October 13, 2006 – by GRACE GLUECK
Honoring Two Cities
With Slashes, Piercings and Punctures
If the Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) was dazzled by Venice, he was positively awestruck by New York. Visiting the city for the first time in 1961, he wrote home to friends: New York is more beautiful than Venice!! The skyscrapers of glass look like great cascades of water that fall from the sky!! At night it is a huge necklace of rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
In its wired energy and architectural vivacity he saw the city of the future, a place where the top floor of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, completed in 1958, “seemed to contain the Sun.”
But how to convey the radiance of Manhattan’s towers as they reached into the heady expanse of sky? As always, he wanted to depict the effects by minimal but powerful means, and so he chose shiny metal surfaces that he artfully cut, slashed and pierced to give a semblance of the light-struck buildings. The metal works, done between 1961 and 1965, are different from — but equally as intense as — the series of richly sensuous paintings of Venice that he produced in 1961.
Now the two are united for the first time in “Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York” at the Guggenheim Museum. This tightly focused show of nearly 50 works by an avant-gardist devoted to cosmic ideas was organized by Luca Massimo Barbero, associate curator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, where the show appeared earlier this year. In the “Venice” group, conceived as a homage to the city, Mr. Fontana, noted for puncturing and slashing his canvases to suggest other spatial possibilities than the conventionally flat, finite painting surface, took what was for him a new approach. He applied thick layers of oil paint, often in monochrome, to the canvas and marked it with wide holes or cuts made deeply into the paint, often using his fingers to make swirling patterns. Sometimes he added bits of colored glass picked up from the floors of Murano glassmakers.
The paintings, all preceded by the title Spatial Concept, evoke his personal experience of Venice as he progressed through a day. In a relatively simple canvas, “Venice Was All Gold,” a long, gestural slit in the middle is surrounded by whorls of brilliant gold paint in high relief that give off the glow of the sun. “Night of Love in Venice” is an expanse of silver, punctuated all over by fingertip touches and short, carefully plotted slashes. The flowing horizontal finger lines and slashes of “Venice Moon,” another all-silver work with a darkening tone of red toward the center, suggest moonlight on the rippling waters of the Grand Canal. In “Sun in Piazza San Marco,” the lush yellow paint is punctured by dozens of small holes, but also embellished by tiny shards of colored glass seemingly scattered randomly over the surface. The canvas is bordered on all four sides by finger lines of dark gold, indicating the buildings that surround the square. A surprise is “Baroque Venice,” a pale cream-colored canvas suggesting the church of Santa Maria della Salute, in which a vertical row of holes stands for the church’s columns, and four rococo lines march vertically over the surface to indicate its architecture. A long way from Tiepolo and Canaletto, the paintings nevertheless convincingly convey the glamour of the lagoon city blazing with color and light. Mr. Fontana’s use of paint to record his impressions of Venice are to my mind more successful than his very Minimalist evocations of Manhattan, mainly scratched, cut or gouged into sheets of bronze, aluminum and copper. The group of rapid sketches of skyscrapers, the flow of traffic and people, the cascades of light pouring out of buildings at night and the Brooklyn Bridge that he made in New York were translated to metal back in Italy over a period of several years.
The largest of those shown here (also preceded by or bearing only the title “Spatial Concept”) is New York 10, a brilliantly polished, three-panel horizontal stretch of copper, with seven jagged vertical lacerations that indicate the thrust of skyscrapers. Scratches around the bottoms of the cuts give a sense of dimension to the buildings; a flow of lines, with tiny punctures at the top of the tallest, suggest an explosion of sunlight around them.
In another large polished copper piece, a vertical string of seven emphatic punctures running down the center, surrounded by a faint ovoid scratch, would seem to indicate a line of windows. Another vertical, New York Sky 2, this one a work of cuts and scratches in silvery aluminum, gives more of a sense of metropolitan frenzy, its lines and rips rushing skyward with an explosive force.
The Venice/New York paintings are well attended by works and photographs of works that trace Mr. Fontana’s career from around 1949, when he made his first canvases with holes and when he created his influential “Spatial Environment”. A combination of crude, branchy sculptures, fluorescent paintings and black light, deployed in a dark room, this piece became important to the international development of environmental works.
There are photographs of his neons of the 50’s and 60’s, elegant, cursive loops of colored neon tubing, free drawings in space that played exuberantly against the rigidities of the rooms they were designed for.
There is his “Technical Manifesto of Spatialism”, issued in 1951 for the Milan Triennale of that year. Talky, idealistic and undoable, like most manifestoes, it called for the overturning of painting, sculpture and poetry in favor of a new art that synthesized color, sound, movement and space, like neon light, television and “the fourth ideal dimension in architecture.” And lining the way to the “Venice/New York” series are a number of his earlier punctured and slashed paintings.
Whether you regard Mr. Fontana as the spirit of the future that his postwar admirers — young avant-garde artists like Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni — considered him to be, or something less, an innovative theatrical decorator (I opt for the latter), this show gives an engrossing glimpse of an artist seeking to surmount the boundaries of his era.