Ambiente spaziale in Documenta 4, a Kassel, 1968. Photographic documentation of the artwork exhibited at documenta 4, Kassel, 1968. © documenta archiv/Werner Kohn.

Revisiting Lucio Fontana’s Ambienti Spaziali

“I am not interested in the kind of space you are talking about. Mine is a different dimension. The hole is this dimension.”

This week Cardi Gallery invites you to revisit Lucio Fontana’s fundamental, yet often forgotten “Ambienti Spaziali”, or “Spatial Environments”. These groundbreaking site- specific installations were the first of their kind. Greatly influencing following art movements such as the Zero Group and artists such as Yves Klein, they represent an essential art historical contribution to the medium of installation art and moreover constituted the birth of Fontana’s Spatialism.

Only a few have gained as much recognition for a singular gesture as Argentinian-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, who ranks amongst the most acclaimed European post-war artists. His monochrome paintings, known as “Concetto Spaziale”, or “Spatial Concepts” have without a doubt dictated our understanding of Fontana’s body of work. The idea behind these works represents a forceful interpretation of rebirth that stretches beyond their minimalistic presence. Unravelling the conceptual significations of Fontana’s slashed or punctured canvases reveals an artistic manifesto which originated as a result of the social and cultural ruptures as an effect of both World War I and World War II. The artist’s “Ambienti Spaziali”, or “Spatial Environments”, of the late 1940s have been recognised as the Fontana’s first post-war experimentations considering spatial elements such as space, light and movement.

Born in Argentina in 1899, Fontana relocated to Italy with his Italian parents in 1905, where he joined the military, like many Futurist artists at the time, to fight in the war. His time in the war made Fontana wary of the nascent fascist movement in Italy and in 1921 he returned to Argentina in an effort to escape the European political turmoil. During the 1930s and 1940s, Fontana emerged himself in the artistic training, mainly studying sculpture while spending these two decades between Argentina and Italy. Upon his definite return to Italy in 1948, Fontana found himself in a moment of total destruction of existing social and cultural ideals, following the Second World War. He returned to his studio in Milan which had been completely destroyed, and the artist recognised this moment as one of seminal significance that gave opportunity for an artistic rebirth.

Back in Argentina, Fontana had developed a fascination with creating a new form of artistic medium that could reflect the innovative developments in science and technology. Together with a group of young artists and academics from Buenos Aires, Fontana developed the “Manifiesto Blanco” in 1946, the first draft to declare his innovative artistic visions. It is at this moment that the definition of Spatialism takes form. Through a second draft of the manifesto “Primo Manifesto dello Spazialismo”, written a year later in 1947, Fontana concretised his radical propositions. Throughout his artistic career, Fontana continuously alluded all presently existing categories, seeking to explore a medium beyond sculpture and painting. The definition of Spatialism helped define the artist’s results of his so-called “spatial research”, which investigated the concept of an art medium that existed in active engagement with its spatial surrounding. Branding easel painting and sculpture as an antiquated art form, the artist sought to explore art in relation to physical space, new technology as well as contemporaneous scientific developments.

Lucio Fontana inside Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (1948-49) (Photo: © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan)

Reconstruction- Ambiente spaziale a luce nera, 1948-49/2017, by Lucio Fontana. Courtesy of Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana. Photography: Agostino Osio

In 1948, Fontana began developing his first “Ambiente Spaziale”, or “Spatial Environment” titled “Ambiente spaziale a luce nera” (1948-1949) for the occasion of the artist’s solo show at Milan gallery “Galleria del Naviglio“ in 1949. Art historian Marina Pugliese, one of the curators of the 2017 exhibition “Lucio Fontana Ambienti/Environments” at “Pirelli HangarBicocca”, a major reconstruction and documentation effort of Fontana’s “Ambienti spaziali”, described this moment in the artist’s career as: “the most experimental segment of his body of work and he knew it, he was aware he had made a huge discovery – that he had invented a new medium”. The artist’s exhibition at “Galleria del Naviglio“ exemplified a turning point in Fontana’s career and furthermore a pivotal revelation for his artistic colleagues and generations of artists to follow.

Fontana’s ideas of Spatialism during this time developed alongside his fascination for the new technological age. His re-evaluation of existing art forms exposed that at the dawn of these new scientific discoveries, the artistic mediums represented little meaning and reflection. This line of thought is embedded into Fontana’s understanding of the role of an artist, who according to him, should see themselves similar to a scientist, in continuous symbiosis with an ever-changing world that is compromised by elements of time, space and the vast darkness of the unknown. At “Galleria del Naviglio“ in 1949 for the first presentation of a spatial Fontana work, the exhibition space was transformed into a completely dark room. The visitors accessed the gallery through a black curtain and found themselves immediately plunged into the darkness where six ultraviolet lights illuminated a papier-mâché construction hanging from the ceiling.

Fontana’s diagram for the Technical Manifesto of Spatialism, 1951. Artwork: © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London

Lucio Fontana, Ambiente spaziale, 1967, Fluorescent colors and Wood’s light, Photo: Stedelijk Museum-Amsterdam, © Fondazione Lucio Fontana - Milan

Alongside Fontana’s interest in new scientific and technological discoveries, also grew with time, a strong allure with the developing exploration of space. In the late 1940s, the first images or reconstructions of the earth taken from space and captured by rocket scientists circulated through the mass media. Fontana, who was attentive to the exploration of physical space within the context of art, was at the time of his first experimentation with the “Ambienti Spaziali”, or “Spatial Environments” in continuous collaboration with architects. The extraordinary developments of space travel prompted him to embrace the spatial nature of his works fully and to create a completely realised allusion to the space as a cosmos, achieved through the utilisation of new technology. Following his realisation of the first “Ambiente Spaziale“, Fontana proposed a continuation of this series of new artistic medium at the 1950 Venice Biennale, as well as a year later in the US. However, as his propositions were met with disdain, his next “Ambiente Spaziale“ was only realised a decade later. Simultaneously, a significant element to the development of his new practice, emerged. The site-specific light tube installations began in 1951 with “Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano”, consisting of 100 neon light tubes, twisted into a large-scale structure floating underneath the ceiling. Today, reminiscent of the many preceding conceptual artists working with neon light installations such as Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman, Fontana’s light interventions were years ahead of their time.

Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano, 1951. Photographic documentation of the artwork exhibited at the 9th Milan Triennale, 1951.

Eleven years after Fontana’s first “Ambiente Spaziale“, the artist received an opportunity to exhibit two new environmental interventions at the 13th Edition of the Milan Triennale in 1964. In collaboration with architect and artist Nanda Vigo, Fontana constructed two separate site-specific works in response to the art festival’s theme of “leisure”, as a timely expression in the context of Italy’s flourishing economy at the time. Titling both Spatial Environments “Ambiente spaziale: “Utopie”, nella XIII Triennale di Milano” Fontana alluded to the creation of a utopian environment constructed through the illusions of space, light and movement. The visitors of the Triennale were guided through the first dark “Ambiente Spaziale“ by the traces of green lights flickering through punctured holes alongside the walls of the corridor. Arriving inside the second “Ambiente Spaziale“ the visitors entered a completely different environment entrenched in a deep ruby-coloured light reflecting off the metallic ruby-coloured wallpaper, intensified through the utilisation of neon lights and a soft red coloured carpet.

Lucio Fontana in collaboration with Nanda Vigo, Ambiente spaziale: “Utopie”, nella XIII Triennale di Milano, 1964. Photographic documentation of the artwork exhibited at the 13th Milan Triennale, 1964.

Meanwhile overseas in the US, the methodology of the term “Ambiente” or “Enviroment” became theorised through essays by Allan Kaprow, entering the decade of the 1960s, where spatial art became an established artistic trend. Fontana’s following “Ambienti Spaziali”, or “Spatial Environments”, are commissioned, for the first time, by the American art museum the “Walker Art Center” in Minneapolis, in 1966. Simply titled “Ambiente Spaziale” (1966) the work represented the artist’s first serious and comprehensive study in the context of the wider acknowledgement of the art community. Lucio Fontana created these environmental installations up until the year of his death in 1968. Following acclaimed presentations at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1967, the last “Ambiente Spaziale” was inaugurated at Documenta 4 in Kassel in 1968.

Due to the fact that the “Ambienti Spaziali”, or “Spatial Environments” were temporary installations, almost all but one, were destroyed after their exhibitions. Today, the nature of this series of works remains alive in their historical documentation and contemporary reconstruction, as seen in efforts such as in the 2017 “Ambienti/Environments” at Pirelli HangarBicocca in collaboration with the “Fondazione Lucio Fontana”. This factor may have also greatly contributed to the fact that they often remain unrecognised within Fontana’s iconic artistic legacy. Nevertheless, his landmark contribution to the evolution of installation, light and conceptual art continues to live on in the inherited understanding of Spatialism within the works of contemporary figures such as Yayoi Kusama, or James Turrell.

Ambiente spaziale con neon, 1967. Photographic documentation of the artwork presented at the exhibition “Lucio Fontana – Concetti spaziali,” Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1967. Photo: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Lucio Fontana, Venice Biennale XXXIII, 1966 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2014