Luigi Moretti, Michel Tapié, and Friedrich Bayl, Musée-Manifeste: Structures et Styles Autres 5, International Center of Aesthetic Research, Turin 1962, n.p., illustrated
"D'Ars Agency", a. VI, no. 1, 1965, p. 9, fig. 3
Giuliana Corsini, 'Un' Opera e' Sempre Un' Alzata di Fantasia' in: Casa Vogue, April 1974, p. 117, illustrated (installation view)
Enrico Crispolti, Lucio Fontana Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. II, Brussels 1974, p. 112, no. 61 O 58, illustrated
Enrico Crispolti, Lucio Fontana Catalogo Generale, Vol. I, Milan 1986, p. 375, no. 61 O 58, illustrated
Enrico Crispolti, Lucio Fontana Catalogo Ragionato, Vol. II, Milan 2006, p. 562, no. 61 O 58, illustrated
"Gold is as beautiful as the Sun" ("l'oro è bello come il sole"
The artist's inscription on the reverse of Concetto Spaziale, 1964 (64 O 11)
Stunningly beautiful and the ultimate manifestation of Spatialism, Lucio Fontana's masterful Concetto Spaziale is the most convincing proof of this artist's genius and tireless innovation. It is central to the extremely rare Venezia cycle of paintings from 1961, which collectively form the pinnacle of the Olii works that spanned over a decade of his career. Indeed, as one of the most successfully conceived and executed painting in the series, this sublime Concetto Spaziale ranks among the greatest works in the artist's entire output. Its iconic composition both evokes figuration and epitomises abstraction. Its resplendent form mediates between painting and sculpture. Its theoretical project is sophisticated, profound and without precedent. Painted at the same time that John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States and Yuri Gagarin pioneered Man's ascent into Space, Concetto Spaziale parallels an era of momentous change and is, quite simply, one of the most important exponents of twentieth-century European abstract art.
The Venezia series is immensely illustrious, its paintings being housed in the collections of the Ludwig Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and the Lucio Fontana Foundation; frequently being included in major international exhibitions; and the inspiration for considerable art historical scholarship. However, having resided in the same private collection for over forty-five years, the compelling magnetism of this museum-quality work has been unseen virtually since its creation. In the three generations of Enrico Crispolti's catalogue raisonné for Fontana's oeuvre, Concetto Spaziale features as a legendary enigma among the Venezia cycle, the same black and white photograph reappearing in each of the 1974, 1986 and 2006 editions. Thus this painting's emergence today marks an historic event in the exhibition of Fontana's art, and an unparalleled auction opportunity.
Having been invited to contribute to the Arte e Contemplazione exhibition at the Centro Internazionale delle Arti e del Costume of the Palazzo Grassi (owned by the entrepreneur and patron Paolo Marinotti) Fontana painted the twenty-two, one and-a-half metre square paintings dedicated to Venice in the first half of 1961. He knew the city well: the Venice Biennale had exhibited his work since 1930, including a twenty piece retrospective in 1954, and he had many close Venetian contacts, including his dealer Carlo Cadazzo, the critics Berto Morucchio and Toni Toniato, as well as the city's Spazialisti artists. Apart from Fontana's first group of Metalli works dedicated to New York (started at the beginning of 1962) this is the only cycle in his oeuvre that has a specific place as a sub-title. After eleven of the works were shown at the Palazzo Grassi, the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York staged Ten Paintings of Venice in November and December, comprising seven works from the Venice show with three additions, and presented in the catalogue by Lawrence Alloway.
By choosing the city of Venice as his declared inspiration, Fontana chose a metropolitan symbol for the full weight of Art History and a potent metaphor for culture itself. Built on dozens of islands in a marshy lagoon and ruled by the notorious Doges for over a thousand years, the city's extraordinary art and architecture memorialise the imperialist and mercantile success of its Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque pasts. Although the composition, colour and form of Concetto Spaziale are ultimately abstract, Fontana's masterpiece evokes the city's eminent appearance and magisterial grandeur through subjective association. Indeed, from the frescoes of Tiepolo to the architecture of Longhena and the music of Albinoni and Vivaldi, the exuberance and drama of the Barrocco Veneziano comprise the genesis of Concetto Spaziale.
The composition is dominated by the five-sided golden shape at its centre: at once mystifying, highly emblematic, and connotative of wide-ranging figurative subject matter. Its dimensions are vaguely analogous to the shape of the main island of Venice, thereby corresponding to the calculations of cartographers, the photographs of pilots, the view of astronauts, and even the perspective traditionally attributed to God. In this sense Fontana's abstraction stands as a microcosm, implicating tens of thousands of lives contained within the golden topography. Around this shape the square canvas is organised by lyrical curves, particularly evident in the cream areas. Evoking the splendid Venetian Baroque, these swirling forms are reminiscent of the scrolled buttresses of the Grand Canal's Santa Maria della Salute; the volutes of elaborate Composite columns; the arcs of treble and bass clefs; the scrolled head of a baroque violin punctuated by tuning pegs; and the curling wake left in water by a gondolier's oar.
Fontana reserved his use of gold for only the most important occasions, laden as it is with traditional symbolism. Here it becomes the protagonist of the painting, resonating with famous signs of Venice from the winged golden lion of St Mark on the Venetian flag to the dazzling, gilded and mosaic interior of St Mark's Basilica. It also recalls depictions of canals, bridges, churches and palaces by Canaletto and Turner, where yellows and ochre conjure the transcendent atmosphere caused by sunlight reflected off the surrounding Adriatic and refracted through the evaporating sea's mist. Finally, the painting's curved golden triangles are very much like the protective metal corners on covers of distinguished manuscripts, suggesting that Concetto Spaziale similarly contains invaluable wisdom within it.
The landscape of paint that confronts the viewer appears molten like a pool of liquid gold; burnished like an ingot wrestled from the earth's crust; and unearthly like a smoothly incinerated meteorite. To achieve the faceted texture Fontana has smothered the canvas in lavish layers of thick paint using palette knives and his hands. His actions are retold by three-dimensional shadows fixed as recesses, ridges and circular ruptures. The scrolls have been channelled by finger tips, the downward pressure pushing up burred edges like furrows ploughed in wet soil. The grooved impasto around the central shape and towards the corner triangles demarcates the areas of gold paint which, from the way it sits on top of the built up texture, appears to have been applied after Fontana had sculpted the surface. This suggests that the artist had the final composition planned in his mind before he started manipulating the surface. In order to facilitate this extravagant working method it had been necessary for Fontana to develop new materials as the viscosity of conventional oil paint caused thick areas to sag and change shape during the lengthy drying period. As proved by Barbara Ferriani and others, between 1960 and 1961 Fontana started to add a stearic-acrylic resin to oil paint as a hardener to achieve the unique impasto, which he could manipulate further during its faster drying time (Barbara Ferriani in: Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection; New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lucio Fontana: Venice/ New York, 2006, p. 222).
In addition to the sheer physicality of the painting's highly-worked surfaces, Fontana's drive to transcend material by constantly regenerating material attests to his earliest training as a sculptor. Educated by his father to conceptualise in three-dimensions, to see the form held within a block of marble and the potential resident in a lump of clay, Fontana was not interested in the canvas as merely a window to the artist's eye. Indeed, having completed the Natura sculptures in 1960, Fontana now worked his canvases horizontally and vertically, attacking both the front and back with his ruptures. Twenty-five years earlier Raffaele Carrieri had stated that "Fontana's story is the story of Fontana's ceaseless battle with his hands" (Raffaele Carrieri, 'Le maioliche geologiche di Lucio Fontana', Illustrazione Italiana, Milan 8th January 1939) and Concetto Spaziale should be considered as close to sculpture as it is to painting.
The lyrical constellations of the Buchi holes are arranged in two concentric, irregular rings, numbering thirty-nine and twenty-five apertures respectively. The raised rims around these gashed punctures describe how the artist incised the shape of the holes while the paint was still drying. In a prolonged and dramatic gesture, Fontana's knife has been punched through and twisted in the canvas over and again, ingraining forever the conviction of his visceral attack. As Fontana's unique and iconic Spatialist expression, the holes afford a glimpse into the infinite space of the void beyond the two-dimensional picture plane and become the key to this masterpiece. Shortly after creating Concetto Spaziale the artist explained: "Even my Holes, Which could even be 'Baroque'...Are the sign for Nothing, for the Void" (the artist cited in: Italo Tomassoni, Per una ipotesi barocca, Rome 1963, p. 53). Fontana's holes bore through the stunning beauty of the canvas and pierce the sentimentality of aestheticism: what remains is the essence of his Spatialist concept. As he described in a precisely contemporaneous letter, this concept is, finally, the only consequence: "I think that Matter is important to the evolution of art...but the important thing, the most important thing is the Idea" (the artist in a letter to Jeef Verheyen, January 1961, cited in: Paolo Campiglio, Ed., Lucio Fontana. Lettere 1919-1968, Milan 1999, pp. 180-81). In Concetto Spaziale the creation of the idea emerges out of the destruction, both physically and conceptually, of the canvas.
By admitting a state of infinity, or what Enrico Crispolti described as "an extreme dematerialization of space itself" (Enrico Crispolti in: Exhibition Catalogue, Milan, Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Fontana, 1999, p. 14), Fontana's apertures introduce a concept that is presumed to exist but is beyond human experience. Indeed, by presenting the idea of the infinite this Spatialist painting implicates the greatest analogy of all for the entirety of space and time: the Universe. It is no coincidence that the execution of Concetto Spaziale broadly coincided with the dawn of the Space Age and Gagarin's journey to become the first human in space on 12th April 1961. His galactic ascent suggested that Humanity is located in spatial infinity and provided the ultimate metaphor for humankind's existentialist isolation in the void. Fontana's contemporaneous work takes this existential idea beyond its representation to its actual manifestation, as described by Crispolti: "Fontana, in fact, replaced the issue of the perception of reality with that of the conception of reality...considered as substantially dynamic, fluid, relative and infinite" (Enrico Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: Catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, Tomo I, Milan 2006, pp. 11-13).
In order to appreciate fully the revolutionary significance of Concetto Spaziale it is also important to consider the context of Fontana's career. At this time the sixty-two year old Fontana, working at 23 Corso Monforte in Milan (the address that had been his studio since 1952), had established a prodigious reputation as a herald of new directions in art with his Spatialism and stark artistic dialect. He had committed his career to denouncing what he had called "the nightmare of the art of painting which survives with all the excessive sensibilities of aesthetic research" (the artist cited in: Raffaele Carrieri, Pittura e Scultura d'avaguardia in Italia, 1890-1955, Milan 1955, p. 287). It was in strong contrast, therefore, that with the Venezia works at the beginning of 1961 he enlisted the legacy of the Baroque, its connotations of unstable excess, love of ornamentation and indulgence of the senses with such overt aestheticism as painterly virtuosity and associative iconography.
However, Fontana saw the potential in exploiting the cliché and compulsory tourist destination that Venice had become. By harnessing the populist mythology of the Queen of the Adriatic he could extend the scope of his Spatialist ideas. Through abstract means Fontana creates a beautified sign for Venice: a mnemonic picture-postcard for the idealised dream place of a collective fantasy. Having completely broken with traditional imagery he creates the idea and the essence of Venice as both psychological and physical place. By consciously referencing a sentimentality and kitsch produced by a mass-media, package-tourism culture, this is as close as Fontana came to an abstract version of Pop. Whereas virtually all his other output merely surpasses the precedent of the picture-plane to forward Spatialist ideals, with the Venezia series Fontana further overcomes the precedent of aesthetics, History, Art and contemporary attitudes to culture.
In the forty years since Fontana's death a number of major retrospectives have progressively opened the eyes of the world to the true genius of this artist, most recently Lucio Fontana: Venice/ New York at the Guggenheim Museums. The intensity of his creative spirit, the profundity of his concepts, and the versatility of his output all account for his reputation as the foremost European abstract artist of the post-War era. Although his art is ageless and his Spatialism is without comparison, he is also an artist of his time whose work finds parallels with that of other pioneers. His ideas on spatial experience and reinventing possibilities of the canvas correspond with Jackson Pollock; his referencing and exploiting of contemporary culture resonate with Andy Warhol; and his beliefs in the existential condition of humankind echo those of Francis Bacon. Ultimately Fontana was a ceaseless innovator, and with Concetto Spaziale he proves a tireless drive to further the possibilities of his art. Among all the works of his oeuvre, it is this painting Concetto Spaziale that distils the full force of Fontana's capabilities, bringing together serene inspiration, technical innovation, perfect execution, and conceptual brilliance with a self-referential irony that exactly prefigures post-Modernism.
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