New York Avant-garde meets ultra-baroque in the works of Argentine-born Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), the last two decades of whose vast and varied output was surveyed in this exhibition. Organized by Italian curator Germano Celant and Gagosian director Valentina Castellani, “Lucio Fontana: Ambienti Spaziali” comprised over 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures, as well as reconstructions of six of Fontana’s rarely seen immersive environments.
In the late 1940s, galvanized by Atomic Age scientific advances, Fontana imagined a “spatialist” art that would reflect man’s transformed understanding of matter and the universe (and perhaps even of the divine). For him, this meant finding a way to go beyond canvas and sculpture, and somehow merge space with form. As is evident here, Fontana’s efforts often resulted in works as gaudy in their execution as they were radical in concept.
The earliest pieces in the exhibition are his “hole” paintings (the first made in 1949)—canvases perforated with various tools in patterns ranging from zigzags to nebulalike aggregations. (All are titled Spatial Concept, sometimes with a subtitle or number.) Some are monochromes, some are stained with veils of various colors. The best are encrusted with sand, glitter and chunks of colorful Murano glass, such as a yellow canvas from 1956 with a central amoeboid shape built up out of sparkling red, turquoise and yellow shards.
More Spatial Concepts followed in the form of the elegant “cut” paintings—canvases (often bright monochromes) marked by thin, vertical slits—for which Fontana is best known. In all of these works, Fontana introduces into the illusionistic “window” of the painting’s picture plane the real space behind it, and, by extension, the infinite space of the cosmos.
Even as he imagined paintings penetrated by space, however, Fontana was also attempting works that would interpenetrate with their surroundings. In the same year as his first “hole” painting, Fontana made Ambient Space in Black Light, a black-lit room in which clunky, biomorphic papier-mâché forms, painted with then-novel fluorescent paint, hang from the ceiling. It was reconstructed here along with several more environments, including a white plasterboard maze ending in a plastered “cut,” and several gigantic, suspended neon scribbles. There were also large, lumpy bronze orbs, each with a vortexlike hollow in its side.
The environments were the show’s big news, anticipating as they do ideas proposed by artists such as Doug Wheeler and James Turrell, but they are more interesting as artifacts than as art. Fontana’s methods find their real completion in the Spatial Concepts subtitled The End of God, from the early 1960s. Egg-shaped canvases of human height, each is painted with a thick, smooth coat of a single hue—passive-aggressive candy colors predominate—then gouged and punctured while still wet. Here the small perforations of the earlier “hole” paintings have become gaping tears, further enlarged by the artist with his hands. In these paintings Zen serenity coexists with Catholic high drama and organic form with industrial color. Both weirdly sublime and sublimely weird, they still look wonderful.
Photo: Lucio Fontana: Spatial Concept: The End of God, 1963, oil on canvas, 701⁄8 by 483⁄8 inches; at Gagosian.