Ideas are not scorned, they germinate in society and are then expressed by philosophers and artists
(from the Manifesto Blanco, Buenos Aires, 1946)
Lucio Fontana was born in Rosario in the Santa Fé region of Argentina on 19th February 1899. His Italian father, Luigi, who had lived in Argentina for ten years, was a sculptor, and his mother, Lucia Bottino, also of Italian origin, was a theatre actress. When he was six years old, he went with his father to Milan to attend school. By 1910 he had already begun his artist’s apprenticeship in his father’s workshop. He later enrolled in a school for Master Builders, before leaving to enlist as a volunteer in the First World War. Wounded, and discharged with a silver medal for military bravery, he took up his studies again and obtained his diploma. In 1921, he returned to Argentina, and began working as a sculptor in his father’s workshop in Rosario. He later opened his own studio in the same city. Between 1925 and 1927, he won several competitions, and produced, amongst other things, the monument to Juana Blanco.
He returned to Milan in 1928 to enrol in the 1st course at the Brera Academy as a student of Adolf Wildt. At the end of the year, he was moved up to the fourth level. In the meantime, he took part in exhibitions and competitions in Italy, Spain and Argentina. In 1930 he met Teresita Rasini, whom he was later to marry. Moving freely between figurative and abstract, his sculpture in terracotta and clay, with and without colour, gradually acquired greater freedom and individuality. During these crucial years for his artistic development, he gained increasing recognition from leading critics including Argan, Belli, Persico and Morosini and took part in the Milan Triennial, the Venice Biennial and the Rome Quadrennial. He also held several exhibitions at the Milione Gallery and began working in ceramics, first at Albisola and then in 1937 at the Sèvres Factory, where he completed several small sculptures which he exhibited and sold in Paris. By this time he was working closely with avant-garde architects. In early 1940 he settled in Buenos Aires and worked feverishly, winning numerous sculpture competitions. Professor of sculpture at the School of Fine Arts, in 1946 he got together with others to set up a private art school called the Academy of Altamira, which was to become an important centre for the promotion of culture. It was here that, in constant contact with young artists and intellectuals, he formulated his theories on artistic research, which would lead to the publication of the Manifesto Blanco.
On returning to Milan in April 1947, Fontana founded the Movimento spaziale (Spatial Movement) and, together with other artists and intellectuals, published the Primo Manifesto dello Spazialismo (First Manifesto of Spatialism). He went back to working as a ceramist in Albisola and resumed his collaboration with architects. The following year saw the publication of the Secondo Manifesto dello Spazialismo (Second Manifesto of Spatialism). In 1949 he exhibited L’ambiente spaziale a luce nera (The spatial environment in black light) at the Naviglio Gallery, which sparked both enthusiasm and outcry. In the same year, he came up with his most original invention when, perhaps inspired by his origins as a sculptor and in search of a third dimension, he produced his first paintings in which he perforated the canvasses. In 1950 he published the Terzo manifesto spaziale. Proposta per un regolamento (Third Spatial Manifesto. A Proposal for Regulation). In 1951, at the Ninth Triennial, where he was the first person to use neon as an art form, he wrote his Manifesto tecnico dello Spazialismo (Technical Manifesto of Spatialism). In 1952 he took part in a competition for the Fifth Door of the Cathedral of Milan and was joint winner with Minguzzi. In the same year, he and other artists signed the Manifesto del Movimento Spaziale per la Televisione (Manifesto of the Spatial Movement for Television), and he exhibited his completed spatial works at the Naviglio Gallery in Milan. Again prompting both enthusiasm and shock, Fontana was no longer limiting himself to making holes in canvasses, but was also painting them and applying colours, inks, pastels, collages, sequins and fragments of glass. By now he had gained international acclaim. In 1957, a series of works on linen paper featured not only the holes and graffiti but also the first hints of the cuts which would be fully expressed the following year. These included canvasses with a number of coloured cuts to monochrome canvasses entitled Concetto spaziale (Spatial Concept) and Attesa (Wait). He took part in numerous exhibitions and international displays and his work was purchased by museums, galleries and the most respected collectors. A man of enormous generosity, Fontana was always ready to help young artists even when he lacked the material means. He encouraged them, bought their works and gave them his own, even though he knew they would usually be sold straight away. During those years, as well as making iron sculptures on stems, Fontana made a series of works in terracotta, known as Nature, spherical shapes with wide lacerations and gashes. He also continued to produce large and small format ceramics and collaborated with eminent architects on “environnement” works entitled Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment) in which he used light as an innovative element with a technique later to be adopted by other artists. In the sixties, Fontana devoted his attention to a series of oval oil paintings, all in the same format, monochrome and perforated with numerous holes and slashes, and sometimes sprinkled with sequins, called Fine di Dio (The End of God). He returned to the same subject in 1967 with a series of ellipses on lacquered wood with brilliant colours, unique works created to his design. Between 1964 and 1966 he invented Teatrini: frames made of modelled and lacquered wood containing monochrome perforated canvasses. He did not, however, abandon the “cuts”, which he continued to use until the end of his life. In 1966, the international jury of the 33rd Venice Biennial awarded him first prize for painting for his white room, featuring white canvasses each with a single vertical slash. After leaving Milan and moving back to the old farmhouse he had had restored in Comabbio, his family’s town of origin, he died on 7th September 1968. The presence of Fontana’s works in the permanent collections of more than a hundred museums worldwide further testifies to the importance of his art.