Essays

The Necessity of a New Vision

Lucio Fontana’s Roots in Sculpture: A Ceramic Revolution
20 Jan 2023
Lucio Fontana in his Milan studio during a visit by the New York gallery owner Martha Jackson, 1965. From a group of rarely seen 1960s photographs of Fontana, courtesy of the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo
© Fondazione Lucio Fontana, by SIAE 2023
20 Jan 2023

In November 1961, the Martha Jackson Gallery, in collaboration with the David Anderson Gallery, opened Lucio Fontana’s first major solo show in New York, an exhibition that introduced the artist to the general public in the United States. Fontana, who was in his sixties, was already recognized in Europe as a pioneer of the most advanced visual art, but this double New York show provided evidence of his exceptional talent on the other side of the Atlantic.

Despite Fontana’s European fame, his revolutionary and controversial work was still veiled in a kind of mystery in the United States. His Tagli (Slashes), for which he is now widely known, were at that time still a recent development, a point of arrival on a path he had taken up decades earlier, beginning with sculptural experiments in the 1920s, moving on to his daring use of ceramics in the 1930s and the ‘birth’ of the Buco (Hole) in 1949, the same year he created his first Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment).

Each of these innovations revolved around spatial issues that he investigated, through formal means and with varied materials, over long periods of time, work that made him not only a beacon for the artists of the European avant-garde, such as those of the Zero group, but also for young French artists like Yves Klein. In 1959, Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani dedicated a long monographic article to Fontana in the first issue of the magazine Azimuth, recognizing him as a pioneer. And in 1964 in Kassel, three young German artists—Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker—protested Documenta’s failure to invite Fontana by projecting onto a wall an image one of his large Tagli, creating a true spatial environment in his honor.

By the early 1930s, Fontana was literally studying space, and both his sculpture and drawings from the period should be seen as true lessons in looking.

The American public had few occasions to admire Fontana’s work at major institutions. In 1949, three ceramic sculptures were included in the exhibition ‘Twentieth Century Italian Art’ at the Museum of Modern Art. A few years later, in 1954, it was again MoMA that mounted the exhibition ‘The Modern Movement in Italy: Architecture and Design,’ underscoring the architectural world’s interest in Fontana’s work. The task of the two solo shows in New York in 1961 was thus to present an artist whose reputation was largely unclear and hidden. The two exhibitions focused on two different aspects of his work: While Anderson presented a large selection of Concetti spaziali (Spatial Concepts), all recent, including two Nature works, Martha Jackson, courageous and unconcerned about the scandal they had caused during their debut in Venice just a few months beforehand, showed his Venezia (Venice) series—disorienting works in the way that they denied the Minimalist, almost ascetic investigations that he had developed in the Taglio. Due to the thickness of the acrylic, a new material for Fontana, the Venezia canvases became a surface of Baroque sensuality able to accommodate his new spatial inventions—holes and slashes—as well as support small fragments of polychrome glass and mirror, creating a kind of gilded synthesis, both Viennese and Byzantine. Those who appreciated and recognized him as the master of the dazzling, silent, white Tagli found this turn difficult to accept.

Lucio Fontana in his Milan studio during one of Martha Jackson’s visits, 1965. Courtesy of the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, by SIAE 2023

Lucio Fontana in his Milan studio during one of Martha Jackson’s visits, 1965. Courtesy of the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, by SIAE 2023

Lucio Fontana’s Milan studio during one of Martha Jackson’s visits, 1965. Courtesy of the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, by SIAE 2023

Even in his youth, Fontana was looking beyond the conventions of his time.

Jackson’s courage in organizing the exhibition should be measured not only in terms of her willingness to present such a complex and undefinable artist but also her decision to do so at such a delicate moment in the development of contemporary art in the United States, crucial years that were to change the world and that often took on the tones of calls to arms.

Both she and Anderson were cognizant of the need to ‘explain’ Fontana to the American public. And Fontana himself was aware that the variety of his inventions did not have a conventional temporal evolution—from the sculptures of the 1930s, to the incised panels, to the myriad forms of his ceramics, passing by way of his bold use of color, to the Ambienti and the Buchi. Yet his foundations in sculpture had always had, in a sense, a preordained feeling, much like that of the young Picasso, who was forced by his father to continually practice drawing or, in an even closer comparison, to Alexander Calder, whose work developed within a family of sculptors with a tradition of working on monuments.

In his memoirs, Fontana recalled: ‘My father was a good sculptor, and he would have liked me to be one. It would have also pleased me to be a good painter, like my grandfather.’ But even in his youth, Fontana was looking beyond the conventions of his time. In 1926, while still in Argentina, he created an extraordinary small plaster piece, Nudo (Nude) that completely broke with contemporary figuration; while informed by Futurism and the great French precedents it distanced itself unmistakably from the general call in Europe for a return to order.

Still in his twenties, Fontana rapidly developed a language that came to be described as ‘unclassifiable,’ an adjective that was to follow his work in subsequent decades. He returned to Milan in 1927, evidently determined to complete his studies at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, the propulsive focus of Italian art in the 1920s. This was the Milan in which Medardo Rosso, who was featured in the first Mostra di Novecento at the Palazzo della Permanente in 1926, still personified the break with nineteenth-century figurative sculpture. But Fontana, as Edoardo Persico, one of the leading Italian critics of the twentieth century, explained, represented ‘the deconstruction of volume, the presumption of uniting sculpture and painting on a plane far removed from Rosso.’ By the early 1930s, Fontana was literally studying space, and both his sculpture and drawings from the period should be seen as true lessons in looking. He rocked the traditions of figuration with his experimentation while at the same time executing abstract compositions that left critics even more bewildered.

Figura alla finestra (Figure at the Window), 1931. Slipped terra-cotta, incisions © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, by SIAE 2023

Cavalli marini (Sea Horses), 1936. Glazed terra-cotta © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, by SIAE 2023

Throughout the 1930s and particularly starting mid-decade, he defined his relationship with ceramics, a medium that lent itself to an exploration of how color and form could finally be indissoluble because they were ‘born out of the same necessity.’ Starting in 1936, he chose the Mazzotti works at Albisola as the site for this experimentation. The partnership between Fontana and Tullio d’Albisola, the director of the workshop that bore his name, gave rise to the relaunch of Italian artistic ceramics, which at the time was seen as an almost exclusively decorative phenomenon. In order to distance himself, Fontana modeled his first sculptures in stoneware as unusual forms, often of monumental dimensions, and then completed them with wholly antinaturalistic colors. Similar to his still lifes, his seabeds were works with a distressed, imprecise appearance that seemed to derive from lunar archaeology. They transcended their very titles, as was the case with Vittoria dell’acqua (Victory of Water), which had nothing of the monumental rhetoric of the time, or with his sea creatures that, despite the subject matter, presented themselves as pure form. In these works, as was often the case with the sculptures of the 1930s, the subject was merely a pretext for metamorphosis and the staggering effect of the gesture on the material. It is due to sculptures of this sort that critics have now recognized the importance of Fontana as a sculptor in anticipating aspects of Art Informel.

During this same period, Fontana had important experiences in Paris and Sèvres. In the spring of 1937, the artist participated in the Exposition internationale des arts et des techniques dans la vie moderne in Paris, which also featured Picasso’s immense painting Guernica, as well as an imposing Calder. On this prominent occasion, Fontana not only exhibited a personification of Italy for the Italian pavilion, but also an extraordinary installation for the pavilion of the Italian shipping companies in which he revealed the full scope of his spatial ideas. Fontana created four sculptural groups in colored plaster: Vittoria marinara (Maritime Victory), Marinai che salpano (Seamen Setting Sail), Rotta del sole (Route of the Sun), and Dea del mare (Goddess of the Sea), which he literally hoisted on tall masts outside the pavilion, creating once again an invention combining sculpture, environment, and architecture. It is only thanks to a contemporary photograph that we can imagine the spectacle of these gravity-defying blocks. Fontana’s yearslong sojourn in Paris naturally included major exhibitions, heated discussions with fellow artists and writers such as Constantin Brâncuşi, Tristan Tzara, and Ossip Zadkine, and direct contact with international gallerists and figures from the French cultural milieu, including the director of the Manufacture de Sèvres, who in 1937 invited Fontana to measure himself against the great tradition of the French kilns.

In those historic royal workshops, Fontana arrived as the sculpteur céramiste and did so with a bullish determination to shake up the centuries-old traditions of Sèvres with his energy and his monumental vision of ceramics. As he wrote: ‘The royal glazes bored me; I brought to the workshops that had served the tables of every King Louis of France a minotaur on a leash that butted the porcelain baskets and the biscuit allegories.’ The commonly held image of Sèvres ceramics in the 1930s was still inextricably associated with the idea of the ‘ornament’; Fontana went in the opposite direction with around three hundred pieces, many of which are today unfortunately lost. He was intent on breaking with the traditional production of strictly decorative ceramics and did so by modeling sculptures of monumental dimensions. At the same time, he was seduced by the vast chromatic possibilities offered by the Sèvres workshops. Fontana called this revolution in his work a ‘metamorphosis.’ He wrote to his friend Tullio: ‘During my long stay in the Sèvres workshops I researched and studied form, the expression of form. I continued to model figures and metamorphoses weighing hundreds of kilos as I had in my studio; I painted them in bright colors. My sculptural form, from the first to the last models, has never been disassociated from color.’ Fontana’s subjects in Sèvres coincided with those in Albisola, including seabeds, zoomorphic or mythological subjects, and plates in which color was literally incorporated in the material.

Installation view of ‘Lucio Fontana: Ten Paintings of Venice’ at Martha Jackson Gallery, 32 East 69th Street, New York, November – December 1961. Courtesy the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo. Photo: Augustin Dumage © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, by SIAE 2023

Costantino Nivola, Martha Jackson, and Lucio Fontana at the opening of ‘Lucio Fontana: Ten Paintings of Venice’ at Martha Jackson Gallery, 32 East 69th Street, New York, November 1961. Courtesy the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo

‘A change in essence and form is necessary. It is necessary to go beyond painting, sculpture, poetry. What we need now is an art based on the necessity of this new vision.’—Lucio Fontana

The experiences and results that Fontana brought back with him to Italy on his return from Paris in 1938 were anything but negligible. The following year, he wrote of ceramics: ‘The material was attractive; I could model a seabed, a statue, or a lock of hair and give it a fresh, compact color that would be merged in the firing. The firing was a kind of intermediary: it perpetuated the form and the color.’ It was this ‘attractive’ material that yielded the quivering and slipping masses of the Nascita del sole (Birth of the Sun) and the impetuosity of the Cavalli marini (Sea Horses).

Such works, perched at the intersection of light, space, and form, frequently gave rise to the use of the adjective Baroque as an attempt to find a satisfactory definition for Fontana’s oeuvre from the 1930s onward; the term would accompany the artist throughout his career. But Baroque in his case is not to be understood in its negative sense. Rather it should be seen in the vitalistic sense inherent to sculpture of unstable form: Fontana was intuitively Baroque because the principle of movement and of irregularity and above all the sense of interaction between the piece and the space is implicit in his sculpture.

His reprisal of the Baroque had no nostalgic motivations. Fontana clarifies this in an outline of his idea of a contemporary work, writing: ‘A change in essence and form is necessary. It is necessary to go beyond painting, sculpture, poetry. What we need now is an art based on the necessity of this new vision. The Baroque took us in this direction, representing it with unsurpassed grandeur in which the notion of time was united with sculpture and the figures appeared to abandon the plane and continue their movements. This conception was the consequence of the idea of existence that was taking shape in humanity. The physics of that period revealed the nature of dynamics for the first time. It determined that movement is a condition immanent in matter as a principle for understanding the universe.’

This article has been condensed and adapted from Luca Massimo Barbero’s essays in ‘Lucio Fontana: Sculpture,’ published November 2022 on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name at Hauser & Wirth’s 32 East 69th Street location, curated by Luca Massimo Barbero in collaboration with Fondazione Lucio Fontana. On view through February 4.

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