Around 1965, the Milan-based photographer Ugo Mulas asked his friend Lucio Fontana – famous for his cuts in large monochrome canvases – whether he could document this strange and unusual technique for posterity. This resulted in a serie of photographs showing a well-dressed and elegant Fontana approaching a large, untouched white canvas. In his right hand, he holds a Stanley knife. The following photographs trace the movements of the artist as he raises his arm, points the knife at the white canvas, and, with a quick movement, cuts a vertical slash in it. The final photograph in the series shows the artist standing next to the finished work – a 150 x 150 cm white canvas split wide open with a large cut – looking at the camera and glowing with satisfaction.
Lucio Fontana was born in Argentina to a family of artists. His father was a skilled sculptor. At an early age, Lucio was clear in his own mind that he wanted to become an intellectual artist. As the years passed, he would publish several manifestos with a view to attempting to explain if not his art, then the ideas behind it. He would become particularly fascinated with the concept of space, and how it might be possible to overcome the more-or-less predefined opinions about its limitations.
As from 1947, Lucio Fontana often termed his experiments Concetti spaziali (Spatial Concepts), which he developed in several directions and within a number of fundamental artistic concepts. With their rich colours, his polychrome ceramic sculptures could, to a certain extent, be attributed to the area of painting, translated to the three-dimensional medium. With his Pietre (stones) series, on which he started work in 1952, he blended sculpture and painting by covering surfaces with thick, heavy layers of colour and collages of coloured pieces of glass. In his Buchi (holes) suites, he perforated the surface of his canvases to break through the two-dimensional medium and expose the space behind the canvas through the black holes he created. In 1958, Fontana started work on his experiments with the now classic Tagli (cuts), which he developed on the basis of the Buchi suites. He “cleaned” his canvases with a matt, monochrome, often water-based paint so as to draw out the appropriate fully matt structure.
This “cleaning” allowed the observer to concentrate on the cut, the slender, flowing openings that cause the material of the canvas to curve – converting the paintings into reliefs of some kind. These more-or-less violent rents reinforced the idea that the painting was not just a surface, but an object, a logical result of Fontana’s striving to blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture, to add new dimensions to both techniques. His large, egg-shaped oil paintings from 1963 – 64, the La Fine di Dio (The End of God) series, in which a uniform and smooth surface is completely studded with deep stabs, can be viewed as both paintings and sculptures.
“As an artist, when I work with any of my perforated canvasses, I have no desire to create a painting – I want to create an opening for the space, to create a new dimension for the art, to bind it to the cosmos as it endlessly continues behind the limitations imposed by the painting. With my innovation involving holes drilled through the canvas in repeated patterns, I have no desire to decorate a surface; quite the reverse – I want to break up its dimensional limitations. Behind the perforations awaits not only a newly won freedom for interpretation, but also, and just as unavoidably, an end to the art.” Lucio Fontana, 1966
It is possible to identify the clear relationship between this statement and the thoughts expressed by Yves Klein, the French artist. Klein’s sense of the “energetic endlessness” of space is a parallel to Fontana’s desire to open up the opportunities to work with space. Both artists are also thought to have believed that the true purpose of art should be to nullify itself.