Lucio Fontana cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, 2006, p. 23
Four dramatically rendered incisions perforate the otherwise smooth and pristine surface of Lucio Fontana’s vibrant scarlet painting Concetto spaziale, Attese (Spatial Concept, Expectation). Executed in 1966, at the pinnacle of the artist’s critically acclaimed and vastly influential career, the work exemplifies Fontana’s revolutionary series of slashed canvases, known as the tagli, or cuts. First implemented towards the end of 1958, these drastic perforations constituted a seminal redefinition of the conception of space in painting, which would continue to preoccupy the artist until his death in 1968. The creative inception of the tagli had in fact been articulated over a decade earlier in 1956, when Fontana penned his first artistic treatise, Manifesto Blanco: here, he proposed the notion of Spazialismo, or Spatialism, which sought to articulate the fourth dimension by instigating a radical dialogue between the rapid technological and scientific advancements of his contemporary moment, and the pictorial evocation of space and depth in art.
Throughout his lifetime, Fontana witnessed an escalation in scientific discoveries that would culminate in the momentous Space Race of the Twentieth-Century. The artist was enthralled and inspired by these era defining developments, which spiralled from Albert Einstein’s 1916 Theory of Relativity and the 1919 splitting of the atom by Ernest Rutherford, into Georges Lemaître’s Big Bang Theory in 1931, Robert Oppenheimer’s hypotheses on black holes in 1939, the launch of Sputnik by the USSR in 1967, and finally, wondrously, man’s first journey into space with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Roused by the vast unknown dimensions of the universe, the tagli provided Fontana with a tangible means of exploring the relationship between cosmic and material space. Just as Gagarin would exceed the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere as he journeyed into outer space, so too would Fontana slice through his canvases to expose a deep and immeasurable darkness beyond the picture plane.
Striking and seductive, the vivid red canvas of Concetto spaziale, Attese is wholly charged with the energy of Fontana’s ground-breaking gesture of the tagli. As the title of the work implies, they seem to pulsate with impending expectation. As each slash penetrates the evenly painted surface, the profound darkness of the plunging black recesses eloquently articulates the artist’s quest for what he passionately described as “the Infinite, the inconceivable chaos, the end of figuration, nothingness” (Lucio Fontana cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, Lucio Fontana, 1999, p. 198). In the present work, the sequence of the four cuts – two perfectly vertical lines, a sharp diagonal, and a final vertical iteration – sears into the vivid flesh of the painted canvas. Their repetition, however, is neither rigid nor mechanical. To the contrary, a sense of organic life pervades the work, enticing the viewer through its alluring and mysterious allusion to a vast and infinite void.
Fontana created his tagli using a sharp blade that he would dexterously manipulate in his studio to swiftly slash, in a singular descending gesture, his still-damp canvases. He would then viscerally widen the incisions using his fingers, allowing each freshly cut band to curl naturally inwards. Finally, he would apply black gauze to the reverse of the ruptured canvas to accentuate its impression of endless and eternal depth. Overwhelming in their raw immediacy, the softly undulating edges of the tagli exude a certain sensual tactility. The painting’s saturated and fiery hue further heightens its intensity, so as to simultaneously evoke a sense of violence and desire. Red, as the colour of blood as much as a symbol of anger, passion and lust, was a vital emblem for Fontana. Rich in allusion, it pertains at once to the weighty tradition of Western religion, and to the rapidly unfurling future of the cosmos. Indeed, this growing awareness of the vast and mysterious depths of the universe would in itself trigger both exhilaration and an underlying sense of existential anxiety.
Innovatively disrupting the dominant aesthetic dogma of Renaissance spatial reasoning with his tagli, Fontana's practice constituted a radical schism with canonical art history. In Concetto spaziale, Attese, the artist contends with the indisputable tension between unity and rupture, beauty and brutality, transcendent serenity and unspeakable violence. Simultaneously invoking the most contemporary of subjects, and the most traditional, the present work draws on both the fourth dimension, and the devotional framework of the Church. Its four lacerations, strikingly corporeal in appearance, become a contemporary echo of Christ’s wounds on the cross. Significantly, in mirroring the Christian message of salvation through sacrifice, it is only by enacting violence upon an unblemished surface that Fontana achieves access to a new and unknown dimension: here, in his perforated canvases, past and present compellingly collide. “My cuts are above all a philosophical statement, an act of faith in the infinite, an affirmation of spirituality”, the artist elucidated; “When I sit down to contemplate one of my cuts, I sense all at once an enlargement of the spirit, I feel like a man freed from the shackles of matter; a man at one with the immensity of the present and of the future” (Lucio Fontana cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, 2006, p. 23).
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