Spazialismo, the Concetti spaziali (Spatial Concepts), from between 1949 and the late 1950s. Fontana’s previous training as a ceramicist and sculptor comes through in his insistence on painting’s materiality. Already there is a discernible order to the Buchi (Holes) series—a technique clearly derived not from passion, but from a force of mind. The punctures in the surface are delicate, like traces in sand, and are never expressionistic. The colors slip between natural and industrial: indigo, silver/cement grey, cadmium yellow, bright blue and pea green. In the Pietre (Stones) series, bright pieces of Murano glass are stuck on the surface like jewels to create a three-dimensional pileup. The paintings exist at the very edge of the pictorial, suggesting planets, stars and animal bodies. The radical conceit of a painting made from collaged surface elements has one of its precedents in Joan Miró’s late 1920s paintings on unprimed canvases; Painting (Cloud and Birds) and 48 (both 1927) contain scriptural numbers, real feathers, and brushy areas of pure painted color. Fontana’s paintings take flight from where Miró’s leave off, banishing any trace of language or pictographic organization.

Four of the artist’s rarely exhibited walk-in environments serve as a kind of black box annex to the main attraction of the paintings. In Ambienti spaziali a luce nero (Spatial Environment in Black Light) (1949) the only light source in the room comes from a black light reflecting off Day-Glo-painted, papier maché objects suspended from the ceiling. Florescent paint had only recently been invented in 1934, and its previous uses included amateur magic shows and color-coding allied bomber planes during World War II. Despite their theatrical, fun quality, the Ambienti spaziali do not capitulate to entertainment value. Instead, they ask for a sustained engagement that is almost educational, resembling not so much an art installation, but an old-fashioned planetarium display. Pat Steir moved into similar territory with her installation, The Nearly Endless Line (2010) at Sue Scott Gallery, a darkened room with a blue light illuminating a white line painted directly on the gallery wall. But while Steir in effect made a walk-in painting out of the gallery space, Fontana’s environments convey a sensation of space that exists wholly apart from painting as a medium.

The Attese (Waiting) series, begun in 1958, radiate action and stillness. The paintings are hung in color-coordinated groups: bright red next to charcoal grey; purple, light grey and canary yellow; forest green next to black.  The white expanse of the gallery setting and the complimentary hanging strategy suggests a strangely domesticated object, a painting that could easily adorn the walls of a high modernist waiting room or office. The surface is pure appearance, all traces of traditional paint application are gone, and the only visible gesture is a collection of surgical slices in the canvas’s center.  Fontana’s movement towards a more clearly defined object-hood in painting, and more outrageous choices in terms of color and puncture-type, reaches a climax in the series La fine di dio (End of God) (1963-64). The painting’s oval shape and sharp colors (neon lime, bubblegum pink) read as high-end kitsch, a kind of Madison Avenue window display that speaks to the rising decadence of culture in the 1960s. The irresistible, smooth surface is riddled with holes, almost as if the historical body of “painting” itself was under siege. If, as Willem de Kooning put it, “flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” then the gold-framed mirrors that are Fontana’s La fine di dio paintings reflect the unspeakable thing that we have become. The buried content of the work gives evidence to Theodor Adorno’s observation that true art is a form of “weeping without tears.”

In Trinità (Trinity) (1966), an installation of three paintings, placed for the first time here following Fontana’s original plan, the connection to the sacred is again made explicit by the work’s title. Three white monochrome Buchi paintings set inside cream-colored, lacquered wood frames are placed next to and above three half spheres made of brilliant, cobalt blue plastic. There is a softness to the elements not found in Fontana’s previous work, in the two qualities of white, and one blue as unchanging as the ocean and the sky, for instance.  A grid of delicate holes in the side canvases and a spiral in the center are the only traces of the artist’s hand. A majestic presence is achieved by the paintings being installed slightly higher off the floor than usual, so one’s gaze has to travel upwards. The work suggests an ideal of the infinite with the most minimal means possible, and has a similar commitment to joy through sustained looking as an Agnes Martin painting from the same era.

The last paintings Fontana made are the Teatrini (Little Theatres) (1965-66), miniature worlds-unto-themselves that, like the Trinità group, are monochrome canvases punctured with a series of small holes, set inside colorful, lacquered, wood frames. The cut edge of each frame loosely suggests natural forms (like a Jean Arp wood relief) and creates a delicate shadow-play effect against the canvas. In dialogue with the Bucchi paintings from the 1940s, the Teatrini flirt with the pictorial, the relationship between the frame and the surface yielding a number of dualities: trees/buildings, night/day, man/woman, clouds/earth. At the end of his life, Fontana had achieved a kind of painting that was infused with myth, but remained as simple and straightforward as its material properties. Abstract painting’s primal relationship to the theatrical is laid bare in this work, as the silhouette of the edge meets the mute code of the perforated surface.

For copyright reasons we are presently unable to post images of the environments reconstructed at Gagosian Gallery discussed in this article.  For Ambiente Spaziale (Spatial Environment) (1968) and Ambienti spaziali a luce nero (Spatial Environment in Black Light) (1949) please visit–may-03-2012/exhibition-images images 36 to 37 and 38 to 40 respectively.