Was Lucio Fontana, at heart, just an easily distracted ceramicist? So one might conclude from the current exhibition at the Met. The show reveals a chameleon figure, highly responsive to the prevailing winds of art and politics. He worked across many artistic disciplines, in contexts that should have been antithetical to one another, leaving an overall impression of adaptability shading into opportunism. The one through-line is his work in clay, which is often breathtaking in its radical conception.
Fontana was born in 1899 in Rosario, Argentina. His Italian father was a sculptor and Fontana got his initial artistic training in his studio. He returned to Argentina often in his later life; one achievement of the Met’s exhibition is that it situates him in relation to contemporaneous Latin American modernism. Yet it was back in Italy that he made his decisive artistic moves, including in ceramics. His first experience with the medium was in 1930, when he created sculpture in terracotta, just after his studies at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. Five years later, through a collaboration with the potter Tullio Mazzotti, he made his earliest significant works in clay: some impressively large but relatively conventional statuary and, more importantly, a series of vivid grotesques, nimbly poised at the intersection of figuration and abstraction, sometimes left as raw clay, sometimes sheathed in a carapace of shiny glaze.
These works reflect influences from the past – prehistoric artefacts, baroque architectural ornament, terracotta sketches by Bernini and Carpeaux – yet they also anticipate later developments in the medium, in particular the Expressionist works of Peter Voulkos and other Americans in the 1950s, and the Sodeisha group in Japan. Though smaller they also presage Willem de Kooning’s big bronze sculptures and the work of present-day sculptors working in ceramic, such as Arlene Shechet. Like these artists, Fontana arrived at sophisticated forms without losing touch with the immediacy of clay.
Perhaps if ceramics had not had such marginal status in Fontana’s day, he might have been content to concentrate on the medium, and establish himself as its consummate modern master. Instead, he directed his energies to other genres and projects. This avidity led him into thoughtless complicity with Mussolini’s regime, happy to complete monumental sculpture for the Fascists. In the Met’s exhibition catalogue, art historian Emily Braun concludes that ‘the blitheness of his performance might make us shudder’.
In the shadow of this ghastly misjudgment, Fontana’s avant-garde posturing in the post-war era seems even more dubious. Like his close colleague Yves Klein, he has a mountebank air: can we really believe this man? The question arises reading the ‘Manifesto Blanco’, published in Buenos Aires in 1946 and filled with dramatic claims, many of them borrowed from outmoded Futurism, others simply vague: ‘We need an art which is, of itself, valid; an art unsullied by our ideas.’
It’s almost impossible to connect such pronouncements to the actual art of these years, though some of it is fascinating – particularly Fontana’s experiments with luminescence and neon. The Met has reconstructed several of these ambienti spaziali – at both the Breuer and at the main museum on Fifth Avenue, and another in collaboration with El Museo del Barrio. These are fun to experience, as hundreds of Instagram photos attest. Whether they say anything profound is another matter. Fontana seems to have been after the simple pleasures of special effects, ‘wondrous rainbows and luminous writings [that] appear in the sky’.
The acid test comes with Fontana’s next, most recognisable works, the Buchi (Holes) and Tagli (Cuts), paper or canvas punched or sliced with a knife. For better or worse, his reputation rests on these aggressive paintings. My own feeling is that the decisive cut would have been most powerful if realised more infrequently, like Malevich’s Black Square. Repeating it in innumerable arrangements and variations – in seemingly arbitrary colours, disposed across multiple shaped canvases, decorated with bits of Murano glass, lumbered with overwrought titles, even executed at monumental scale in sheet copper – paid diminishing returns. There is pleasure in seeing so many of these works in person; the sheer miscellany, though, raises the suspicion that he was never that serious about the formal proposition in the first place.
Fontana’s lack of clarity makes him a perfect late entry to the Met Breuer experiment. Though it has seen some success, as with a retrospective of Kerry James Marshall, the programme there has lacked coherence. Now time is up: next year the building will be taken over by the Frick. In its few years on Madison Avenue, the Met has demonstrated its desire to engage with modern and contemporary art, but not yet that it has anything particular to say on the matter.
One could say much the same about Fontana; he seems to have played the role of avant-gardiste simply because it suited his temperament. The great exception, again, is his ceramics – the ideal discipline for his investigations of positive and negative. Every vessel is already (to use his favourite phrase) a ‘spatial concept’, its interior and exterior always existing in dynamic tension. Tactics that seem like aimless variation on canvas, when transposed to ceramics, come across as explorations of fundamental possibilities. Then, too, there is the unprecedented nature of Fontana’s intervention into this medium. While he jostled self-consciously for position among other painters, in ceramics he was almost alone. You feel the force of this singularity when he bisects a big lump of clay with a rift, or attacks the cleanly finished walls of a pot with perforations. These gestures feel genuinely violent – like a sabre wound, a scattering of bullet holes.
A particularly beautiful piece dating to 1964–65 is only 28cm high, yet it possesses a reductive anthropomorphism worthy of Brancusi. The off-centre ovoid is covered in iridescent glaze, and gathers itself around a single hole with puckered edges, like a pair of pursed lips. Fontana carefully hand-shaped his cut canvases after slicing them open, and lined them with a black backing cloth; he wanted them palpable. But they have absolutely nothing on this sexy, disturbing orifice, which truly feels like an encounter between two vastnesses, one without and one within. Fontana’s paintings seem stuck in their own moment. His ceramics, though, possess something far deeper: they resonate with the discipline’s ancient past, and its previously unforeseen future.
‘Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold’ is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 14 April.
From the March 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.