On ViewHauser & Wirth
Lucio Fontana Sculpture
November 3, 2022–February 4, 2023
“The material was attractive,” wrote Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) about ceramics, which he considered the “aristocracy of the art of sculpture,” thus elevating the low, decorative status of the medium to that of fine art. Although known for his slashed canvases and as a pioneer of spatial environments, Fontana was a sculptor by family tradition, education, and career. Far from the image of the conceptual artist (who, after WWII, called his works Concetto Spaziale), swiftly slashing the canvas while keeping his hands clean, the exhibition of his sculpture at Hauser & Wirth shows how the Italo-Argentinian artist handled space throughout his forty-year career, from the late 1920s to his death in 1968.
Organized in collaboration with the Fondazione Lucio Fontana and curated by Fontana expert Luca Massimo Barbero in conjunction with the publication of the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s ceramics (edited by Barbero), the show gathers around eighty works from the foundation and from private and public collections. The artwork is displayed in chronological order throughout the three floors of the gallery’s 69th Street space, in the same building where Fontana had his first US exhibition in 1961 at the galleries of Martha Jackson and David Anderson.
“Speed of execution, related to freshness of appearance, is precious to Fontana. He opposes the idea of the work of art bearing traces of anguished creation in favor of the clear, incisive sign,” wrote Lawrence Alloway for the brochure of the 1961 show at Martha Jackson. Velocity is a core characteristic of Fontana’s creative process and could almost be qualified as a style—something that was not limited to the quickly slashed or punctured canvases but constituted a driving force of his entire sculptural oeuvre. This could explain why Fontana, a trained sculptor, rarely carved stone and chose more spontaneous and fast-working materials, such as clay or plaster. The swift handling gave his sculpture a careless, almost archaic, aspect, a sort of sprezzatura. In Fontana’s case, this ease was not feigned but part of his manual speediness and expressionist haste.
His scribbled tablets of the 1930s manifest a take on abstraction that he essayed in the early years of the decade using plaster and concrete. He quickly abandoned this foray into modernism in favor of exuberant figurative sculpture (while annihilating naturalism with colored glazes). This aspect of his work has long been concealed in favor of a modernist narrative that would lead him from figuration to abstraction and finally into environments with no returns, eschewing the complexities of his sculptural journey in which opposites were intertwined.
The ambiguous interplay between construction and surface decoration, with its inherent connections to “low” or “bad” taste (as opposed to the modernist ethos of rejecting the decorative in favor of structural and media purity), has made the reception of Fontana’s work more difficult, especially within the post-Greenbergian United States. His deliberate use of decorative surfaces (made of shiny glazes, glitters, and Murano glass) was later, especially during the 1950s, turned into a more deliberate take on the vocabulary inherent to the applied arts, such as vases and plates, which he deprived of their use value by puncturing and adorning their surfaces. (Ironically, it was through extreme decoration that he turned these objects of applied arts into sculptures.) In the same way, the distinction between commissions and independent works is slippery, as visible in the juxtaposition of his densely populated project for the doors of Milan Cathedral with an Arlecchino and frenetic, small battle scenes.
The exhibition presents some iconic sculptures, such as Spatial Concept, The Bread (1950), a baked terracotta tablet punctured with holes, and Spatial Sculpture (1947), one of his first spatialist works building and opening space, as well as the “Nature” series, giant balls of bronze cast from hollowed clay evoking a cosmic state. A rare and visionary work is the recently rediscovered sculpture Shells and Butterflies (1935–36), made of stoneware and left outdoors long enough for moss to cover its earthy surface. As with other works that endured outdoor conditions, Fontana chose to keep the vegetation on the surface, turning it into an earthwork, in which the literal presence of nature complements the naturalistic representation of Albisola’s sea life.
One of the most surprising works of the show is Portrait of Teresita (1949), which displays the artist’s reckless take on the decorative (an effect unfortunately toned down by the exhibition’s colorful walls). The artist covered this otherwise realistic portrait of his wife with illusionistic, cheap ornaments—the shiny glaze somehow reminiscent of bronze—to which he added, between the breasts, a rhinestone (such as those used in costume jewelry or as the Murano glass chips he used to decorate some of his canvases), reminiscent of Catholic reliquary busts of saints. This fearless use of such materials without hiding behind any reflexive irony is clearly Fontana’s daring take on sculpture, disrupting modernist narratives.
The last room of the exhibition shows how, during the final years of the artist’s life, he slowly abandoned his hands for “colder” sculptures whose execution was delegated to others working from the artist’s drawings. The raw handling of clay is forsaken for mechanically-made surfaces. While Teatrino (1965) offers a rare melancholic and retrospective look at his own work depicting the silhouettes of his earlier “Nature” sculptures, Ellisse (1967) and Pilola (1967) echo contemporary global Pop and Minimalism movements, adopting a Minimalist ethos while mixing it with artificially alluring colors. His emblematic holes go from being an index of the artist’s generative gesture to being a hallmark of his artistic identity, a sign of the changing times. His ability to embrace his time is deeply rooted in his belief that the best moment is the present or the future to come. Here, the shiny glazes of his early ceramics turn into a sleek finish fetish similar to John McCracken’s otherworldly totems. Fontana’s fast-working hands left the stage to artisans’ slow-worked surfaces and mechanical means that, by excessive polishing, eliminated any trace of the process, displaying a clean and pristine surface. Fontana cut his hands, but the sensuous remains on the surface, whether touched or untouched by them.