The Hole Story - Fontana made sculptures that are mistaken for paintings. Martin Gayford describes this passion
Lucio Fontana (Italian, 1899-1968) Concetto spaziale, Attese 1960

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) was obsessed by space. That was why he preferred to describe the beautiful work from 1960 – to be offered in October's Post-War & Contemporary sale in London – not as a painting or sculpture, but a 'spatial concept' (Concetto spaziale).

This point emerged from the "tremendous arguments" Fontana had with fellow sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Paris in 1937. Brancusi, Fontana recalled, was "a fully-fledged genius by this time, whilst I was still a young man". Fontana showed the great man one of his works, probably one of his free and fluid early ceramics, which seem to quiver like ferns or seaweed.

Brancusi commented that what he was doing was "not sculpture". Fontana replied, "I know, I agree, but I am not looking for volume." But if he was not after mass or form – which one might think of as quintessential sculptural qualities – what was the young Italian artist searching for?

Lucio Fontana in the studio, sharpening his knife.

The answer connects the various phases of a disparate career, which took him, in geographical terms, back and forth across the Atlantic and, artistically, from monuments extolling the regime of Benito Mussolini to the audacious idiom of his last two decades, which seems to anticipate both minimalism and performance art.

Fontana was born in Rosário de Santa Fe, Argentina, but sent to school in Italy at the age of five. As a young man, after serving in the First World War, he sailed back to the land of his birth. Afterwards, according to a self-romanticising account that appeared in the magazine Gente in 1959, he lived the life of a roving ranch hand
for "two marvellous years", riding on horseback, driving cattle across the Pampas, admired by one and all for his skill at shooting and riding.

More prosaically, in 1924 Fontana set up a sculpture workshop, following in the footsteps of his father, an Italian immigrant sculptor who had been a successful specialist in commemorative and funerary statues. Then, in 1927, already in his late 20s, Fontana returned to Italy and enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan.

A glazed ceramic Concetto Spaziale, completed circa 1960-1963, sold for £110,500 at Bonhams in 2015.

By Fontana's own account, the professor of sculpture, Adolfo Wildt, soon regarded him as his best pupil. Fontana was indeed brilliant. Over the next decade he was one of the more prominent younger artists in Italy, producing a number of pieces of what can only be called 'official art' – in 1930s Italy that meant work for the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

One that survives is the plaster relief Fontana made in 1939 for the Federazione dei Fasci Milanesi (Fascist Federation of Milan) in the via Valpetrosa, a few minutes' walk from the Duomo. Fontana's Volo di Vittorie ('Flying Victories') is a memorial to fascist martyrs. It consisted of gigantic female figures, their drapery fluttering like that of Botticelli nymphs, sweeping across the ceiling in the grand entrance hall of what is now a Carabiniere headquarters.

Leaving aside its political meaning, this work shows what Fontana meant by not being interested in volume. The figures, although unquestionably sculptural, are not concerned with mass. They are all about flight, weightless movement slicing through space. That speed and decisiveness came to be Fontana's hallmarks.

It is probably unfair to condemn him for working for the fascists. After all, Mussolini came close to making Futurist modernism the official tyle of the state. But it had the effect of dividing Fontana's creative life in two.

A bold, red example of Fontana's 'buchi', sold at Bonhams for £770,500 in 2014

He went back to Argentina in 1940, at the beginning of the war, and did not return to Italy until 1947, stepping off the boat at Genoa. He had spent the intervening years teaching and again making funerary sculptures (an existence he described as "vita da coglione" or "sod's life").

The critic Sarah Whitfield observed that Fontana in the late '40s seemed "to have returned from the dead". His studio had
been bombed out – there is a photograph of him inspecting the ruins – and his work was associated with a political order now utterly discredited. As Whitfield pointed out, Fontana is seen principally as a post-war artist; in fact, he was a contemporary of Moore and Giacometti.

He began afresh. Although he continued to make extraordinary ceramics, such as the one sold at Bonhams in 2015, a great deal of his work from the 1950s and '60s took two forms: holes – buchi – and cuts. The buchi were, Fontana thought, his great discovery - "I invented the hole", he said, "that's all". But the cuts, which he did not begin until 1958, were a development: looser, more graceful, suggesting flight – like those winged victories – as well as a break in the surface like a wound. Of course, they are not paintings – even though the basic elements are paint and canvas – but very thin sculptures.

To make them required decisive action. "They think it's easy to make a cut or a hole," Fontana insisted, "But it's not true. You have no idea how much stuff I throw away; the idea has to be realised with precision." To do so, he had to be in the correct mood, and did not like to be watched while he made the incision in the canvas with his Stanley knife. As important as the actual cutting was the subsequent opening of the slit with his hand – likened to a caress by someone who saw it. He would then tape up the opening so it was slightly parted, in three dimensions not just two.

Most of the cuts and holes are made in surfaces painted in oils, but a few – like Concetto Spaziale Attese (1960) – are in water-based paint that soaks into the canvas, enhancing the effect of atmospheric space.

'Attese', which Fontana added to his titles, is a word which can be translated as 'waiting' or 'expectation'. As Whitfield noted, it conveys a sense of longing. But longing for what? Perhaps, it was a paradoxical yearning – especially for a sculptor – to escape from solid material. He once described how Michelangelo had made "his last pietàs as though he wanted only to make them from pure spirit, from pure light". He could have been talking about himself.

Martin Gayford's most recent book is The Pursuit of Art, published this September.

Sale: Post-War & Contemporary Art
Thursday 3 October at 5pm
Enquiries: Giacomo Balsamo +44 (0) 20 7468 5837 [email protected]


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