Lucio Fontana is best known for his radicalized, radicalizing penetration of space behind the canvas–a conceptual innovation achieved by cutting holes or (with a Stanley knife) slits into the material facing the viewer. As an act of intrepid formal courage, the violation is nothing short of remarkable. Fontana first began these attacks on the seemingly impenetrable surface of paintings in 1949; called “Spatial Concepts,” they stand as a brilliant, even inspired vision in which the space behind the exterior facing the work’s audience was opened up and revealed. Given that much of modernism was founded on demonstrating the formal ambiguity, even falsehood, of perspective, Fontana’s slashed canvases radiate a truthfulness about the physical construct of the painting–the space behind it is as alive–and filled with meaning–as the thin piece of linen hiding that interior from the person looking at the work. Again, this is what Fontana is known for, but he is more than that; his early work is highly developed figurative art (his father was a commemorative sculptor) that shows no sign of moving into the visionary insights of the Spatial Concepts, in the exact middle of the twentieth century, that galvanized the contemporary art world of the time.
The jump from the earlier style to the later one was enormous, likely made possible, at least in part, by a strong academic training. Fontana was born in 1899 in Santé Fe, Argentina, to Italian parents. His parents returned to Italy shortly after his birth but then moved back to Argentina, where Fontaine followed his father, who was an active sculptor. In the mid-1920s, Fontana established himself in Milan, focusing on his art education. He studied with noted sculptor Adolf Wildt, who taught him how to work with gilt plaster and gave him lessons in sculptural formalism. In 1928, he took classes at the Accademia di Brera, also in Milan. He would stay in Milan–his first genuine exhibition took place there in 1930–until 1939 when he relocated to Argentina in light of the Second World War’s beginning.
The work made during the time before his move to South America is figurative and highly skilled: Olympic Champion (Waiting Athlete) (1932) is a strong presentation of a handsome, athletic young man, presented in slate blue ceramic, who sits with one leg crossed beneath him, one folded leg in front of him, on a rock. The figure radiates the quiet confidence of a great athlete as he looks out at his audience from under a shock of hair cutting across his forehead.
As an academic study, Olympic Champion is superb. But it is not notably experimental or innovative in any way; it would take more than a decade and a half before Fontana quite literally cut his way into a new manner of seeing. Still, as a conventional artwork, the figure is admirable. We must remember that sculpture began as memorial art, and even a piece such as this, which holds no ties to images of the grave, finds its precedent in tomb figures of a century before. A later piece, titled Portrait of Teresita (1940), a mosaic bust of a young woman with red hair and eyebrows, light blue eyes, lipstick, and a black collar, calls back even further to earlier Italian mosaic art–think of the Christian narratives played out in mosaics in Ravenna, created close to 1500 years before Fontana’s time. The image is direct but not particularly subtle; even so, it gives us a sense of how deeply Fontana took to heart his lessons in figuration and Italian sculptural history. Thus, these two works summarize more than a millennium of art history; they do not move beyond the past, however. Instead, like the other ceramic works on view in the show, they accurately indicate the limits of a style linked to realism, in which verisimilitude was the chosen goal. Not until cubism and the various abstractions, biomorphic and geometric primarily, that issued out of Picasso’s and Braque’s efforts early in the twentieth century, does an atmosphere of experiment in art take over.
But the ambiance was not highly conceptual; it was still linked to a legacy of painting and sculpture that the cubist experimentalism of the time did not completely break away from. Fontana’s slashes were a complete re-envisioning–and reworking–of space, turning the inside out; in the works in the show from the Spatial Concepts series, shadows from the cuts could be seen on the gallery walls behind the work of art. This was something genuinely new. And, as has been pointed out often, the merger of painting with sculpture was Fontana’s contribution, formally and conceptually, to a new understanding of art. The openings might occur in ceramic works or, more regularly, in canvas as punctures or linear slits. The circular openings often were produced in small groups, forming patterns; only rarely does a single slit occur. They did two things: not only were they indicative of a visual design intrinsic to themselves, they also, has been noted, devised a way of reaching what is, quite literally, an interior space that had been hiding for centuries behind the realism imposed on a two-dimensional surface. There is a terracotta work, done in 1959-60, that is a medium-size sphere, olive-brown in color; it has an opening along the edge of its circumference, with small ridges rising from the surface. This linear cut into the depths of the sphere opens up an interior space we would not have had access to otherwise. Another terracotta work, Spatial Concept, The Bread (1950), looks quite a lot like a piece of bread, with a thin line mimicking its edges and corralling scores of punctures that occur randomly within its enclosure.
These pieces are intellectually challenging, as well as formally compelling. But they do not possess the elegance of the linear slit pieces, which function both as a record of literally incisive action and as a conduit to a vacancy only such an act would disclose. In the long run, it looks like the emphasis on the slit pieces Fontana created makes sense–primarily because they are so elegant in formal terms. It also must be said that they are a considerable distance from the highly considered, nearly baroque sculptures of his early career. If we consider the slit pieces as a body of work, they soon start to display heavy reiteration–a problem with much art that is driven by a single idea. But the repetition of the act, which is not so much an act of abuse as an incursion into the unknown, starts to make sense as a statement of contemporary autonomy in face of a history nearly too long, and too developed, to shoulder. We need, indeed now we always want, something new. And Fontana’s knife cuts did that exactly during the time he was active as an artist. The 1959 painting called Spatial Concept, Expectations is a medium-size red artwork with three vertical slashes more or less equidistant from each other; the openings of each slash are close to nonexistent (the slash on the right is the longest and has the greatest opening). As a design, the painting is beautiful, but it is also more than that–it is a work of measure and restraint, as well as a demonstration of invasive violence. By this point, Fontana had long given up on history, seeking instead a point of departure that based on piercing the surface, almost cruel in its material attack.
In the main Met building, in the twentieth-century wing, curators set up a marvelous glass tube and neon sculpture: Neon Structure for the Ninth Milan Triennial (1951/2019). A very large, randomly curved neon sculpture, the piece is more than prescient in regard to Dan Flavin’s straightly linear neon works, which almost seem tame in light of Fontana’s inspired semi-wildness, which predated Flavin by a generation. The Structure is an inspired work of art, moving in accordance with its own rhythms, so that we find ourselves addressing a three-dimensional drawing hanging high and without constraints in the upper reaches of the gallery. The piece seems contemporary, even now; certainly, it was way ahead of its time. Fontana successfully moved from traditional ceramic sculpture to conceptual assaults on the flat surface of historical painting to an advanced neon light sculpture and, finally, rooms cut into small partitions and lit by colored light–a nod to installational art, which would follow some thirty-five years later. In the last piece to be discussed, called Spatial Environment. “Utopias” (1964/2019), a long, narrow room with a horizontal alignment nearly forty feet wide faces the viewer, who enters through a doorless threshold. Walking in, the viewer sees two rows of long, green neon hyphens, gently curving upward and downward; the two rows exist in symmetric conversation with each other, but the real attraction of this marvelous piece is its astonishing foresight in light of later developments in installational art, as well as its advanced use of materials–the colored neon stands out electrically within the darkened space. Once again, Fontana was ahead of his time.
To sum up, Fontana was an artist of extreme technical gifts, both in a traditional and exploratory sense. He began by mastering the three-dimensional language his father was gifted in but moved on to become a leader in innovational art. In all cases, he produced bodies of work that stood as standout art in its own right, no matter whether he was looking backward or ahead. This is the first major retrospective of his in America for a long time, and without doubt, he deserves the extended study the various sites this broad show provides. As good as the early work is, it seems to me that Fontana will be known for his challenging experimentations–the punctured and slit canvases, the neon sculpture, and the room environments. With these works, he was on the cutting edge, causing us to see him as a conceptual artist before the term came into common use. One can only wonder at the energetic change he brought into his own art and indeed into the dialogue of art during the period he worked in. Much of what he has done since 1950 remains new in feeling, arguing for an integrity based on true creativity rather than gestures that now fail us but seemed sharp at the time. His body of work will last, not only in a historical sense but as a way of looking into the future.