Those cuts that make us venture into the real. On the Expectations of Lucio Fontana

Lucio Fontana accomplished a revolution by overcoming the canvas: first by piercing it, then by cutting it. That is why that gesture is so important.

There is one element of Lucio Fontana that can put everyone in agreement, one element of his art that perhaps even his increasingly scattered detractors might be ready to acknowledge: the great theoretical lucidity that has always motivated every single moment of his production. And it is this extreme theoretical lucidity that has led him, Renato Barilli has written, “to cross the threshold of the surface and venture into real space.” Fontana never made a secret of wanting to go beyond the surface, at least since the Manifiesto blanco: “A change in essence and form is demanded,” he wrote in the programmatic text signed in 1946 in Buenos Aires and signed together with a group of Argentine artists. “The overcoming of painting, sculpture, poetry, and music is called for. An art more closely in accord with the needs of the new spirit is required.” This is the premise that, within a decade, would lead Fontana to tear the canvas apart with the holes and cuts that have guaranteed him a first-rate place in art history and made him famous even among audiences unaccustomed to entering galleries and museums.

Before those cuts, however, there is a lifelong journey that is the continuation of a precise historical direction. To go beyond the surface: a new vision that Fontana saw beginning in Baroque art, with those figures that seemed to abandon the frame reserved for them in order to expand and continue in space. And that he saw continuing with Boccioni, who had conquered that space to the sound of movement, forms-forces, expansive power of bodies. Having reached this point, however, the traditional arts were no longer able to shape this vision: “Let us abandon the practice of the known forms of art and face the development of an art based in the unity of time and space,” we read in the Technical Manifesto of Spatialism. For Fontana, art is sum of elements: space, time, light, color, sound. How to solve the problem of finding a dimension that can be the sum of all these elements and at the same time surpass painting and sculpture? Fontana, developing his research in sculpture (one thinks of his marvelous ceramics, characterized by the energy of that “dynamic and bursting plasticism of spatial and environmental expansion,” as Enrico Crispolti described it: a plasticism that is the direct heir of Baroque dynamism), began to look for solutions at the end of the 1940s, first with the Ambienti spaziali, and then with the Concetti spaziali, the expression by which he designated his perforations of the canvas. In other words, Fontana, from 1949, began to pierce canvases, beginning a journey that would later lead him to Expectations. That is, to the cuts.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale. Attese (1964; cementite su tela, 190,3 x 115,5 cm; Torino, Galleria d’Arte Moderna). © Fondazione Lucio Fontana
Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept. Waiting (1964; cementite on canvas, 190.3 x 115.5 cm; Turin, Galleria dArte Moderna). © Lucio Fontana Foundation

The hole on the canvas could be seen as a violent gesture: however, it is motivated by the need to find an expressive form suited to a world that has radically changed from what it was before World War II. There is, meanwhile, the matured awareness that art is eternal but not immortal, as Fontana was arguing from the first manifesto of Spatialism: it is eternal because it is destined to remain so as a gesture and as the fruit of the creative spirit of the human being, but it is mortal because the physical matter of which it is composed will degrade and then dissolve with the passage of time. By piercing the canvas, Fontana performs a gesture, sanctions the primacy of creativity over matter, and assures himself of eternity: even when his work ends its physical existence, the gesture of piercing the canvas cannot be erased. In some ways, Fontana anticipates conceptual art: his works draw strength even from the mere fact that they are discussed.

And then there are much more contingent reasons. There subsists in Fontana the idea that art has exhausted its social function: by piercing the canvas, it is as if the artist wants to tell us that the medium is no longer usable, has ceased to exist, can no longer fulfill its task. End of art, then? Perhaps: it is the end of art as it had been known for centuries, if not millennia. What is certain is that Fontana wants to push us to look around, to immerse ourselves in the reality that surrounds us. To go beyond the surface, to venture into real space. The canvas can no longer be used to paint reality, and then it is up to us to observe reality. This is a strong stance, consistent with the statement of the Manifiesto blanco. The art of tradition, according to Fontana, is no longer suited to support the needs of the new man, “formed in the necessity of action, in contact with mechanics, which imposes on him a constant dynamism.” Hence the need to abandon the canvas to find a form of art that goes beyond representation and opens to reality, to life, to the unexpected. Bringing art into life: Duchamp had done it, Yves Klein, Fontana’s friend, was doing it, Fontana himself was doing it.

To the cuts, Fontana would come a decade after the holes. If we go and read his interviews, we will find passages in which the artist states that holes and cuts are the same thing. And we will even find passages in which Fontana will admit that he produced a great multitude of cuts because they were demanded by a growing market: there were many who wanted his Waits. And by affixing on the back those famous phrases that recorded memories and moods, such as “I love Teresita” on the 60 T 9 cut to declare his love for his wife, or “Is it possible that politicians do not understand” on 67 T 102, or “Today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow always fools” on 66 T 81, perhaps Fontana had wanted to devise a way to defend himself against forgery. But in fact holes and cuts are not identical: the Waiting, right from the title the artist chose for the cuts, evokes a metaphysical, philosophical dimension. “With the cut,” the artist had this to say in an interview with Giorgio Bocca, “I invented a formula that I don’t think I can perfect. I managed with this formula to give the viewer of the painting an impression of spatial calm, of cosmic rigor, of serenity in the infinite.”

The cuts were born in the years when man set out to conquer space. And in his race toward space, he discovers that traditional dimensions are no longer enough for him, because he realizes that he lives in infinity. Fontana’s cut is a gateway into that infinity. In a seminal conversation with Carla Lonzi, which the great art historian would include in her very famous Self-Portrait, are perhaps the most famous words Fontana used to define his cuts: “the discovery of the cosmos is a new dimension, it is infinity, then I pierce this canvas, which was the basis of all the arts and I created an infinite dimension, an x which for me is the basis of all contemporary art.” And in front of this gap one can experience a wide variety of sensations: the artist felt a great “relaxation of the spirit,” he felt that he had freed himself from the bondage of matter and was living at the same time in the present and in the future. Fontana’s cuts do not leave one indifferent: in front of those gashes one will feel calm, serenity, satisfaction, anxiety, confusion, rejection, outrage. As it was for the Baroque of the seventeenth century, Fontana’s ultimate goal, Paola Valenti has written, is to “stimulate the spectator’s imaginative and sensory participation in a spectacular correlation-osmosis, in the dynamics of space, of nature and supra-nature, of visual limitlessness and emotional-spiritual tension.” As in Baroque art, the viewer, Guido Ballo adds, “has no possibility of escaping psychic participation.”

Fontana’s cuts are all of this. The summit and at the same time the epilogue of a decades-long journey. The heirs of the Baroque. A reflection on the human being, on his achievements, but also on his precariousness. An invitation not to stop at the canvas, but to look into reality, or even beyond reality. A gesture that is at the same time destructive and constructive. And to those who are not convinced and continue to remain skeptical in the face of the scope of Fontana’s revolution, there is no other answer than the fulminating one from the artist himself: whoever wants to understand, understand. “Otherwise, just keep saying that l’è un büs, and bye-bye.”

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