Fontana Articulates Cyber-Space in 1947
by Joseph Nechvatal
For THE THING NYC
Review: Lucio Fontana
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Concerning what Adrian Henri calls the "environmental urge" (Henri, p. 18),
Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) explored in analogous manner the problem of
representing spatial concepts abstractly. As a result, he is an important
proto cyber/immersive artist of the 20th century, best known for exploring
the concept of Spatialism.
From February 16th to the 25th of March, the gallery Sperone Westwater has
mounted a small, museum quality, exhibition displaying the infinite
conceptual space typical of the work of Lucio Fontana (see:
http://speronewestwater.com/). There are twelve paintings in the show,
mainly work from the early 1960’s which exemplify his "buchi" (holes)
series; his "tagli" (cuts) series; and two "paintings" in metal (one in
copper; one in brass). Several works were recently included in the artist's
full-scale retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London.
While Fontana's works can be appreciated independently of their theoretical
background, they receive an added proto-cyber conceptualist dimension
through references to it.
Fontana was born in 1899 at Rosario di Santa Fe, Argentina and died in
Varese, Italy on September 7th, 1968, a few months before the first man
walked upon the moon. By the late-1950s Fontana was slashing monochromatic
canvases with a razor blade as the lacerated canvas indicated for him access
into the infinite. In doing so, he transformed a presumably ruinous attitude
into an act of creation that challenged classical easel painting and the
sanctity of the picture plane. This extravagant slashing gesture made him a
nullifier of painting's flat window-like metaphoric space and thereafter he
became a harbinger of a conceptual consideration of an immersively engaging,
cyber-spatially oriented total art.
Particularly what is cyberly important to us today about Fontana is his, and
his group's, theoretical manifestos. The movement known as "Spazialismo" (a
neologism deriving from the Italian word "spazio" (space)) was initiated by
a group of artists/intellectuals in Milan in 1947. Spazialismo's first
manifesto was written by Fontana, the critic Giorgio Kaisserlian, the
philosopher/artist Beniamino Joppolo and the writer/artist Milena Milani.
The movement's second manifesto (called "Spaziali") was signed in 1948 by
Fontana, Beniamino Joppolo, Milena Milani, Giorgio Kaisserlian, Antonio
Tullier and Gianni Dova.
Fontana wrote or collaborated on a number of other proto-cyber theoretical
tracts, such as his eminent "Manifesto Bianco" (White Manifesto) of 1946 in
which it was stated that: "What is necessary is to overcome painting,
sculpture, poetry and music. We need a more comprehensive art that meets the
requirements of the new spirit."
At the end of his life Fontana said that his art "took a new direction with
the ‘Spatial Manifesto’ of 1946". (Trini, p. 34) With it Fontana became more
than a painter or a sculptor, as it was space itself that interested him
above all else; space in the third and fourth dimensional realm and space in
the metaphorical and conceptual sense, i.e. proto-typical cyber-spaces.
Fontana often said that the canvas for him is primarily there not for what
it is or for what it represents but to show that we can look and move
through it. (Fontana, 1963) It is for this reason that he punctured holes in
his canvases as a means of integrating the theoretical space represented on
the surface of his paintings with the tangible space that surrounded them.
In 1949 Fontana's spatial theories, which had been developing in his
paintings, could no longer only be expressed through a two-dimensional
surface and hence he created his first spatial environment, ‘Ambiente
Spaziale a Luc Nera’, in the Galleria del Naviglio by placing in the
darkened gallery an abstract shape painted with phosphorescent varnish and
lit by neon lamp. From then on Fontana titled all of his works ‘Concetto
Spaziale’ (Spatial Concept). He shortly thereafter made his first white
punctured hole pieces, his first buchi (Italian for hole) works.
Fontana, in his last interview with Tommaso Trini said that, "The evolution
of art is something internal, something philosophical and is not a visual
phenomenon. Speaking of the buchi in a late interview, Fontana said, "...the
discovery of the cosmos is a new dimension, it is the infinite, so I make a
hole in this canvas, which was the basis of all the arts, and I have created
an infinite dimension (...) that is precisely the idea, it is a new
dimension corresponding with the cosmos. The hole was precisely to create
that void there at the back." (Beeren & Serota)
Concerning this puncturing of holes, Fontana said in the last interview that
"...if any of my discoveries are important the buchi (hole) is. By the buchi
I meant going outside the limitations of a picture frame and being free in
one's conception of art. (...) I make a hole in the canvas in order to leave
behind me the old pictorial formulae, the painting and the traditional view
of art and I escape symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of
the flat surface." (Trini, p. 34)
Also Fontana said of his buchi that "as a painter, while working on one of
my perforated canvases, I do not want to make a painting; I want to open up
space, create a new dimension for art, and tie in with the cosmos as it
endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture" in which "the
images appear to abandon the plane and continue into space". (Manifesto
Moreover, Fontana has said, "The surface cannot be confined within the edges
of the canvas, it extends into the surrounding space." (Palazzoli )
To make the point in specifically heightened immersive terms, Fontana
created in 1952 a ceiling peppered with his punctured buchis for the Kursaal
at Varazza which also incorporated low-angled lighting. He repeated the
gesture on the ceiling of a cinema in Breda the following year. (Beeren &
Besides Yves Klein, Futurism was another historic source of Fontana's
inspiration, particularly, Giacomo Balla's studies of spatial ambience.
Fontana readily identified with the Futurist's rumination on motion which he
developed and expanded and integrated as part of his Spatialist creations.
For Fontana however, space no longer functioned, as it did for the
Futurists, in the context of the image (the flow of space around sculpture
or the implied space of painting), but it became the palpable field in which
his proto-cyber spatial method took shape. Hence he literally transgressed
abstract painting's support, refusing the illusory for the actual,
activating ambient space and the technological allure which envelops
This is what constitutes the cutting-edge of Fontana's deceptively simple
(but far reaching) work for rhizomeers.
Perhaps in proto-immersive terms the most successful of Lucio Fontana's work
were his installations at the 1966 Venice Biennale (especially the
ultra-violet light-room and the violet neon-room) and the last gallery at
his retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1967.
For this culminating gallery Fontana created a vivid red chasm by dividing
the space from floor to ceiling with wooden partitions pierced by horizontal
rows of buchis. Walls, floor and ceiling were all painted the same vivid
glossy red and then illuminated with red neon light creating a walk-in
Fontana's objective for his art was the breaking of dimensional limitations;
both physical and metaphysical. As such, Fontana was acutely aware of the
implications of the technology that was powerfully coming into use during
the period in which he lived: electronic communications, missile technology
and the harnessing of nuclear force. Hence Fontana took a studied view of
the world of science, technology and militarization, yet his astuteness was
more that of the para-technologist. Accordingly, in his manifestos, he
called for a Spatialist Era in which the artist would unchain art and free
it into space.
This new and bold proto-cyber idea of a dematerialized hyper-art is best
understood by something he said in a 1967 interview; "to unchain art from
matter is to unchain the sense of the eternal from the mere preoccupation
with the immortal" as "by now, in space there is no longer any measure. The
sense of measurement, of time, is infinite. (...) The cut and indeed the
hole, the first holes, were not the destruction of the picture in its frame.
(...) They were a dimension beyond the picture and the liberty of conceiving
art through any medium." (Beeren & Serota) Expanse in Fontana's work is no
longer conceived of as earthbound - hence hyper. Here space has no
perspective nor preference and is instead formulated as an aoristic
The surface of painting is no longer confined. Rather the rupture of the
painting's surface conceptually opens distance up to a further
(immeasurable) scope of infinite stretch. The buchi and laceration are
indications and tangible appearances then of the abstraction of
supplementary cyber-immersive space opening up to comprehension through a
consciousness of technological innovation.
This is how the imagined (or implied) non-partial field of universal
surroundings typical of Lucio Fontana's Spatialist-type conceptualizations
of abstract space pertain to us cyber-inflected artists. With Fontana,
framed areas of space may not be singled out and be made to represent the
totality of cyberspace’s range. Thus, post-Fontanaesque immersive
cyber-space - where partial framed and arranged views may not be cut out of
the total surround - finds a very real literalization in the open field of
net and VR art.
Indeed Fontana was a huge step in the direction of escaping the limits of
narrow representation in the interests of cyber-immersive consciousness.
From his point on, only a technique which fully undermines the proscenium
and window-like frame can stand in for the abstract, all-over, intemperate
360° bubble-vision idea of the proto-cyber Spatial Concept which the frame
cuts and excludes.
In this drift towards anti-representationalism, art begins leaving the orbit
of the framing apparatus and of the tunnel vision that fixed a segment of
the objective world at one end and the viewer at the other. What had enabled
that narrow cone of vision to simulate the entire visual atmospheric field
previously, was possible precisely with the enclosure of that framing cone
(tangent tunnel) but once that framing cone has dissolved through
Fontanaesque spatial ideals - or any other number of following Op,
Cybernetic, Minimalist or Conceptualist artistic strategies - that narrow
cone of representation is found to be wanting and dissolves, and a much more
encompassing atmospheric scopic organization is conceived in its place.
In terms of the cyber-immersive inclination, this expansion away from the
two-dimensional canvas freed the spectator from stasis and encouraged an
active atmosphere of contemplative reception within the work of art which
was attained through essentially the compliant motion of the immersant in
contact with the strategic liberties exacted in the expanded art.
Fontana aimed to evoke possibilities within the imagination of the audience
and to engage their active participation and to release art from its
previous obligatory fidelities to the hypothetical and material status quo.
Underlying this aim is a miasmatic idea which questions linear and
hierarchical structures and seeks to replace them with atmospheric loose
structures, keyed to a penetrable, reciprocal flow of events.
This inclination might be further characterized as the deposit of an
omni-spatialist metaphysics that will manifest at a later date as a personal
and private inner art. In other words the creation of future cyber artists.
Back to index
Beeren, W. and Serota, N. eds. 1988. Fontana. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum
Crispolti, E. 1974. Lucio Fontana Vol. II. Catalogue Raisonné. Brussels: La Connaissances
Fontana, L. 1977. Lucio Fontana, 1899-1968, a Retrospective. New York:
Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundations
Fontana, L. 1987. Lucio Fontana: Centre Georges Pompidou,
Musee National d'Art Moderne. Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou
Henri, A. 1974. Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance.
New York: Oxford University Press
Palazzoli, D. 1967. "Lucio Fontana Interview" in Bit, no.5, Milan
Trini, T. 1988. "The Last Interview given by Fontana (July 19, 1968)" In
Beeren, W. and Serota, N. eds. 1988. Fontana. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum
Van der Mark, J. and Crispolti, E. 1974. Lucio Fontana: Volume 1. Brussels: