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Lucio Fontana: an artist
ahead of his time

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Ambienti/Environments’ at Pirelli HangarBicocca is an exhibition of historic importance that allows visitors to discover – or rediscover – the environmental production of Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968). ‘Ambienti/Environments’ shifts the focus to lesser-known works by Fontana – famous for transcending the two-dimensionality of the canvas by means of holes and cuts in his monochrome paintings – thus encompassing most of the key concepts of the Spatial Movement, the theories behind which were laid out in his Manifiesto Blanco of 1946. The exhibition displays a selection of works consisting of nine Ambienti spaziali (Spatial environments) and two environmental works that highlight the most important features of Fontana’s innovative genius. Some of the environments on view have been reconstructed for the first time since the artist’s death thanks to research by the show’s two co-curators – art historian Marina Pugliese and art conservator Barbara Ferriani – with the collaboration of Fondazione Lucio Fontana. We met Marina Pugliese, together with Vicente Todolí, Pirelli HangarBicocca artistic director and co-curator of the show, to better understand how the exhibition has been set up.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this exhibition?
VT: Marina Pugliese came up with it as soon as she finished her PhD on Lucio Fontana’s Ambienti spaziali. I personally had a limited knowledge of his environmental production, therefore it was a true discovery. Setting up this exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca was a challenge; such a project implies that all the rules become exceptions. The previous shows have always been in a close dialogue with the surrounding space, existing in symbiosis with it. But this time, the project is different and unique. As a matter of fact, Fontana’s environments are conceived inside existing architecture because the external environments are neutral and cannot communicate with the space. Two aspects make it particularly suitable for the exhibition. First of all, the displayed works are contemporary. In the past 20 years, several artists have brought forward similar research without knowing about Fontana’s environments, which was a point in his favour. Among them, many artists have exhibited here at Pirelli HangarBicocca, such as Carsten Höller, Cildo Meireles and Philippe Parreno – whose research has several features in common with that of Fontana. Secondly, the project is unique; it’s the first time ever that a show brings together up to nine environments by Fontana, besides displaying two neon ceiling installations – Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano (1951) and Fonti di energia, soffitto al neon per “Italia 61”, a Torino (1961). In this case, the environment houses Fontana’s works rather than communicating with them. It is very rare to find the right space for this kind of installation, but Pirelli HangarBicocca was suitable. I believe that this is the main difference compared with previous exhibitions; Pirelli HangarBicocca is the exception that proves the rule.

Q: As early as 1949, Fontana overcame the traditional distinction between painting and sculpture by applying holes and cuts to the canvas. In 1946, for instance, his Manifiesto Blanco introduced the possibility of using a “pure, aerial, universal, suspended image” instead of plastic materials, thus recalling the technological innovations of the period. From mobility to astronomy to the imminent space travel, Fontana’s production seems to be deeply rooted in his time.
MP: It all belongs to the same magma. Fontana used to look at aerospace research; he was fascinated by this theme and made no secret of it. For instance, Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (1948-49) was created by observing images of the rockets of his day, specifically the V2 rocket. Invented by the Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun, this rocket was later adopted by the United States. The V2 rocket was also equipped with the first aerospace cameras and, later, with a cinecamera, thanks to which the first photographs of the Earth were taken from above. In 1947, they were published by Life and then shown as newsreels between the first and second halves of a film projection. Fontana believed that traditional forms of art had ceased to fulfil their function and felt the need to overcome them. He was convinced that new technologies could actually allow for an innovative representation of space. Spatialism derives from this vision.

Q: Lucio Fontana had the merit to extend the artistic reach of traditional art, awakening the conscience of architects, designers, scholars and poets who, in some cases, acknowledged the potential of his work before many critics and curators. Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (1948–1949) itself represents an attempt to innovate the relationship between artwork and architectural space. This is an interdisciplinary vision which, in a way, anticipated several contemporary trends.
MP: It’s true. But it also relates to his family; a cousin of his was an architect and his father – back in Argentina – made funerary sculptures. American critics didn’t understand Fontana because he ranged from decoration to sculpture, environment and architecture, feeling totally at ease without establishing a hierarchy of the arts. In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, American modernism was characterised by “medium specificity”, meaning that a sculptor was expected to make sculptures and a painter to produce paintings. But Fontana totally broke with this kind of hierarchy; he loved to collaborate with other artists, which made him a pioneer in this sense. 

Q: Was Fontana’s installation production influenced by the leading architecture studios of his era, such as BBPR, whose works strayed into decorative art?
MP: Absolutely. He probably wouldn’t have been obsessed with space if he hadn’t studied with all those architects. As a matter of fact, it was Gio Ponti who first understood the importance of the 
environments, so much so that he had Domus publish one on its cover. After all, Fontana had already created incredible artworks with the collaboration of BBPR, which were displayed at the Milan Triennale of 1933 – for instance, his sculpture Bagnante (The Swimmer) doesn’t have a pedestal and so lays on the floor. Art history celebrates Minimalism in the Sixties for having eliminated pedestals from sculptures, but Fontana had done it much earlier. It is not by chance that this work had been commissioned by architects; it’s a choice that resulted from their collaboration.

Q: Initially, these environments were not very successful with the critics.
MP: What is interesting is that the potential of these artworks had been appreciated only by architects; the rest of the art world didn’t pay much attention to them.

Q: Did these innovations also represent a break with the commercial aspect of art, with the creation of the items to be sold
MP: Interestingly, Fontana was aware of having introduced a radical innovation. His famous ‘holes’ and ‘cuts’ were created at the same time as Ambienti spaziali and, basically, represent the commercial synthesis of Spatialism. He introduced both holes and cuts to sell his works, but his main contribution was to transcend the canvas to enter the space. Clearly, his actual artwork – where he dealt with the ‘space’ – was the environment. Unfortunately, he was too far ahead of the times, so people didn’t understand him and didn’t buy his works. Actually, all his environments were destroyed except for one. People were not aware of his innovation. This is why this exhibition is so important. It gave us the chance to reconstruct a story that was mostly lost, because it was not related to the commercial aspect of art – and art is also and especially commercial.

Q: How important was provocation in Fontana’s work? 
MP: Well, he got mad when he was identified as a ‘provocateur’. In a great interview by Carla Lonzi, Fontana complained about the fact that, at the time, it was often claimed that applying cuts to a canvas wasn’t that difficult. Therefore, his research was trivialised and downgraded to a provocation. But his aim was very different, because he just wanted to assert that certain categories were over and it was time to move on.

Q: Vicente, you are from Spain but you are an expert in Latin American art, too – as can be inferred from your artistic programming at Pirelli HangarBicocca. In your opinion, to what extent did Argentina influence Fontana’s research?
VT: Fontana was much involved in the research by Grupo Madí [an artist collective founded in 1964 in Argentina]. His Manifiesto Blanco derives from this aesthetic and shares many characteristics with those of the movement. In his Manifiesto Blanco, Fontana cites Gyula Kosice, an artist of the Grupo Madí who used neon. Yet works by Grupo Madí were different from Fontana’s, from his environments, because they were brighter and more spatial. There was some use of neon, but the environments remain a prerogative of Fontana. His manifesto, however, is the core of his conceptual research. As a matter of fact, his Manifiesto Blanco dates back to 1946 and his first environment was created three years later. This demonstrates that the concepts he proposed in his manifesto are very important for this part of his artistic production.

Q: At the time, Fontana already had a global vision of the art system.
MP: Exactly. In 1966, the Jewish Museum of New York staged an exhibition on Minimalism entitled ‘Primary Structures’ and Fontana immediately started to create white works. He realised that he should no longer use fluorescent colours, thus reaching a new starting point in sculpture. In short, he was quite a hasty person but he was certainly the first to create, claim and exhibit the environments at an international level, which had been completely forgotten. In the aftermath of the Second World War, American artists felt the need to create their own art history, because up 
until then everything had come from the European avant-garde. From Jackson Pollock onwards, they have created an art history that doesn’t allow for intrusion. For instance, when Allan Kaprow exhibited at the Martha Jackson Gallery of New York (curiously, where Fontana had previously exhibited his work) and wrote a book entitled Environments – the same term that Fontana had chosen – he never cited his name despite mentioning the Japanese group Gutai. In this respect, the exhibition catalogue will present a text that we entrusted to an American scholar, because we believe that reviewing history is up to them.

Q: How did Fontana’s research influence contemporary artists? In particular, how did it influence those who have exhibited at Pirelli HangarBicocca over the years?
VT: It happened unconsciously. The artists you refer to don’t know this aspect of Fontana’s production, which is incredible!

Q: What elements does Fontana’s work share with artists such as Höller and Parreno?
VT: I don’t want to spoil anything because the exhibition catalogue touches upon this topic. However, when entering the exhibition, visitors will notice that some of Fontana’s environments appear to have an unstable balance. For instance, the darkness conveyed by Carsten Höller is very similar to the darkness created by Fontana through his environments. In this case, visitors have total control over their individual experience, which is exactly what Fontana does with his environments. The artist doesn’t try to influence them in any way. Indeed, he sets visitors free to observe and find a personal interpretation of his works. In this regard, Fontana said: “This is not about painting, I don’t want to impose an idea on people. It is they who must understand it.” It is a very contemporary philosophy and strictly related to this whole new generation of international artists. Fontana is one of their predecessors. 

Q: How does this exhibition fit into the artistic programming of Pirelli HangarBicocca, which is generally focused on solo exhibitions by living artists?
VT: It’s a very contemporary exhibition but it’s not the first time that we’re displaying artworks by a non-living artist at Pirelli HangarBicocca. We started with Dieter Roth and we have always had artists into their sixties, so young artists [laughs]! Basically, we don’t have a specific generation in mind but we normally select them with a glance toward contemporary art. We will host more exhibitions of works by non-living artists. It is fundamental that both artworks and shows are contemporary and original, thus offering a new way of interpreting the chosen artists. Just like we did with this exhibition by Fontana.

Q: A few years ago, someone wrote that the only constant medium in Fontana’s work is renewal. What do you think about that? 
VT: Actually, I’ve never thought about the term ‘renewal’ to define Fontana’s work. I’d rather use words like ‘contemporaneity’ and ‘totality’. Why renewal? Some artists reinvent themselves and some do the same things over and over again [laughs]. Fontana was an innovative artist because he was greatly interested in spatial investigations as well as research into the contemporary and future world. He used to say it all the time: “Where is the world heading?” Therefore, he took into consideration technological innovations, integrating them into his art and philosophy.

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