Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese projects an irrepressible sense of energy. The painting’s monochrome surface pops with vibrant color and is riven through with fourteen gestural cuts that signal agency and charge. If some paintings are nouns, this is a verb — its canvas membrane being the site of dynamic action and elemental force. This is a monumental example of the ‘cut’ or taglio paintings for which Fontana is best known. Executed in 1965, it dates from the pinnacle of his extraordinary career, being produced one year before he was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the XXXIII Venice Biennale. It is also extraordinarily rare as it is one of only seven mature tagli monochromes in which Fontana’s signature cuts are arranged in two stacked rows, and of these it is the second largest in this color.
The individually unique, precise slash-marks dance across the canvas with a syncopated rhythm, with each tapering line paced at various intervals and angles. The sheer elegance of the composition, if a series of voids may be called that, belies the transgressive and violent action with which they were made. With a swoop of a razor-sharp blade, Fontana cut apart centuries of artistic tradition and unraveled the near-mythic status of post-war gestural abstraction. His gesture-as-cutting negates conventional figure-ground relationships, does away with painterly nuance, and draws attention to what lies beyond the canvas: real space, as opposed to the traditional illusory space of the picture plane. This performative act was one of the most decisive breakthroughs in the history of art – a product of profound innovation that revolutionized the conception of painting. Fontana later said of his cuts, “with the slash I invented a formula that I don’t think I can perfect. I managed with this formula to give the spectator an impression of spatial calm, of cosmic rigor, of serenity in infinity” (L. Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: Catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, vol. I, Milan, 2006, p. 105).
As founder of the post-war Spatialist movement, Fontana was concerned with freeing artists from the constraints of artistic tradition. He called for the liberation of painting and sculpture from ossified convention; in an era dominated by science and space travel, he demanded that art embrace the fourth dimension, which he understood to be the fusion of space and time. Fontana wanted, above all, to create a philosophical, and not a pictorial dimension, and his solution was to break through the heretofore-sacrosanct ‘virginity’ of the canvas and for the first time introduce actual light, space and temporality into the world of painting. In 1949 he initiated a series of works punctured with holes or buchi, with the first tagli experiments following almost a decade later in 1958. Like portals to another dimension, his incisions began to explore a hitherto unexplored world akin to the unchartered territories of the cosmos. Concetto spaziale, Attese is a perfect evocation of Fontana’s objectives with its delicate cuts through the sumptuous red surface echoing the unfathomable depths of the universe. Behind each one lies the darkness of an infinite space, full of possibility and mystery.
The absolute refinement of Concetto spaziale, Attese was achieved by overcoming a number of creative challenges. Fontana spent a significant amount of time and effort to find the specific combination of canvas, primer, paint and timing that would produce the exacting quality he was after. His greatest task was to find a way of slashing the canvas without compromising its tension and overall flatness. Eventually he developed a system that included treating the reverse so that it guaranteed a certain level of resilience and stiffness, while on the front he applied several layers of water-based house paint, with drying periods in between the layers so that no trace of a brush mark was left visible. In the present work the paint itself is a thin layer of red, insubstantial except in its visual impact. While the canvas was still partially wet, he dragged a sharp blade swiftly through the fabric. The support then firmed and dried out with time, the cuts having been eased apart with the flat of the artist’s hand. One of Fontana’s close friends described this process as a ‘caress’, the artist tenderly working on the canvas and physically engaging it to gently open each furl. These openings created a conduit for light to pass through the painting’s surface, but Fontana has deliberately sealed the back with black tape in order to emphasize the sense of space and infinity lurking beyond.
Fontana’s desecration of the canvas is particularly subversive considering his roots in Italy, the land of the Renaissance. Indeed, his vocabulary of slashes is not without its pedigreed history – the greatest works of Renaissance and Baroque art enter his oeuvre. Particularly resonant is the lance wound of Christ, memorialized in paintings of the crucifixion, the pietá and the resurrection. Contemplating Concetto spaziale, Attese in the context of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or the illuminated medieval manuscripts that isolate the Christ wound as a site of devotion, one is awakened to the deep origins of his cuts. Added to the rich vein of religious allusion that may be drawn from Fontana’s art is his technique, already mentioned, of prizing apart the gashes in his paintings by hand. This may be seen as an act akin to the skeptical apostle Thomas’s need to penetrate Christ’s wound with his fingers in order to believe. The viewer is similarly impelled to reach out towards these lacerations and to take the leap of faith required in translating the slashed canvas as a connecting portal to the infinite.
Could it be that Fontana has sublimated these theological narratives within his spare and utterly abstract art? Certainly, the Passion of Christ was a theme he often addressed in his early career as a funerary sculptor, perhaps finding its most eloquent expression in the bronze figure he was commissioned to make for the Castellotti family tomb at the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan in 1935. For this sculpture, Fontana rendered Christ’s wounds as fine slits that barely register the extent of his suffering. He is a transcendent figure, stepping forwards and looking upwards as if about to ascend into the heavens. The graceful cuts and crimson ground of Concetto spaziale, Attese may be seen as a distant echo of this imagery, a kind of contemporary stigmata. Indeed, the motif of the crucifixion is entirely apt for Fontana’s staging of death and rebirth of painting. One of the most remarkable aspects of his art was his ability to see that the so-called end of painting was in fact a set of beginnings with which the medium could engage its own obsolescence. Here, Fontana literally opens the canvas to new possibilities and interpretations. He points to the three-dimensional nature of the canvas and brings his earlier incarnation as a sculptor to the practice of painting, combining its different processes to forge a hybrid object that is no longer constrained by traditional classifications.
This revolution in the accepted ways and means of art-making had much to do with the technological advancements that were rapidly changing the nature of society at large. The advancing space race created a massive shift in perspective, a change in the understanding of humankind’s place in the universe that became incredibly relevant in the post-war period. An awareness of the vastness of the cosmos, and indeed of the Earth’s position on the merest fringes of the Milky Way, was a new revelation that demanded attention just as Galileo’s discoveries had centuries earlier. Like the Baroque artists before him, Fontana sought to create a spiritual art for this new technological age. “God is invisible, God is incomprehensible,” Fontana declared, explaining: “this is why no artist today can depict God seated on a throne with the world in his hands and a beard...The religions, too, must adapt themselves to the state of science” (L. Fontana, quoted in B. Hess, Lucio Fontana 1899-1968: ‘A New Fact in Sculpture’, Cologne, 2006, p. 68).
Fontana’s abstractions are ultimately secular, but their fierce beauty does commune with a Romantic notion of the sublime, and its attendant feelings of exquisite pleasure, awe and existential pain. There is also a profoundly utopian element in Concetto spaziale, Attese that reflects Fontana’s quest for an art that both acknowledges our metaphysical place in the universe and frees the soul. “My tagli are primarily a philosophical expression, an act of faith in the Infinite, an affirmation of spirituality,” Fontana declared. “When I sit down in front of one of my tagli, to contemplate it, I suddenly feel a great expansion of the spirit, I feel like a man liberated from the slavery of material, like a man who belongs to the vastness of the present and the future” (L. Fontana, quoted in G. Livi, ‘Incontro con Lucio Fontana’, Vanità, Vol. 6, No. 13, Autumn 1962, p. 56). In this way, Concetto spaziale, Attese asserts itself as a kind of space-age version of Malevich’s Black Square, a mystical icon of inter-dimensional travel and the perpetual change and flow of matter into energy, body into spirit, material substance into void.
Concetto spaziale, Attese
Waterpaint on canvas
Please note the correct orientation should be rotated 180 degrees clockwise.
Signed, titled and inscribed 'l. Fontana "La Carla Panicale mi à / scritto una lettera / Concetto spaziale / ATTESE/ HI / S / T / R / H"' (on the reverse)
Lucio Fontana , 20th Century, Paintings, Italy, Post War
Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Lucio Fontana, February-March 1970, no. 232, fig. 216.
Boissano, Centre International d'Expérimentation Artistique Marie-Louise Jeanneret, Omaggio a Fontana, July-August 1983, p. 21, no. 15 (illustrated).
Varese, Villa Mirabello, Lucio Fontana: Mostra antologica, May-August 1985, p. 149, no. 82 (illustrated in color).
Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Lucio Fontana: La cultura dell'occhio, June-September 1986, pp. 63 and 122, no. 46 (illustrated).
Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Lucio Fontana, April-June 1998, p. 272, no. 4 P 13 (illustrated in color).
Rome, Museo del Corso, Tesori nascosti, May-July 2001, p. 39 (illustrated in color).
Genova, Palazzo Ducale, Fontana: Luce e Colore, October 2008-February 2009, p. 129 (illustrated in color).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
45 3/4 x 35 in. (116 x 90 cm.)
E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana, Essays par Jan van der Marck et Enrico Crispolti, Brussels, 1974, vol. I, p. 89, no. 65 T 21 (illustrated).
E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: Catalogue raisonné des peintures, sculptures et environnements spatiaux, vol. II, Brussels, 1974, pp. 158-159, no. 65 T 21 (illustrated).
E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana, Catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti e ambientazioni, vol. II, Milan, 1986, p. 560, no. 65 T 21 (illustrated).
M. di Capua, "Quello dei tagli," Ars, May 1999, p. 76 (illustrated).
G. Ieranò, “Un taglio al passato”, Carnet, April 1999, p. 26 (illustrated in color).
E. Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: Catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, vol. II, Milan, 2006, p. 750, no. 65 T 21 (illustrated).
J. Littell, Le Benevole, Milan, 2007 (illustrated in color on the cover).
Galleria Notizie, Turin
Giovanni Traversa, Turin
Tommaso Fontana, Rome
Acquired from the above by the present owner