Artists & Designers

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968)

The story of postwar Italian art begins with Lucio Fontana. Although Fontana is best known for his elegant slash paintings of the 1960s, those are but one exquisitely lyrical, late manifestation of an aesthetic that began to coalesce in the late 1940s, when the sculptor, interested in creating an environmental art, began to cut small staccato holes into canvas. For Fontana, piercing the canvas was akin to opening a hole into the universe. If the detonation of the atomic bomb could be said to have given form to the explosive eddying rhythms of Jackson Pollock, then the exploration of outer space that was set in motion by new telescopic and aerospace technologies developed in the years immediately following the war gave rise to the mature work of Lucio Fontana.

By cutting holes or slashing through canvas or paper and thereby allowing light to pass through a two-dimensional surface, Fontana declared himself to be exploring infinite space. Indeed, he continued to make sculptures out of all sorts of materials, including bronze and neon. To examine more complex spatial relationships, he often added glitter, sand, and glass to canvas and paper surfaces. The best of his works are a fusion of the scientific and the poetic, and in their interest in reinventing pictorial space, give visual form to an evolving conception of the universe and our place in it. Although most of Fontana's work was in the small scale of earlier modern easel painting, his thinking was much more closely aligned with the vast, landscapish scale of the abstract expressionists than may be obvious. But he did not need a huge physical space in which to explore the infinite—he invoked it mentally. Most of his works of this time were entitled Concetto spaziate (spatial concept). By opening a painting's surface to light, Fontana was attempting to transcend the limits of painting and examine the real space of the shallow relief while metaphorically giving form to the furthest reaches of scientific and artistic imagination. By making a two-dimensional work that attempted to destroy the confines of the canvas, Fontana set the stage for the shift in artistic dialogue from painting to sculpture, or from framed space to real space, that would be acted out more fully in the 1960s and 1970s with minimalism, earth art, process art, and performance.

Included in the Dallas collections is Fontana's marvelous glazed ceramic sculpture of an angel (1949), which in figurative form sets the stage for the Concetto spaziate work that will soon occupy him for the rest of his life. More than anything, this postfuturist work, made in the same year in which Fontana began piercing canvas, reveals the artist's interest in pure space by defining the figure both by its form and by the motion of space around it.

The year 1952 is especially important in Fontana's oeuvre, and one of the great Dallas works from this period is made of paper mounted on cardboard and, in archival photographs of the artist's studio, is often pictured propped up with light shining through it. This mostly black work, with its swirling clusters of pierced holes surrounding a golden center, depicts a kind of birth of the universe, and in it, as in Fontana's best works of this year, the artist's experimental curiosity and artistic pathos take off on a pictorial cosmic thrust.

It is common to romanticize the early alcoholic death of Jackson Pollock as existential proof that after his drip paintings the man had nowhere artistically to go. With Fontana we have no need to speculate about where he might go. He went there. In December of 1962, just eighteen months after the first manned space flight and at the age of sixty-three, Fontana began a series of large egg-shaped paintings that would preoccupy him for several years and be considered among the most extraordinary works of his career, a great example of which is Concetto spaziate, ta fine di Dio (1964). These monochromatic works were made with bold, decidedly unarty colors such as pink or yellow; some were entirely covered in glitter. Some have been pierced with large, savagely cut holes; others are littered with smaller piercings that suggest both violence and wonder, displaying male aggression within the self-contained female form of the egg. The title, which may be translated as "end of God," suggests a new scientific conception of the beyond, of man, and of his place in the universe. Whereas an American artist such as Barnett Newman was dealing with a metaphysical notion of the transcendent, space travel to an Italian provided a new framework for expressing awe at the cosmos, at what earlier Italian artists might have called "the heavens."

Excerpt from

  • Allan Scwartzman, "From a Prehistoric Wind," in Fast forward: Contemporary Collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, eds. María de Corral and John R. Lane (Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 158-165.

Web Resources

  • The Guggenheim
    Learn more about Fontana's life and his participation in various avant-garde groups.