In 1961, the Argentine Italian artist Lucio Fontana, famous in Europe for slashing and puncturing his canvases, made his North American debut at the Martha Jackson and David Anderson galleries. It did not go well. American critics thought the canvases, festooned with pieces of colored glass, were too decorative — basically kitsch.
Now Fontana returns to the exact same building at 32 East 69th Street where that 1961 show took place. “Lucio Fontana Sculpture” is the second in a trilogy of shows dedicated to his work, organized by the art historian and curator Luca Massimo Barbero in collaboration with the Fondazione Lucio Fontana, and it is terrific. (The first exhibition, in Los Angeles, was dedicated to Fontana’s “spatial environments” — the darkened rooms with illuminated sculptural forms or neon tubing that served as precursors to light works by James Turrell and today’s ubiquitous “immersive environments.” That show opened in February 2020, right before the pandemic plowed through the art world.)
It’s safe to say that, particularly after a successful recent retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in 2019, Fontana has been fully embraced by New Yorkers.
Born in Argentina in 1899, Fontana moved to Italy as a young boy before returning to Argentina during World War II. The current show of more than 80 works, spread over three floors, focuses primarily on his three-dimensional work sculpted in terra cotta, clay, plaster, metal and concrete. However, the exhibition includes one of the paintings from that 1961 New York debut, the black “Spatial Concept, The Moon in Venice” (1961), speckled with colored glass and punctured with holes, along with some playfully perverse drawings, like a scrawled “New York Waterfall” (1960-61).
In fact, Fontana’s entire oeuvre might be seen as willfully perverse: He takes the history of art and makes his own renditions, an apt response by a person “forced” to draw by his artist father, Luigi Fontana, and trying to make sense of what it means to make art after the carnage of World War II. (A photo in the 2020 Hauser & Wirth exhibition showed the artist in his studio building in Milan, after returning from Argentina, the remaining walls pocked with bullet marks and shrapnel.)
One of the earliest works here, the plaster “Nude” from 1926, was made in Argentina, during a break from his studies at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. This small sculpture finds Fontana following the script of Italian art, with a curvaceous nude — albeit done in the sanded-down, semiabstract style of Novecento sculptors like Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) that was popular at the time.
Then Fontana gains steam, turning history into his own tool. “Victory of Water” (1936), a small, glazed terra-cotta figure recalls the triumphal figures sculpted by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but is expressive and wild, tiny and anti-monumental. The “Battle” series of terra-cotta works similarly sends up the histories of “heroic” Baroque paintings and war monuments, turning armed conflict into a frenzied, sketchy and messy affair. A nearby “Harlequin” (1948-49), made for the Cinema Arlecchino in Milan, dips into the age of Italian commedia dell‘arte, extracting one of its most famous characters, who was also being resurrected as a symbol of Italy’s postwar rebirth.
Near the end of his life, Fontana, who died in 1968, lived to see humans on the moon — a fitting end for an artist whose “spatial compositions” were an important contribution to 20th-century art, as he resisted linear perspective in painting. Now, however, space was expanded into the galaxies and the universe. There were “Spatial Concept” sculptures in terra cotta, lacquered copper and metal and colors like shocking pink. Fontana even described one series from the mid-60s as “figurations of man in space,” or “the forms of the inhabitants of other worlds.” One “Spatial Concept” (1967) here has two metal ovals with cuts set on a tripod, while another is long, missile-shaped and lacquered pink. Both have his signature slashes, but unlike his rectangular canvases, these look almost like scientific instruments.
One scholar quoted in the catalog, Enrico Crispolti, asks, “And what if he had only been a sculptor?” Meaning, what if Fontana had been presented to the world — or a hostile New York art world in the early ’60s, engulfed in cool Minimalism — as a sculptor, rather than as a painter?
“I wanted to be a sculptor,” Fontana wrote in the mid-50s. “I would have liked to be a painter, too, like my grandfather, but I realized that these specific art terms are not for me, and I felt like a Spatial artist.” His current exhibition grants his wish. Fontana may have been confronting space, but he was rethinking and reinventing in concrete form millenniums of European sculpture. He was, it turns out, quite a sculptor.