Lucio Fontana at Hauser & Wirth

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday November 10, 2022

Work by Lucio Fontana (1899-1986), an artist of profound immensity, is being presented in a historic exhibition, Lucio Fontana Sculpture, which opened last week at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side gallery. Fontana’s first major U.S. solo show was in 1961 at Martha Jackson Gallery—which occupied the same space on East 69th Street—and presented his acclaimed Tagli (Slashes). Although he was applauded in Europe at the time, his revolutionary work, which was in part informed by his fascination with space exploration, was seen here as mysterious and perhaps unapproachable.

Fast forward more than 60 years, three concurrent exhibitions in 2019 made for an exceptional overview of Fontana's work. The Met Breuer retrospective, Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold, presented works in a range of media. Fontana’s immersive environment, Spatial Environment (1968), was shown at El Museo del Barrio; and an exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute presented a selection of the Taglia (left), together with works by Fontana’s followers in the Spatialism movement, which sought to synthesize color, sound, space, and movement.

Lucio Fontana Sculpture, now on view at Hauser & Wirth New York, was curated by Luca Massimo Barbero in collaboration with the Fondazione Lucio Fontana. It is one of three exhibitions at the gallery’s spaces in Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong that, taken together, offer a comprehensive overview of this protean master’s legacy. The New York show explores Fontana's “invention of sculpture for the modern era" and includes drawings, works in glazed ceramic, works carved in wood and painted, in unglazed and punched terra cotta, and in slashed and painted wood (below, right), which he called Ambientes spaziales (Spatial Environments). 

Fontana’s process can not readily be characterized in a format as small as this page, so I can only hint at the physical nature of the work, in hopes that readers will visit the exhibition. The show occupies three floors of the townhouse, and includes texts extracted from the catalogue produced by H&W. On the ground floor there is a selection of pencil drawings whose succinct and energetic lines express the searching process of Fontana for an art that somewhat represented the moment in which he lived, together with some glazed terra cotta figures (below) that preceded his work in the abstract.

In his catalogue essay, curator Luca Massimo Barbero writes, “This desire for contemporary dynamism led to the pronouncement of the term Concetto spaziale (Spatial Concept) in 1946 and the founding of Spatialism, the most polymorphous movement of the postwar period.”

Fontana said, “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 [whose dynamism] 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.”  

Elemental in Fontana's statement above is his grasp of the essentials of science—time equals space equals matter, or existence—and the ways in which he equated existence with the making of art. Barbaro further shows us that Fontana’s thematic explorations in mediums other than sculpture give a broad view of the “false starts” the artist made in his search for the forms that would eventually express his contention that the figurative does not exclude the abstract, and the painterly blends with the sculptural.

Barbero characterizes that endeavor as Syncretism, or Fontana’s program “that makes material, action, and gesture, together with space, color, and form, ‘indissoluble, born out of the same necessity.’” So here I offer a selection of the works on view as clues to what is so gradually and clearly revealed at the gallery. Info The catalogue is available here.

Lucio Fontana: Sculpture continues through February 4, 2023 at Hauser & Wirth. 32 East 69th Street, New York, NY Info Photos © Peggy Roalf