Lucio Fontana, a sculptor, but so perverted

In 1961, Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, famous in Europe for slashing and piercing his canvases, made his North American debut at the Martha Jackson and David Anderson galleries. It didn’t go well. American critics found the canvases, adorned with pieces of colored glass, too decorative – basically kitschy.

Now Fontana returns to the exact same building at 32 East 69th Street where the 1961 show took place. “Lucio Fontana Sculpture” is the second in a trilogy of exhibitions dedicated to his work, organized by art historian and curator Luca Massimo Barbero in collaboration with the Fondazione Lucio Fontana, and it is grandiose. (The first Los Angeles show was dedicated to Fontana’s “spatial environments” — the darkened spaces with illuminated sculptural forms or neon tubes that served as precursors to James Turrell’s light works and today’s ubiquitous “immersive environments”). February 2020, just before the pandemic swept through the art world.)

It’s safe to say that Fontana, especially after a successful 2019 retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum, was fully embraced by New Yorkers.

Fontana was born in Argentina in 1899 and moved to Italy as a young boy before returning to Argentina during World War II. The current show with more than 80 works spread over three floors focuses primarily on his three-dimensional works made of terracotta, clay, plaster, metal and concrete. However, the exhibition includes one of the paintings of this 1961 New York debut, the black Spatial Concept, The Moon in Venice (1961), speckled with colored glass and pierced with holes, along with some playfully perverse drawings, like a scribble “New York Waterfall” (1960-61).

Actually Fontana’s entire work could be seen as willfully perverted: he takes art history and makes his own interpretations, an apt response from a person “forced” to draw by his artist father Luigi Fontana, and tries to understand what it means to make art according to the World War II carnage. (A photo in the 2020 Hauser & Wirth exhibition showed the artist in his studio building in Milan, after returning from Argentina, the remaining walls riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel.)

One of the earliest works here, the 1926 plaster “Nude”, was created in Argentina while he was on hiatus from his studies at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. For this small sculpture, Fontana follows the script of Italian art with a curvaceous nude – albeit in the polished, semi-abstract style popular at the time by Novecento sculptors such as Medardo Rosso (1858-1928).

Then Fontana picks up steam and makes history his own tool. “Victory of Water” (1936), a small, glazed terracotta figure, is reminiscent of the triumphal figures of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but is expressive and wild, tiny and anti-monumental. The ‘Battle’ series of terracotta works similarly broadcasts the stories of ‘heroic’ baroque paintings and war memorials, turning armed conflict into a hectic, sketchy and chaotic affair. A nearby “Harlequin” (1948-49), made for the Arlecchino cinema in Milan, delves into the age of Italian commedia dell’arte, extracting one of its most famous characters, also seen as a symbol of Italy’s post-war renaissance war had revived.

Towards the end of his life Fontana lived, who died in 1968 to see man-made objects being sent to the moon – a fitting end for an artist whose “spatial compositions” made an important contribution to 20th-century art, like himself opposed linear perspective in painting. But now space has been extended to the galaxies and the universe. There were “Spatial Concept” sculptures in terracotta, lacquered copper and metal and colors like shocking pink. Fontana even described a mid-1960s series as “figurations of man in space” or “the forms of the denizens of other worlds.” A “Spatial Concept” (1967) here has two cut metal ovals on a tripod, while another is long, rocket-shaped and painted pink. Both have his signature slashes, but unlike his rectangular canvases, these look almost like scientific instruments.

A scholar quoted in the catalogue, Enrico Crispolti, asks: “And what if he had only been a sculptor?” That is, what if Fontana left the world – or a hostile New York art world in the early ’60s, engulfed in chill Minimalism – would have been presented as a sculptor and not as a painter?

“I wanted to be a sculptor,” Fontana wrote in the mid-1950s. “I would also have liked to have become a painter, like my grandfather, but I realized that these specific concepts of art were not for me, and I felt like a spatial artist.” His current exhibition fulfills his wish. Fontana may have grappled with space, but he reimagined and reinvented millennia of European sculpture in concrete form. As it turned out, he was quite the sculptor.

Lucio Fontana sculptureUntil February 4 at Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, Manhattan; 212-794-4970, hauserwirth.com.

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