Fontana Articulates Cyber-Space in 1947

by Joseph Nechvatal


Review: Lucio Fontana

Sperone Westwater

143 Greene Street

NY NY 10012

Tel 212 431 3685

Fax 212 941-1030



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: 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 Tecnico)

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 & Serota)

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 post-modern life.

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 total-artwork.

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 universal.

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.



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:

La Connaissances
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