PARIS — The visual experience transmitted by Lucio Fontana’s ceramic crosses, currently on view at Galerie Karsten Greve, evokes hallucinogenic transmutation and transubstantiation. Made between 1948 and 1961 — and thus predecessors of quasi-religious acid art — their woozy motifs reek of the high “sacramental vision” that Aldous Huxley discovered under the influence of mescaline, as recounted in his book The Doors of Perception.
I first discovered just one of Fontana’s quivering crosses in Sèvres at the Cité de la Céramique in the extensive group exhibition Ceramix, but here I was thrilled to discover the fruits of years and years of obsessive creation. On first glance, the sparsely hung show, which spans three floors, has the look of the Stations of the Cross. But soon one discovers that there are almost only crucifixions here. The loss of clarity, the submersion, the writhing attempt at escape of the oozing Christ figures in all of them marks their contemplative power. In that respect, they are spiritually orgasmic.
Fontana’s predominantly twisted and asymmetrical pieces, such as “Crocifisso (O Cristo)” (1955–57), were clearly worked with vivid virtuosity. The hardened wet clay he formed with his fingers creates a trembling and wobbly look that is accentuated in the pieces that are glazed to shine. Some of the sculptures recall those mind-expanding, multisensory light show spectacles (like Mark Boyle’s or Joshua White’s) for which the late 1960s and early ‘70s became famous.
The psychedelic, tortured Christ hanging in agony and/or ecstasy on Fontana’s churning crosses also prefigures the emergence of body art performance in the ‘70s as a major form in which the human physique was exploited as an integral and expandable perceptual instrument — stimulated to reach states of euphoric, erogenous frenzy. Indeed, his piece “Crocifisso” (1955–57) is in effect erotic, as the mangled Christ figure appears to have a mammoth erection. It is a piece that could have easily slipped into Leo Steinberg’s classic reference book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. With its presentation of predominantly white wobbling substance, it is also typical of the hallucinogenic immoderation that I find spiking Fontana’s methodology in this series.
Acid’s sacred, expanding visions — especially those tied to inward contemplation — resonate with Fontana’s 1951 “Manifesto tecnico dello spazialismo” (or “Technical Manifesto of Spatialism”). In it, he said he wanted to open up art forms so as to penetrate space; to create a new dimension that ties in with the cosmos as it endlessly expands beyond the image. Such a secular ambition connects to what Dr. Albert Hofmann, a biochemist at the Sandoz pharmaceutical firm in Basel, discovered in 1943 when he accidentally absorbed a small amount of d-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate: that LSD has expanding and visionary spatial properties that are nearly cosmic-religious.
The problems of describing LSD’s effects are notorious, and the typology of its consequences vary, but Fontana’s crosses display the central, salient acid experience. When experiencing the chemical, the awareness of individual body identity somewhat evaporates and subject/object relationships tend to dissolve; the world seems as if it is simply a fluid, shifting extension of the mind. Thus, even as I have no inkling that Fontana ever tripped, his cosmic crucifixes are trippy. Regardless of what he swallowed, it is well known that he punctured the buchi (Italian for “hole”) in his canvases for cosmic reasons, as a means of integrating the theoretical space represented on the surface of his paintings with the tangible space that surrounded them. Speaking with Tommaso Trini of the buchi works in his last interview, Fontana said, “the discovery of the cosmos is a new dimension, it is the infinite, so […] I have created an infinite dimension. That is precisely the idea, a new dimension corresponding with the cosmos.”
With LSD, things pondered often melt into the environment and become contiguous with it, something Fontana’s slightly visible Christ figures do, even in the early “Crocifisso” (1948), in relationship to their undulating crosses. This undulating figure-ground relationship is also part and parcel with Fontana’s Spatialist aesthetic, which aimed at spatial, social, religious, political, and sexual liberation. Fontana’s objective for his art was the breaking of dimensional limitations, both physical and metaphysical, and it still achieves his goal. Fontana still has the power to overcome the tyranny of the discreet paradigms into which acid art and religious art are placed, to re-contextualize them away from certitude and keep art an open, fluid, mythical conduit.
The Crosses exhibition can be a very liberating experience, especially for the art historically trained. What is particularly important about Fontana’s acid crucifixes is that they provide a new way to consider his (and his Spazialismo group’s) theoretical “Manifesto Bianco” (or “White Manifesto”) and the “Spatial Manifesto” (both from 1946). Some of the works, like “Crocifisso” (1950–55), have an almost spatially crushed, panicky feel to them, even as the show casts a transcendental spell in the air. This open, sweeping invocation is the stuff that great art, given its pre-linguistic potential of unchaining common codes, sometimes achieves — and does once more here.
Lucio Fontana : Crosses continues at Galerie Karsten Greve (5 Rue Debelleyme, 3rd arrondissement, Paris) through July 29.