MILAN – Pirelli Hangar Bicocca recently opened an exhibition dedicated to Lucio Fontana’s Ambienti Spaziali (Spatial Environments). Ground-breaking installations conceived by the artist as ephemeral artworks staged in rooms and corridors, these works were mainly presented to the public between the end of 1940s and the end of the 1960s, featuring innovative visual effects such as neon and black lights.
The exhibition at Hangar Bicocca presents eleven of these installations, displayed in chronological order — each featured inside a room reconstructed according to the original dimensions verified through meticulous research. Among Fontana’s least-known works, the Spatial Environments feel like the pieces that would allow for a better understanding of the depth and breadth of the artist’s practice, which is too often solely associated with the famous cut-up paintings.
Born in 1899 to an Italian sculptor who emigrated to Argentina, Fontana spent his first years as an artist at his father’s workshop in Rosario, receiving a training in classical techniques, and then later joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. Spending the first part of his career between Argentina and Italy, he produced academic sculpture influenced by the institutional language of art pompier and the decorativism of Art Nouveau, collaborating in the 1930s with some of the most prominent architects in Milan such as BBPR, Figini and Pollini, Zanuso, and Luciano Baldessari.
By the mid 1940s, however, Fontana had developed new aims for his art. With the publication of the “Manifesto Blanco“ (White Manifesto) in 1946, he and a group of fellow artists stated their firm intention to overcome traditional languages in art, working toward forms more appropriate to the modern age. “We are living in a mechanical age, in which plaster and paint on canvas are no longer meaningful,” reads the manifesto.
The following year, Fontana, nearly 50 at this time, having spent several years in Argentina away from the dramatic last moments of World War II, moved back to Milan to find his studio completely destroyed by the Allied bombing of the city. The artist felt he was ready to implement his new propositions and conceived the series of works that later made him renowned: the Concetti Spaziali (Spatial Concepts).
Fontana started to act on the traditional support of the canvas, making holes and cuts in it, looking for a new dimension. Around this time, at the end of 1940s, that the artist created his first environmental work, “Ambiente Spaziale a Luce Nera” (Spatial Environment in Black Light) (1949), reproduced at the beginning of the exhibition path at Hangar Bicocca.
The first time the installation was displayed it was presented in a gallery which had been completely obscured with black drapery. An abstract sculpture of papier-mâché, brightly painted in fluorescent colors and lit by black light, was hung from the ceiling.
Reporting on the exhibition at the time, a newspaper enthusiastically titled its review “Fontana has touched the moon”, emphasizing the mysterious and innovative spirit of the installation and describing the work in mystical terms as a “cabalistic grotto.” Dismissive critiques branded the work as “the studio of a radiologist”. Writing about the work to architect Gio Ponti, Fontana himself described it as “neither painting nor sculpture, a form made of light within space — the emotional freedom of the viewer.”
Fast forward some seventy years, stepping into “Spatial Environment in Black Light” today might leave us with nothing more than the usual, fleeting thrill of stepping into any other installation. But the work deserves some contexualization. In the late 1940s, Italy, a country whose main cities, particularly Milan, desperately needed to be rebuilt, was animated by intellectual debates around the role of architecture. At the time of its opening, “Ambiente Spaziale a Luce Nera” sparked particular interest in architectural circles, due to its immersive nature. As difficult to define as its grotesque shape, the installation lives somewhere between art, decoration, and architecture, making it a very attractive object for the then crucial discussions about the relationships between art and architecture.
At the time of its exhibition, finally liberated after years of intellectual control under Mussolini’s regime, Italy was opening up to contemporaneity. Fontana’s first spatial environment expressed the need of experimentation, foreshadowing a series of artistic movements interested in perception and gestalt psychology such as Gruppo T and the Zero group.
Two years after showing “Ambiente Spaziale a Luce Nera,” Fontana intervened on the ceiling above the Staircase of Honor of the Milan Triennial exhibition, with the most impressive of his installations, “Struttura al Neon per la IX Triennale di Milano” (Neon Structure for the 9th Milan Triennale), a masterful neon arabesque conceived in collaboration with architects Luciano Baldessari and Marcello Grisotti.
Considering that the work is already familiar to the Milanese public — a copy of it hangs from the ceiling of Museo del Novecento, visible from the city’s cathedral square — viewing it installed in the pantagruelian spaces of Hangar Bicocca does nothing but increase its spectacularity. The curators cleverly installed the neon right at the entrance, so that visitors are dazzled by the light even before realizing they’re entering the show.
Most every other spatial environment in the exhibition has been scrupulously reconstructed in individual containers that function as time-capsules, but “Neon Structure” hangs freely from the space’s high ceiling, placed there to amaze visitors.
Although the dimensions and shape of the neon have been carefully reproduced according to the original specifications, the heavily industrial atmosphere and the evocative darkness of Hangar Bicocca are very far from the modernist interiors of Palazzo dell’Arte, the original location for which Fontana designed the piece, clashing against the historical accuracy of the exhibition. This is the only issue I have with an exhibition that is otherwise extremely well conceived, researched, and installed.
The show continues with other noteworthy environments, such as “Ambiente Spaziale: ‘Utopie,’ nella XIII Triennale di Milano” (Spatial Environment: ‘Utopias,’ at the 13th Milan Triennale) (1964), created in collaboration with artist and designer Nanda Vigo; “Ambiente Spaziale con Neon” (Spatial Environment with Neon) (1967), a poetic monochromatic room featuring a sinuous pink neon light, and “Fonti di Energia, Soffitto al Neon per ‘Italia 61,’ a Torino” (Energy Sources, Neon Ceiling for ‘Italia 61’, in Turin) (1961), which spectacularly ends the exhibition path.
Lucio Fontana: Ambienti/Environments continues at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca (Via Chiese 2, 20126 Milan) through February 25.