Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
April 24 – August 24, 2014
Lucio Fontana is amongst those latter-day European modernists whose post-WWII reputation was made by a signature autographic gesture. One thinks of de Staël with his slabs of stratified color, Hartung with his sheaves of scribed black charcoal, or Soulages’s cross-hatched strokes of heavily loaded oil when considering the succinct slashes of Fontana’s Concetti spaziali begun around 1949. This is because most general surveys of post-war European modernists present only a very tight focus on Fontana’s slash paintings while omitting his larger oeuvre and some of its more subtle and contributive developments. Those often-overlooked aspects of his career were powerfully present in this retrospective.
Fontana was born of Italian parents in Argentina, later emigrated to Italy, wound up back in Argentina as an early sculptural apprentice to his father, returned to Italy in 1922, and then later went back to Argentina as he fled Mussolini’s fascist state during the 1930s. Finally, he returned to Italy after the war. His itinerant cultural heritage, split between classical European ideals and the Latin sense of materialismo and bravura gestures, is just one of the interesting implications to mull over when considering the wide variety of his sculptural mark-making. Fontana’s visceral experiences of the “old” and “new” worlds of Italy and Argentina impressed a sense of both a stolid antique and an expressionistic timelessness into his work.
The initial rooms of the show feature Fontana’s early work in ceramics. Many of these pieces—some with themes of classical Greek myths, others with gnarled aquatic fauna and attenuated, abstracted plant forms—have a simultaneously earthy and ethereal feeling. His surface treatment and additive sculptural processes in many of these works could be termed a “stucco-staccato.” One sees early the impulse of the artist to distress the surface of his work in order to give it a sense of nervous energy. This prickly touch is often augmented by inspired experimentation in polychrome glazes, including the juxtaposition and/or layering of natural and metallic glazes. Often these multiple glazes transgress the articulated boundaries between the sculpted forms of each piece. This has the effect of playing an unambiguous gesture off an ambiguous field of phenomenal “ether”; the insistently physical with the slippery stream of phenomenal becoming. His primary ideological involvement in the Spatialist movement in Milan after the war, promoting a synthesis of light and real space, was simpatico with the concurrent phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. This interest in the materiality of projected being informs all of Fontana’s work in this retrospective, but with an attendant mysticism of earth and sky, ground and light, that might be deemed a romancing of the real.
There is a visionary quality to Fontana’s work that tends to actively resist interpretation. It is as if his early itinerant experiences begat a hermetic sensibility about the constancy of an exterior existence. Despite the changing nature of the works in the show, his gestures of scarifying, digging, scraping, slashing, and puncturing take on the urgency of a sequentially staked-down territory. Fontana’s conceptual field of light and real space is one that is being constantly ripped, not apart, but together, as indices of light-filled being stuck in place. When one begins to discover this about Fontana’s work, a chance the retrospective offers, his signature vertical wound/wombs take on a much larger significance than their (often critically overstated) transgression of the picture plane. The show helps Fontana’s work escape simply being an art historical cipher of modernist style and lays out his more personal ambition to connect with a universal need to make one’s mark within the more limited history of one’s earthly existence.
The retrospective puts in context the slash pieces as just one phase of development of Fontana’s larger concept of phenomenal “light-ness” of being. This literal materiality born of virtual absence—he conceived of both light and negative space as substances—is most evident in his Nature cycle begun in 1959, which includes clay-modeled and then bronze-cast pod-like sculptures. The Nature series was installed in a room of its own and dramatically lit with spotlights that accentuated the ripples and gouges of the mostly rounded sculptural forms. The scale of these was larger than a typical seedpod, which they sometimes resembled, and somewhat approached the size of rustic ceramic storage vessels. Each contained a manipulated opening that varied in size, length, and depth. A few of these openings looked like the remains of forage holes from a hungry animal while others called forth an age-split in a tree or a half-opened walnut shell. Many exuded an oddly synthetic anthropomorphic vibe that brought to mind the work of artists like Eva Hesse or Jackie Winsor. Like these artists, Fontana seemed acutely aware of how a voided form could retain the urgency of the whole to give a renewed idealist meaning to an elastic play of exteriority and interiority.
There were other examples of Fontana’s work that do not often get seen, such as the reconstruction of his funky, apparently black-light installation of floating amoebic forms. “Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment)” was first exhibited in Milan in 1949 at the Galleria del Naviglio. Throughout his career Fontana showed a penchant for lateral experimentation such as this piece offers, which indicates a fluid sense of ideation between the embodiment of manipulated structures and the significance of the negative spaces that those structures imply.
The majority of the retrospective displayed Fontana’s picture-plane-oriented pieces in paper, canvas, and other materials such as sheet aluminum and copper. The wide variety of approaches the artist took to these works further solidified the appearance of his commitment to a way of working that did not privilege the individual picture but made each work a forensic aspect of a larger task. To Fontana’s buchi and tagli (holes and slashes) stones and colored glass were often added, which impart these particular works with an openly playful quality, as a child might make mud pies and then sprinkle them with found organic objects. An example of such a work is “Concetto spaziale, Sole in Piazza San Marco” (1961). While the title of this work refers in a representational way to a specific locale and is sun-colored in its vibrant yellow, it is less a picture of a place than a place in itself. In this sense Fontana’s work embodies the anti-representational and anti-heroic, or at least implies the potential humility of the intentional mark.
Fontana’s universal interventions are less inscribed with his signature or that of Western culture at large, than they are incidents universally signed by a communing spirit with humanized nature. His is a kind of hippie socialism with a fundamentally serious intent toward the re-integration of cosmic idealism into the artifact. Later works such as “Concetto spaziale, Cielo a New York” (1962) show Fontana stretching to identify his local experience of a phenomenology of place through his choice of material, here being a violently scarified and torn aluminum panel in a vertical orientation. Conceived and fabricated by the artist after his first and only visit to New York City, the Metalli work abstractly broadcasts the shrill and shredding noise associated with the city that Fontana purportedly exclaimed was more beautiful than Venice. Another work in this series on display, in copper, is more staid and regimented in its expressionist mark. There is an almost audible sound in the former piece missing in the more structured latter. Given the importance of place to Fontana, one is left to wonder how the artist’s work might have morphed had he spent more time in New York City.
The final rooms of the retrospective continue to display works that embody Fontana’s willingness to experiment within his chosen direction. These take on often quirky side-steps like the slickly streamlined and monochrome-finished split pods of his “Concetto spaziale” fabricated in Milan circa 1967, as well as his concurrent Teatrini “little theaters” which are constructs that seem to incorporate his own historical tracing of punctum with a simultaneous look back at Hans Arp’s biomorphic cut-outs and a vision forward to Kara Walker’s melodramatic silhouettes. Perhaps these are superficial correlations, but in considering Fontana’s ambitious and idealistic scope of reason and tactile charm, one is apt to extend one’s own definition of what constitutes a signature body of work.