The Salacious Violence of Lucio Fontana’s Slashed Canvases
Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, Expectations, 1949. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Many of the most revered midcentury abstractionists became famous for a particular stylistic flair. Hear the name Jackson Pollock and the mind conjures splatters. Barnett Newman is renowned for his “zips,” the vertical stripes that line his canvases. On a recent museum visit with my sister, she asked why every art museum has “one of those paintings with the rectangles.” It was a Mark Rothko. These artists would turn in their graves if they knew how frequently they’re associated with such reductive, one-word identifiers. Yet these easy classifications have also secured the artists’ popular legacies; they give novice art viewers a simple shorthand for the who’s who of the modern canon.
The Argentinian-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, however, is best known not for a distinctive mark on top of his canvases, but into them. His name is now synonymous with his “Cuts”: a series of monochrome paintings made between 1958 and his death in 1968 that he methodically slashed. This action created slivers that appear like one-dimensional lines from afar and only reveal their depth upon closer examination. The “Cuts” are indeed some of Fontana’s best works, superior to the lumpen sculptures he made as a young artist and more influential than the immersive light installations, which he called “Environments,” that he made throughout his career. Fontana’s fissures—like the splatters, zips, and rectangles of his peers—are more than a gimmick or attempt at self-branding. They literally and figuratively opened his canvases to myriad interpretive possibilities, disparate associations that range from sex to the space race.
If artists such as Pollock had already promoted the importance of the individual gesture in painting, Fontana’s work took that concept to new levels of aggression. Fontana’s assaults on his canvases began not with cuts, but with holes. Notably, he didn’t reach this aesthetic solution until late in his career, when he was 51 years old. Spatial Concept (1962), one of my favorite paintings in the current Met Breuer exhibition “Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold,” hails from his “Holes” series—many of which were produced contemporaneously with the “Cuts”—and pinpoints why Fontana’s formal innovation of lacerating his canvases matters.
Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, 1962. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fontana coated Spatial Concept with a glossy, sickly sweet, bubblegum-pink oil paint. Around its center, he incised a rough, circular outline. Inside, he tore two misshapen gashes into the canvas. The gashes are surrounded by swishes in the paint that resemble claw marks, suggesting a painter tearing at the fabric of his work with his own hands, brutally—carnally?—yanking apart the threads.
The artist’s decision to highlight his physical engagement—and significant struggle—with his materials creates a grotesque and even shudder-inducing effect: As the viewer approaches Spatial Concept, the jagged tangles of thread and thick paint begin to look as though a body has been torn apart. (Such works have earned Fontana allegations of misogyny. But when’s the last time you were really, viscerally disconcerted by an abstract painting?)
Practically, Fontana had to develop a new, rigorous methodology to create such evocative slashes. While the paint was still wet, Fontana would cut into his canvases with a Stanley knife. Once the paint dried, he manipulated the rips, using gauze to hold them in place. This process involved his brushes and hands, as well as non-traditional art tools. Fontana became a surgeon, his canvases the patients. It was an abusive relationship: To create his paintings, he had to scar them first.
Fontana’s foray into such a violent form of artmaking was inspired by an unlikely source. Throughout the 1940s, as color television was becoming more commercially available, Fontana became particularly interested in the idea of screens. In 1946, after decades of teaching art in Italy and Argentina while making sculptures shaped like underwater plant life or female busts, he co-authored The White Manifesto. The treatise advocated for “Spatialism”—a form of artmaking that aimed to eliminate the boundaries between architecture, sculpture, and painting, and embrace scientific achievements.
Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, Expectation, 1968. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fontana began to turn canvas and paper into screens themselves, puncturing small holes in the material. An early series of “Hole” drawings from this period resemble constellations with jagged perforations instead of stars. They posit an artwork as its own galaxy, and seem to foreshadow the starry, night-sky paintings of the contemporary artist Vija Celmins. As the space race took off in the 1950s, with the United States and the Soviet Union competing to send a man to the moon, Fontana started affixing glass pieces that resembled gemstones to these works, a decorative element that enhanced the sense of a glittering, captivating cosmos.
The curators of the current Met exhibition—led by Iria Candela, the museum’s curator of Latin American art—contextualize these works amid the space race, an economic boom in Italy, and the Cold War, positing that both midcentury anxieties and a desire for aesthetic novelty led to Fontana’s experiments with mutilating his canvases. They call the “Cuts” a “sabotage” to painting, one that evolved his torn canvases from screens to surfaces with deep voids. Philosophically, Fontana’s intrusions shifted from conveying a universe of matter to suggesting nothingness. Indeed, midcentury Existentialism pervades the show, most explicitly in one of Fontana’s more melodramatic titles, which he used for two works created in the early 1960s: Spatial Concept, the End of God.
Fontana’s “Cuts” also altered the way that viewers looked at his paintings. Instead of appreciating the quality of his painterly technique, the eye goes straight to his formal innovation: the tear. In this way, Fontana fashioned himself as a sculptor of canvas rather than a traditional painter. Instead of limiting his work, the repetition and subtle perversion of one particular shtick made Fontana’s practice richer, more conceptually variable, and instantly recognizable. Nevertheless, I still prefer his hard-to-look-at bubblegum pink artwork from 1962 to the rigorous, somewhat sterile “Cuts”—the former, with all its messiness, is much more human.