Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) is best known for his monochromatic paintings featuring linear slashes, which opened the medium into three dimensions; yet these canvases were only one aspect of the Italian artist’s spatial investigations. His “Ambienti spaziali” (Spatial Environments) laid the foundations for the cut paintings and prefigured movements such as Group Zero in Europe and Light and Space in Southern California. In 1948, Fontana stated in a manifesto for the Spatialist movement he founded, “We want paintings to come out of their frames, and sculptures from under their glass case.”
The groundbreaking show “Ambienti/Environments” at Pirelli HangarBicocca positions Fontana as a pioneer of installations and immersive environments, demonstrating how he expanded the boundaries of art through his use of light and space. With painstaking precision, art historian Marina Pugliese and conservator Barbara Ferriani, who co-curated the show with HangarBicocca’s artistic director, Vicente Todoli, have re-created nine of the sixteen “Ambienti spaziali” Fontana made between 1949 and 1968. Radically experimental, the works fuse painting, sculpture, and architecture to produce an experiential form of art.
The exhibition begins and ends with two sculptural pieces installed overhead: a gigantic neon arabesque suspended below an expanse of blue fabric, recalling the looping vapor trail of a jet performing aerobatics, and a lattice of blue and green neon-light diagonals. These dramatic works differ from the “Ambienti spaziali” in that Fontana considered them decorative pieces that fit with their surrounding architecture. Installed between them—in boxlike rooms constructed around the former tire factory’s cavernous space—are the “Ambienti spaziali,” each of which offers a self-contained universe that disorients the visitor in myriad ways.
First one encounters a re-creation of Fontana’s inaugural environment—Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), which was shown for just six days in 1949 at a Milan gallery. In the darkened space, ultraviolet light casts an ethereal glow upon a series of suspended fluorescent-painted papier-mâché forms that seem to float like cosmic bodies. Indeed, Fontana’s writings from the 1940s suggest he was inspired by the products of space technology, notably images of Earth seen from rockets.
Next comes an elongated room with an undulating floor covered in luxuriant red carpeting and metallic red walls and ceiling that dissolve the space’s boundaries into a shimmering blur. Frosted glass sheets at each end filter red light, further distorting perspective and contributing to a sense of instability and even claustrophobia. Another environment is entered through a low, narrow tunnel. On emerging in the dark space, viewers confront a dazzling rectangle of green neon lights shining through perforations in the walls, floor, and ceiling. The rectangle appears to frame a wall, but in fact bisects the room and thus can be walked through, while underfoot the foam floor yields startlingly.
Each environment forces a heightened engagement with the senses. In one of the most discombobulating examples, the dark space features trails of fluorescent white spots on the walls and ceiling and a colossal black comma outlined in the same white. The nature of the components is hard to determine: Is the comma, which calls to mind a comet, a sculpture or a wall painting? Are the spots painted or individual light sources? The ambiguous dimensions, depth, and boundaries of the space contribute to a general state of uncertainty.
Fontana conceived his environments as temporary, and they were not for sale; all but one was discarded after display. He created his first such work twelve years before Martha Jackson staged her 1961 show “Environments, Situations, Spaces” in New York, and he employed neon as a medium a decade before Dan Flavin began using light in his sculptures. “Ambienti/Environments” offers the opportunity to experience an overlooked facet of Fontana’s work and underscores his significance as an innovator whose approach anticipated the multidisciplinary quality of many art practices today.