Sebastian Smee, The Washington Post
NEW YORK - Lucio Fontana became famous in the last 10 years of his life for creating neat, more-or-less vertical incisions in otherwise monochrome canvases. A metaphysical aroma wafts from the resulting slashes, which seem to open onto infinite black voids.
Or it does if you let it. The high-flown rhetoric the works have inspired could fool you into thinking Fontana was a riddling sage, a spiritual guru. To the less credulous, his breakthrough act, carried out with a Stanley utility knife, remains an empty, avant-garde gesture, its impact diluted by cynical repetition.
In the late 1950s and '60s, Fontana churned these canvases out like high-end interior design product, which in a sense they were: In fancy homes, Fontana's signature works never fail to draw the eye. They harmonize material abundance with its tastefully sublimated negation.
But it's easy to take aim at rhetoric and taste. The works are what matter. And when it comes to Fontana, I am a yay-sayer rather than a cynic. It takes effort to shrug off the grip of his slashed canvases on one's imagination. They really do feel like portals to elsewhere - or better yet, nowhere. And then - as a new show at the Met Breuer reminds us - there was much more to Lucio Fontana.
He was born in 1899 in Argentina, where his Italian parents had immigrated. His father was a commercial sculptor who specialized in funerary monuments. The family returned to Italy when Lucio was still a boy. But Fontana returned twice to Argentina for lengthy spells: five years in the 1920s, and then from 1940 to1947. He died in Italy in 1968, at age 69.
This is the first Fontana show in New York since 2007, and only the third since he visited the city in 1961. The surprise for many will be that he spent most of his career making sculptures.
Fontana was academically trained at the Milan School of Fine Arts. Over the following decades, against a backdrop of political turmoil, he hopscotched across the spectrum of available styles, from conservative-modernist to extravagant kitsch to preening avant-garde. Like the in-house decorator of a fashionable casino, Fontana sprayed out sculptural confections so unbeholden to taste or intellectual rigor that they seem to exist out of time. He worked in polychrome bronze and cement, colored mosaic, enamelled terra cotta, glazed ceramic and gilded plaster.
As he experimented with such marine forms as starfish, squid, clams and coral, as well as stock figures drawn from mythology and religion, his forms became rougher and more expressive and energetic - somewhere between the futurism of Umberto Boccioni and the swampy existentialism of Willem de Kooning's sculpted figures.
It wasn't until 1949, when he was 50, that Fontana took up painting. The catalyst was the war.
His studio, and much of his life's work, had been destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943. But he had left Italy for his native Argentina three years earlier. Returning to Italy in 1947, what must he have felt?
The question may go to the heart of the difference between the most original post-war art coming out of the United States and the art coming out of Europe. Both countries were traumatized, of course; both suffered terribly. But the U.S. mainland had not been a theatre of war. So, while the post-war period saw American artists swelling with a victor's sense of pride and cosmopolitan potential, European (and Japanese) artists were rooting around in the rubble and dealing directly with the fallout from a catastrophe both physical and moral.
In response to the ambient chaos, some developed a feeling for truths that lurked in formlessness, negation and acts of destruction. They scoured their ravaged surrounds for humble or tortured materials - burlap, stone, wood and clay (clay in particular enjoyed a revival after the war in the hands of avant-garde artists from Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró to Isamu Noguchi and Fontana's friend Fausto Melotti) - and engaged in simple, repetitive gestures.
In 1949, Fontana made his first "Concetto Spaziale" ("Spatial Concept"): a small, off-white canvas punctured with dozens of holes arrayed in horizontal rows to form an egg shape. The next year, he began repetitively stabbing clay tablets, like a crazed Sumerian scribe turning tidy cuneiform into cuss-filled graffiti.
Repetition is, of course, a response to trauma. Fontana's gestures have the depersonalized aura of an activity that no longer has anything to do with self-expression, but feels compulsive, like self-harm.
In ensuing canvases, puncture marks often cohered into patterns suggesting scripts or diagrams. Fontana inserted colored Murano glass into some. He continued sculpting in clay, making blob-like forms in glazed ceramic and painted terra cotta. Punctured, incised, with orifices gouged out, they resemble congealed black holes, or, as the daughter of friends said, "exploded universes."
That's to say, they feel formless. There's no right side up, no carefully scaled appeal to hand or body, no connection to human society. Fontana, it's clear, wanted to break away from expectations of what an art object should be. He befriended younger artists, including Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, who shared his aesthetic inclinations - and also his chutzpah. (Klein sold empty space for gold; Manzoni commodified cans of excrement.)
By the end of the 1950s and all through the '60s, Fontana's aesthetic gradually became more contained and fastidious, the better to hint at the void. Chic monochromes in gorgeously artificial colours were punctuated with just one, two or a few refined slashes made with a Stanley knife.
"They think it's easy to make a cut or a hole," Fontana said. "But it's not true. You have no idea how much stuff I throw away."
Sometimes the incisions curved to the left or right, as if Fontana were a typographer designing an extremely attenuated new font and toying with the right angle at which to place the apostrophe. He experimented with irregular frames instead of rectangles, using pentagons, hexagons, tondos and asymmetrical lozenge-shaped canvases arranged on the wall in little archipelagos.
In the early '60s, Fontana experimented with slashes and holes made in shiny, textured surfaces such as copper or thickly textured gold paint. But in his final years, he returned to a more pristine look. A whole room in the Met Breuer show is devoted to slashes in white or off-white canvases.
Chasing the ineffable, Fontana also created light installations. Two are re-created at the Met Breuer; a third is at the Met's Fifth Avenue mother ship; and a fourth is at El Museo del Barrio. Using colored light, suggestive apertures and controlled spaces, these "Ambiente" ("Environments") exemplify an avant-garde shift in the '50s and '60s toward immersive experiences and immaterial art (made from sound and light). A younger trio of artists from Germany - Otto Piene, Heinz Mack and Günther Uecker - were mining similar territory. Their movement, the Zero Group, claimed Fontana as "something like a spiritual father."
Did all of this amount to something great? Maybe. Maybe not quite. In avant-garde art, a smart breakthrough too often becomes a trademark, a gimmick, which the hapless artist feels obliged to repeat for the remainder of his or her days. You could argue this fate befell Fontana.
But go. See for yourself. Register the full range of Fontana's output. And contemplate, if you care to, the impact of his most famous creations. To me, they're like Zen koans. They can feel slight. Yet they remain surprisingly magnetic. And there's a modesty I like in his willingness to revel in his work's inevitable status as interior decoration, commodities, even as he offers sneaky glimpses of information that's not for domesticating.
Photography: Fondazione Lucio Fontana/Artists Rights Society