PARIS — If you want to leave all imagery behind for a free-fall into the immersive deep space of the virtual, Lucio Fontana is your quintessential man. The current retrospective at the The Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris shows the multiplicity of Fontana’s oeuvre, starting back in the 1920s. But here I will dwell on the fluid coherence of his proto-virtual art theories, conceptualist paintings — most notably his “Concetti spaziali” (Spatial Concepts) — punctured and slit canvases that began in 1949 with the “buchi,” or holes, series, and room installations. Fontana’s objective for his art was the breaking of dimensional limitations, both physical and metaphysical. As such, Fontana was acutely aware of the implications of the technology that was powerfully coming into use during his life (1899–1968): electronic communications, missile technology, and the harnessing of nuclear energy.
While Fontana’s works can be appreciated independently of their theoretical background, when properly understood they receive an added proto-connected dimension. Alas, it seems to me that his work is often under-theorized, which is a disappointment, as his mid-1940s theories’ appeal for expanding the prospects of space in art add cogently to a conceptual lineage that ripped through the 1970s: through the spatial dislocation of the expanded cinema of Gene Youngblood, Sun Ra, Nicolas Schöffer, and Rosalind Krauss’s text Sculpture in the Expanded Field, on through kinetic art and post-modern sculpture, painting and installation art. Furthermore, Fontana’s call for a “spatialist era” seems to me particularly germane to today’s unchaining of art from medium, placing it into the expanded field that Youngblood held was a “logical result of the psychological effects of the global communications network.”
Concerning what Adrian Henri calls the “environmental urge” in Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance, Fontana explored in his theories the problem of representing spatial concepts abstractly; formulating space as an aoristic universal. As I see it, the proto-spatial vortex of networked computers that Fontana anticipated through his Spatialist Movement (Spatialism), is readily understood by reading the theoretical manifestos he wrote in Milan in 1947. But the main ideas of the movement concerning an unremitting assault on representation were already anticipated in his “Manifesto blanco” (White Manifesto) (1946), published in Buenos Aires. There he stated, “What is necessary is to overcome painting, sculpture, poetry and music. We need a more comprehensive art that meets the requirements of the new spirit.” This unprecedented spirit indicates to me the characteristics of the algorithm and its usurpation of media specificity. This combinatory aspect of his thought is what makes Fontana’s shredding of the classical modernist flat picture plane far more than an art historical curiosity (or modern tragedy).
With the White Manifesto, Fontana became more than an intense painter, as it was the cosmic unity of space itself that interested him above all else; space in the third and fourth dimensional realm and bottomless space in the metaphorical and conceptual sense. However, as I saw in this exhibition, Fontana turned frequently to painting in order to conjure these promulgations of cosmological spatial unity. But Fontana often said that the canvas was primarily there not for what it is, or represents, but for how we can mentally move through it. Of course this longing for a move into a uniform infinity of reconciliation is also the end of the recognized world. Consequently, and paradoxically, he dropped the traditional ritual of only painting on the picture plane for what looks to be an act of destruction aimed against the commodity production of painting, and began what first looks to be a desperate puncturing of holes into solid monochrome canvases, such as in the stunning “Concetto spaziale” (1962).
This radical (albeit overly masculinized) tendency of penetration became the basic thesis behind the “Spazialismo” movement (a neologism deriving from the Italian “spazio,” space) that was initiated by his group of Milano artists and intellectuals in 1947. Spazialismo’s first manifesto was written collaboratively by Fontana with the critic Giorgio Kaisserlian, the philosopher/artist Beniamino Joppolo and the female writer/artist Milena Milani. “Spaziali” (1948) was the movement’s second manifesto and was signed by Fontana, Joppolo, Milani, Kaisserlian, Antonio Tullier and Gianni Dova. They both are well worth reading, as Fontana’s stabbed and slashed canvases (beginning in 1949 and 1959, respectively) exemplify the idea of the constructive annihilation of corporeality laid out in them, as I saw in “Concetto spaziale, La Fine di Dio” (1963), and in the “Manifesto blanco” text.
But also in 1949, Fontana’s spatial theories of surface contestation, which had been developing in his paintings, could no longer be only expressed through addressing the two-dimensional surface. Hence he created his first spatial sensorium, “Ambiente Spaziale a Luc Nera” (1949), at Galleria del Naviglio by placing in the darkened gallery an abstract shape painted with phosphorescent varnish and lit by neon lamp. From then on Fontana titled all of his work that critiques representation, “Spatial Concept.”
A decade later, following a retrospective at the Venice Biennial in 1958, Fontana conceived of the momentous “tagli” (cuts) series of slashed canvases, the slash conceived as a mystical act that attempts to tweak the ungraspable infinite into being. Yet I cannot but also arguably associate it with the prodigious ecstasies of catastrophe – and somewhat with the Antonin Artaud ideals of a Theater of Cruelty.
This elegant slashing of monochromatic canvases with a razor blade, far from an act of desperation, symbolizes a subordination of place to space typical of most tribal rituals. It is an invitation to mentally move beyond the surface of reality into an unconditioned reality. It is a conceptual act of access into the overwhelming infinite; an act more spatial than psychological.
In so doing, Fontana transformed a presumably ruinous attitude into an act of fever pitch creation that challenged classical easel painting and the sanctity of the picture plane. This extravagant gesture into the immeasurable, like a religious ritual, made him the nullifier of the solid flat window-like metaphoric space in painting, and so, a conceptual harbinger of environmental, immersive, and virtual art – indeed all forms of gesamtkunstwerk.
Perhaps, in immersive terms, the most successful of Fontana’s work were his installations at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Especially the ultra-violet light-room and the violet neon-room. That and the last gallery at his retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1967 where Fontana created a vivid red chasm by dividing the space from floor to ceiling with wooden partitions pierced by horizontal rows of buchis. Walls, floor and ceiling were all painted the same vivid glossy red and then illuminated with red neon light, creating a walk-in total-artwork. This was not unprecedented, as Fontana had previously created a ceiling peppered with punctured buchis for the Kursaal at Varazze (1952) and in a cinema in Breda (1953).
Concerning these punctured holes, Fontana said, “I make a hole in the canvas in order to leave behind me the old pictorial formulae, the painting and the traditional view of art and I escape symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface.” Thus for Fontana, space literally transgressed abstract painting’s support, activating ambient space and the technological allure that envelops post-modern life. This is what constitutes the wider context, the cutting-edge, and the contemporaneity of Fontana’s deceptively simple, but far-reaching, work in our cybernetic organization of space.
So his spaced out art is not at all an escape into transcendental idealism but an intensification of the ground of connected reality through a new perspective on space itself. Grounded reality is then experienced as airy when looked at from his critical spatial distance.
Fontana’s achievement is in offering up a space of supportable intellectual freedom for us in the wired world. His art suggests a fly over of our factual ground and a breaking up with our embedded system. His piercing the veil of painting, as outlined already in the “Manifesto blanco,” not only became a significant position for artists in the 1970s, it remains the key theoretically imbued work related to delimited art in our age of connected virtuality, because the fetish surface of painting is no longer confined to material. Rather, the rupture of the painting’s surface, with, for example “Concetto spaziale, Attese (Concept spatial, Attentes)” (1959), conceptually opens painting up to a further (an immeasurable) scope: the virtual infinite.
His holes and lacerations are indications, and tangible appearances, then, of the abstraction of connected space opening up to a comprehension-consciousness of high-technology innovation. And this is how the imagined (or implied) non-partialized field of universal surroundings typical of Fontana’s Spatialist-type conceptualizations of abstract space pertains to post-internet art today.
With Fontana, painting may be made to represent the totality of the virtual span. Indeed Fontana’s theoretically-based penetrated paintings take a huge step in the direction of escaping the limits of narrow representation in the interests of a post-media consciousness. From Fontana on, even art that does not fully undermine the proscenium and window-like shape of painting, photography, video and the computer screen may stand in for the abstract, all-over, intemperate 360° bubble-vision of the virtual.
In this drift towards all-over anti-representationalism, Fontana’s art began at leaving the framing apparatus that fixed a segment of the objective world at one end and the viewer at the other. What had previously enabled that narrow cone of vision to simulate the entire visual atmospheric field was possible precisely with the enclosure of that framing cone, but once that framing cone was dissolved through Fontanaesque spatial ideals, the narrow cone of representation is still found to be wanting and dissolves into an orbit of surplus value. And a much more encompassing atmospheric scopic organization is conceived in its place.
In terms of the contemporary relevance of this hypothetical immersive inclination, the Fontanaesque conceptual expansion away from the two-dimensional canvas encourages an active atmosphere of contemplative reception of the work of art. Fontana aimed to evoke this combinatory possibility within the imagination of the audience and to boldly engage their mental participation so as to release art from its previous obligatory fidelities to the material status quo. Underlying his anti-monotheistic, anti-ontological aim is a miasmatic idea that questions linear and hierarchical structures and seeks to replace them with atmospheric loose structures, keyed to a penetrable, reciprocal flow of mental events.
Perhaps Fontanaesque ideas of a post-media, post-conceptual art are best understood by something he said in 1967, when he explained that the holes and slits he makes were not acts of destructions of the picture plane, but rather a glimpse into an expanding dimension beyond it into a “liberty of conceiving art through any medium.” Medium after Fontana can no longer be conceived of as solely earthbound: hence it is hyper.
Lucio Fontana: Rétrospective continues at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris (11 Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris) through August 24.
Also on view is Rediscovery of a masterpiece at Galerie Tornabuoni Art (16 Avenue Matignon, Paris) wherein the gallery is unveiling a masterpiece of the artist, lost for more than 30 years: “Le Jour” (1962) is one of the largest gold paintings of Lucio Fontana, completed in collaboration with Jef Verheyen (1932–1984).