Lucio Fontana, a sculptor but so perverse

In 1961, Argentinian Italian artist Lucio Fontana, famous in Europe for his cut and punch canvases, made his American debut at the Martha Jackson and David Anderson Galleries. It didn’t go well. American critics thought the canvases, adorned with pieces of colored glass, were too decorative, essentially kitsch.

Now Fontana returns to the same building at 32 East 69th Street where the 1961 show took place. “Lucio Fontana Sculpture” is the second in a trilogy of shows dedicated to his work, organized by the historian of the art and curator Luca Massimo Barbero in collaboration with the Fondazione Lucio Fontana, and it’s great. (The first exhibition, in Los Angeles, was devoted to Fontana’s “space environments”: the darkened rooms with illuminated sculptural forms or neon tubes that served as precursors to James Turrell’s light works and the ubiquitous current “immersive environments.” February 2020, just before the pandemic swept through the art world.)

It’s safe to say that, especially after a recent successful retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in 2019, Fontana has been fully embraced by New Yorkers.

Born in Argentina in 1899, Fontana moved to Italy as a child before returning to Argentina during World War II. The current exhibition of more than 80 works, spread over three floors, focuses mainly on his three-dimensional work sculpted in terra cotta, clay, plaster, metal and concrete. However, the exhibition includes one of the paintings from that 1961 New York debut, the black “Spatial Concept, The Moon in Venice” (1961), stained with colored glass and perforated with holes, along with some drawings naughty playboys, like a scribble. “New York Falls” (1960-61).

In fact, all of Fontana’s work could be seen as willfully perverse: he takes art history and makes his own interpretations, an apt response from someone “forced” to draw by his artist father, Luigi Fontana, and trying to make sense of what it means make art after the carnage of World War II. (A photo from the 2020 Hauser & Wirth exhibition showed the artist in his studio in Milan, after returning from Argentina, the walls remaining with bullet and shrapnel marks.)

One of the first works here, the plaster “Nude” of 1926, was made in Argentina, during a break from his studies at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. This small sculpture finds Fontana following the script of Italian art, with a curvaceous nude, albeit done in the semi-abstract, polished style of Novecento sculptors such as Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) that was popular at the time.

Fontana then gains strength, turning the story into its own tool. “Water Victory” (1936), a small glazed terracotta figure that recalls the triumphal figures sculpted by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but is expressive and wild, tiny and anti-monumental. The “Battle” series of terracotta works similarly sends up the stories of “heroic” Baroque paintings and war monuments, turning armed conflict into a frantic, incomplete and messy affair. A recent “Harlequin” (1948-49), made for the Cinema Arlecchino in Milan, enters the era of the Italian commedia dell’arte, extracting one of its most famous characters, who was also resurrecting as a symbol of Italy’s post-war renaissance. . .

Towards the end of his life, Fontana, who died in 1968, lived to see humans on the moon, a fitting end for an artist whose “space compositions” were a major contribution to the art of the century XX, as he resisted linear perspective in painting. . . Now, however, space expanded into the galaxies and the universe. There were “Space Concept” sculptures in terra cotta, lacquered copper and metal and colors like shocking pink. Fontana even described a series from the mid-1960s as “figurations of man in space” or “the forms of the inhabitants of other worlds.” A “Spatial Concept” (1967) here has two cut-out metal ovals perched on a tripod, while another is long, missile-shaped, and lacquered pink. Both have their slashes, but unlike their rectangular canvases, these look almost like scientific instruments.

A scholar quoted in the catalog, Enrico Crispolti, asks, “What if he had only been a sculptor?” That is, what if Fontana had presented himself to the world – or a hostile New York art world in the early 1960s, surrounded by cool minimalism – as a sculptor, rather than a painter?

“I wanted to be a sculptor,” Fontana wrote in the mid-1950s. feel like a space artist.” His current exhibition fulfills his wish. Fontana may have confronted space, but he was rethinking and reinventing millennia of European sculpture in concrete. Turns out he was quite the sculptor.

Sculpture Lucio Fontana

Through February 4 at Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, Manhattan; 212-794-4970,

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