"I have invented a formula that I think I cannot perfect. I succeeded in giving those looking at my work a sense of spatial calm, of cosmic rigor, of serenity with regard to the infinite. Further than this I could not go." (Lucio Fontana cited in Giorgio Bocca, “Il taglio è il taglio: Incontro con Lucio Fontana, il vincitore di Venezia”, Il Giorno, 6 July 1966)
In the fall of 1964, the legendary Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni was fifty-two years old and was not only redefining the landscape of contemporary cinema, but transforming the very parameters of visual expression. Following the unparalleled success of his now-canonical trilogy of black and white feature films that interrogated the alienation of man in the modern world—L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962)—Antonioni made a radical turn for the first time to the cinematic possibilities of color. That September, Antonioni debuted his film Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) at the 25th Venice Film Festival. Met with universal acclaim, the feature was awarded the Golden Lion—the festival’s highest honor. Antonioni’s earliest venture into color motion pictures, Red Desert makes profound use of the chromatic spectrum: intensely saturated fields of red, yellow, and green puncture the bleak industrial landscape of Ravenna, in which the film is set. A former painter in his youth, Antonioni took up his brushes again prior to filming Red Desert in order to refamiliarize himself with color. The director likened his filmmaking process to painting: “In ‘Red Desert’ I had to change the appearance of reality—of the water, the streets, of the countryside. I had to paint them with real paint and brush. It was not easy…. it is like painting a film.” (Antonioni cited in Aldo Tassone, ed., Parla il Cinema Italiano, Milan, 1979)
Several months later, the sixty-five year old Lucio Fontana stood before a nearly seven-foot wide canvas and plunged his blade into the vast blazing red void. One year before winning the grand prize at the Venice Biennale, Fontana took his knife to the surface of the present work at the very crest of his creative powers. Slicing the painted canvas with twenty-four individual tears across its panoramic width, Fontana embarked on what would become the most dramatic and climactic painting of his career—the single canvas that bears the greatest number of slashes of any of the artist’s deeply venerated series of Tagli. After inflicting his archetypal violence on the painting’s expanse, Fontana inscribed on its reverse (in Italian): “I returned yesterday from Venice, I saw the film of Antonioni!!!” Seeing Antonioni’s landmark film Red Desert left Fontana in a state of utter revelation, motivating him to create the most electrifyingly theatrical painting of his entire body of work. A breathtaking frieze of twenty-four sensational incisions across a single row of his majestic crimson canvas, Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, Attese from 1965 is extraordinarily rare among the artist’s output. Not only is it the only single unmodified canvas to bear twenty-four cuts, but there are no paintings in the artist’s entire production with a greater number of incisions, thus rendering it an ultimate exemplar of the utmost rarity among Fontana’s iconic body of paintings.
Concetto Spaziale, Attese is indisputably cinematic in composition; Fontana’s lacerations erupt across the surface from left to right like discrete frames unspooling over a film reel, marking a rhythmic progression of narrative time in sequential beats. In the dynamic kineticism of its sweeping proportions, the present work stuns in its filmic tempo more than any other of Fontana's paintings. Noting the unparalleled drama of the present Concetto Spaziale, Attese, Fred Licht explained: “Fontana’s frieze compositions are probably his most ambitious and eloquent works. The artist strikes a major chord by means of the proportionate relationship of the grouped slashes and the rigid format of the overall field. Against this primary equivalent of a basso continuo the eye perceives constantly changing rhythmic sequences made up of the shifting fields, sometimes broad, sometimes slender, that separate the slashes… The situation is not dissimilar to Chinese scroll paintings in which the viewer is also expected to unroll the painting very slowly, revealing first one complete ‘phrase’ which he then must bring into linear and rhythmic conjunction with the image that appears as the scroll is unrolled another few inches.” (Fred Licht in Exh. Cat., Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection (and travelling), Homage to Lucio Fontana, 1988, p. 64) Each slash ruptures the emptiness of Fontana’s monochromatic picture plane, paralleling the singular bursts of hysteria that erupt from the empty landscape of Antonioni’s Red Desert. In the enigmatic film, isolated moments of erotic passion and subdued violence punctuate the bleak industrial environment of petroleum tankers and smoke plumes that characterize the mechanical plant of the story’s setting. These scenes are heightened by Antonioni’s richly saturated color palette. His severe geometries and bright zones of pure, solid color surely appealed to Fontana, as did the film’s underlying subtext. Red Desert explored the contemporary alienation and spiritual malaise of the technological age; how the architecture of modern technological industry affects the anxiety of mankind. Just as Fontana’s holes and slashes evoked mankind’s instinct to leave his mark within the space age, in Antonioni’s film, the director explored how modern technological life affects humanity. Both Fontana’s and Antonioni’s respective works mine the existential loneliness of humans in a world that far exceeds the limits of any intelligible dimensions. In the final scenes of Red Desert, the figures descend into the foreboding fog, echoing the infinity of the black voids within each of Fontana’s slashes.
Disclosing a space beyond the two dimensional picture plane guided Fontana’s artistic intent. Significantly, it was humankind’s exploration into space that would transform his practice: tangibility of the universe and scientific discovery of infinity was the catalyst for extending the scope of his sculptural/painterly experimentation. Fontana’s Tagli offered an innovative interpretation of the artist’s gesture that moved it from the surface to penetrating the canvas, and hence opened up an entirely new spatial dimension to his work. Surrounded by an era of advancements in space travel and quantum physics, Fontana understood that art, like science, must also compete with a vision of the world comprised of time, matter, energy and the deep void of space. This fixation with unknowable dimensions should be understood against a contemporaneous context of cosmic exploration; at the same moment Fontana began his Tagli, news stories of the 'space race' captivated audiences all over the world. Indeed, Fontana’s Spatialist theories echo an age utterly dominated by news of space exploration and discovery. In 1957 the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit; in 1959, the Soviets landed probe Luna 2 on the moon; and in 1961 the very first outer-space flight was made by Yuri Gagarin. As Sarah Whitfield noted: “The famous hole and cut were not just gashes punched through a canvas, but a way of making the viewer look beyond the physical fact of the painting, to what Fontana called ‘a free space’. This is as much a philosophical concept as a visual one, for as Fontana told Tommaso Trini shortly before his death: ‘art is only thought in evolution.’ The space created by the hole or the slash stands for the idea of a space without physical boundaries.” (Sarah Whitfield, Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, Lucio Fontana, 1999, p. 14)
In 1947, Fontana founded Spatialism, a deeply influential artistic movement that proposed a ground-breaking synthesis of the phenomenological realm as a new form of visual expression. The main principles, laid down in the very first Manifiesto Blanco, published in 1946 in Buenos Aires, outlined a new spirit for art, in tune with the post-war era, in which the traditional illusionism of oil painting was repudiated in favor of a unification of art and science. As outlined in the Manifiesto, Fontana stipulated the need for matter, color, and sound to be enacted within ‘real’ space and time: “Color, the element of space; sound, the element of time; and movement that develops in time and space; these are the fundamental forms of the new art that contains the four dimensions of existence.” (Lucio Fontana, "Manifiesto Blanco," 1946 in Guido Balla, Lucio Fontana, New York, 1971, p. 189) This theorizing would lay the foundation for the next twenty years of his practice, a period of production that significantly boasts the most important and esteemed works of the artist’s career.
Fontana embarked on the Tagli at the end of 1958, partly in response to the developments in contemporary art in Italy during 1957-58, particularly Yves Klein’s first exhibition of monochrome paintings in Milan in 1957, Jackson Pollock’s retrospective in Rome in 1958, and the predominant rise of Art Informel. In response to the contemporary turn toward action painting at this time, Fontana’s cuts evoked this gestural performance while seeking the realization of a more metaphysical presence. Fontana combined the highly saturated monochromatic purity of Klein’s canvases with Pollock’s violently physical action. However, whereas Pollock’s painterly dripping technique left an indexical record of his every movement, Fontana’s gesture annihilated this proclivity toward additive mark-making and replaced it with a vandalistic destructiveness. Drawing attention to the materiality of the picture-plane, Fontana’s cuts question classical interpretations of a ‘figure-ground’ relationship; rather than striving toward an illusion of perspectival depth, Fontana’s punctures create forms within the canvas that embody a real third dimension of space. Moreover, the painting’s chromatic radiance amplifies the profound darkness of the plunging black recesses that aptly signify Fontana’s quest for "the Infinite, the inconceivable chaos, the end of figuration, nothingness." (Lucio Fontana cited in Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, Lucio Fontana, 1999, p. 198)
While Fontana maintained the outward gestural expressivity of artists like Pollock and Klein, each cut with the metallic edge of his Stanley knife blade reduced artistic gesture to a machine-like action, displacing the indulgence of personal subjectivity for an apparently mechanical reductivism. The serial progression of twenty-four repetitive cuts across the panoramic canvas aligns Fontana’s artistic process with industrial modes of mass production; even the implement he used to lacerate the painting is normally used to cut lengths of canvas in preparation for stretching. In part, Fontana’s grasp of how technology could fundamentally redefine the boundaries of human existence was indebted to the influence of Italian Futurism. As the Manifiesto Blanco had appreciatively stated: “Futurism adopts movement as the only beginning and the only end.” (Lucio Fontana, "Manifiesto Blanco," cited in: Enrico Crispolti, Lucio Fontana Catalogo Ragionato, Vol. II, Milan, 2006, p. 19) For Fontana, Futurism rightly valued the forward progress of civilization and acknowledged the implications of Einstein’s theories of relativity. Yet whereas this earlier twentieth-century movement obsessed over sleek industrial design and the sublime amalgamation of man and machine in the known world, Fontana perceived a different aspect of progress: the loneliness of vast, unexplored territories, the return to primordial states of becoming, and a mysterious fourth-dimension. However, though Fontana undoubtedly inherited Futurism’s high-modernist endeavor to bring forth a totally new art for a new era, the mechanical character and emphasis on speed and movement through urban space vital to their project is resolutely absent from the Spatialist enterprise. Instead, the wounded picture plane and the scars of his eloquently sliced canvases hark back to an established art historical legacy. Far from the Futurist’s bombastic insistence on burning down the libraries and flooding the museums to purge the oppressive past, Fontana’s Spatialism expressed a project of recognizing the past and uniting it with the future. Though not speaking of any religious message, Fontana phrased his Spatialist journey in the context of Western art history.
Supreme elegance, endurance and audacity define the present work; an extended choreography of twenty-four cuts jet across a deep-red monochrome picture plane. As each slash penetrates the evenly painted surface, the resulting tear is exquisitely fine at each polar end, gradually broadening toward the center where the tight canvas gives way to the pressure of the blade and curls deeply inward to reveal a profound emptiness. Reaching across a pristine expanse of pure bloodshot canvas, Concetto Spaziale, Attese heralds the end of the flat picture plane in what is quite simply one of the most radical gestures in art history. What defines Fontana’s work however is not only a revolutionary new form of expression, but a triumphant marriage of the cutting edge and the historical via the restrained yet violent gesture of Fontana’s Stanley blade cut. Indeed, the size of Concetto Spaziale, Attese and the unrivaled dynamism of its myriad cuts make this masterpiece an extremely rare testament to one of the most decisive breakthroughs in the history of art.
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