Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), 1948–49. Darkened rectangular room, ceiling painted white, panelled walls, 10 papier-mâché elements painted in fluorescent colors, and 6 wood lamps, 576 x 275 x 670 cm. Photo: Stefano Spinelli, © Fondazione Lucio Fontana by SIAE 2020

A Conversation with Luca Massimo Barbero on Lucio Fontana

“Lucio Fontana. Walking the Space: Spatial Environments, 1948–1968,” which opened on February 13 at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles (the gallery is closed until further notice), is the first comprehensive presentation in the U.S. of the late Italian master’s groundbreaking Ambienti spaziali (Spatial Environments). Curated by Luca Massimo Barbero in collaboration with the Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan, this landmark exhibition highlights Fontana’s critical contribution to the evolution of conceptual art and the confluence of art with science and technology as a means to explore aspects of human perceptual experience. What follows is a conversation with Barbero.

Sculpture magazine: Tell us about the genesis of Fontana’s Ambienti spaziali.
Luca Massimo Barbero: It’s actually the first time the Ambienti have been presented as a continuous idea of Fontana, which usually the public relates to the 1950s or to the cuts or the more monochrome works. We relate them back to the 1930s. Fontana is in his late 40s, about 47, and he’s back from Argentina. After the drama of the Second World War, Fontana is trying to find a new way of sculpting. I think the main fact is that Fontana is a sculptor. He was already famous in the 1930s, when he was called the most revolutionary sculptor in Italy, and now he returns from Argentina, where he edited the Manifesto Blanco in 1945–46 with a group of young students that he was leading at the Academia Altamira. The result is that, after 1946, in Europe particularly, there’s a new aim of changing painting and sculpture. Most go toward Picasso, a neo-Cubism and new objects, while in the United States there’s Jackson Pollock and the birth of the new painting around ’46. The world has a new air. Fontana goes a little bit further in two ways: first, he starts naming the paintings and sculptures concetto spaziale, introducing the word concept. Which is very important, because now the object can be a painting or a sculpture that represents an idea, but the main goal is the new idea, which is spatial. And the second point is how he can completely change the work of art. He writes in the Manifesto Blanco that they don’t want to destroy sculpture and painting, they want to put them all together to create a fourth dimension. In ’47 and ’48, which is also the moment when the current exhibition in Los Angeles starts, Fontana is inventing two ways of creating a new work. First of all is the hole: he’s punching through the canvas, not to destroy it but to add a new dimension to the canvas. At the same time, it’s been a couple of years that he’s been working on the Ambienti, and through this he is seeing that he doesn’t need an object, or only an object, to draw the viewer into the space. The central point about the Ambienti is that Fontana really wanted to bring the person in, not just as a frontal viewer but as an element of his space, and that’s how the environments were born. He was pushing to create new spaces and give the viewer a new experience. It’s different from the environments of the Futurists or of Kurt Schwitters, which were architectural or Dada, because Fontana is introducing the main element—which is not just architecture, three dimensions, color—but also the idea of technology and, mainly, light.

Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment), 1968/2020. View of installation at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2020. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, © Fondazione Lucio Fontana by SIAE 2020, Courtesy Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milano and Hauser & Wirth

Sculpture: Was he aware of the Dada works?
LMB: Yes, of course. He was in Paris in the 1920s and showed works with Abstraction-Création in Paris in the 1930s, when everyone was there—Mondrian, Calder, Arp. That’s where he met Le Corbusier. So, he was already oriented toward a more rationalistic kind of thinking, even in Italy in the 1920s and ’30s, when almost everyone else was figurative. But he was also very instinctive, kind of like a radar, picking up the best of all the avant-gardes, and I think the dynamism and belief in technology of the Futurists influenced him through the 1940s, not as a style, not as a painter, not as a sculptor, but the idea of the manifesto, the vitality, the utopianism—the Futurists wanted to reconstruct the world. He brought it back to a more contemporary idea and used newer technologies.

Sculpture: There’s a photograph of Fontana in the rubble of a house or studio just after the war. Was there any sense of the aftermath of the war influencing his turn to space?
LMB: It’s definitely like that. His generation actually went through the First World War while very young. In the 1920s and ’30s, they talked about a new kind of work, which was about destroying the avant-gardes, in a way, and throughout that tie and part of the ’40s they were completely classic and more figurative. The French would call it rappel a l’ordre, a call back to order. So, I think the war brought a new kind of energy that put man in a new dimension; it was a post-atomic world, with discoveries in science, so people no longer felt like the center of the universe. I think the Renaissance ends with the Second World War: man starts to fly, and the atomic discoveries made him understand that the world is wider than his sphere and that he is not the only power. Look what happened in architecture in the U.S. and Europe: it starts to be influenced by space, it’s really futuristic. After the war, it was a kind of rebirth for somebody who was in his 40s and had all the knowledge and the know-how of the real avant-garde but also understood that the world would be different; he called it the post-atomic world, the Atomic Era. The sense of discovery. When he was talking about the Ambiente nero in ’49, he said that for us it’s a discovery of a new space, a new subject, which is abstract, which is the cosmos.

Fontana considered himself kind of a realist but also an abstract painter; he said he was really discovering a new subject, which is the cosmos and space. He was very aware of what was happening in TV research from the 1930s on. We’re showing a little drawing from 1948, I think, that says, “I’m going to build an Ambiente, an environment, but what’s going to happen is that that space will be broadcast through TV.” Consider the fact that in Italy we started our first TV broadcast in 1954; Fontana was writing the manifesto for TV in 1952, and he did a lost, experimental TV broadcast as an artwork in 1952, so he was pioneering this as a not-so-commercial art. That’s important. The 1949 Ambiente was in a very important gallery in Milan, which eventually showed Jackson Pollock first in Europe, in 1950, thanks to Peggy Guggenheim. Fontana was showing spaces, forms, and the press said that Fontana touched the moon—there was not even a little sculpture to sell, no painting hanging on the wall to sell, he was just doing something ephemeral, but it would be an experience that would last forever.

Ambiente spaziale a luce rossa (Spatial Environment in Red Light), 1967/2020. View of installation at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2020. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, © Fondazione Lucio Fontana by SIAE 2020, Courtesy Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milano and Hauser & Wirth

Sculpture: Are there other art historical precedents for this work?
LMB: In the 1920s you have all the Neoclassicism, like Theo van Doesburg, the Dutch experience with building architectural spaces, and then of course the main one is Schwitters. There is also an installation of Surrealist drawings done by Duchamp, which he wrapped with a rope so you couldn’t really get into the space. There has always been the idea of space in architecture, and I think it comes back from the 14th century, when the relation between painting, sculpture, and architecture is central. But I think that Fontana does it in a new way. He’s not just doing a container, he’s not putting things in a space; he is the one who transforms it in a very ambiguous way. Sometimes people misunderstand the Ambienti: they are ephemeral, they don’t last, so people think maybe they are theatrical. I think it’s beyond that: he really wanted to build, for a short moment, an experience. That’s why we like them now—we like the idea that the work can be experienced, not just watched or looked at. I think that’s the point that relates Fontana to so many contemporary artists. He really pioneered the idea of experiencing a work that is not just a sculpture or a painting or a sensation. And it was really free, because it was not commercial, not for sale, and the Ambienti were not to be repeated. And from the beginning the public talked about not being a visitor but a performer: you just walk into this space and you feel you are performing a part in a different space, a kind of hyper-world. When you think about what’s happening at the time of the 1948-49 installation, Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), Abstract Expressionists were still selling paintings and sculptures. Of course, Fontana also has paintings and objects, but I think the Ambienti are really something cutting edge for that date, because the market needed objects and something new, fresh, up-to-date, but Fontana breaks all the rules: first of all, piercing the canvases; second, he asked the galleries to have a show with nothing in it other than floating papier-mâché forms with incredible, acid colors. And considering the fact that it was in Europe, it was really a scandal, and of course the market didn’t respond, beyond some very enlightened collectors and museums. At the beginning it was pretty tough for him.

Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano (Neon Structure for the 9th Milan Triennale), 1951. White neon crystal tubes, 280 x 1200 x 1000 cm. Photo: © Fondazione Lucio Fontana by SIAE 2020, Courtesy Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milano

Sculpture: What was the critical response?
LMB: The nice thing was that the older critics, the establishment, didn’t even consider the Ambiente spaziale a luce nera to be a work of art, as always happens. None of the established critics in Italy or France wrote a single line on Fontana for years, but the young kids, the new generation, loved it. He was 50 when he did the first Ambiente, and the generation of people in their 20s adored him. Think about people like Piero Manzoni or Yves Klein, who discovered Fontana in the 1950s, and Zero Group—they all found in Fontana a crazy, intelligent, daring father. That’s why at the end of the ’50s he became a star to the new generation. But, on the other hand, architects understood Fontana very well and began to ask him to do collaborations. They understood the sense of no decoration but participating in the work, the space and walking the space. That’s why he was asked in 1951 to do the incredible neon light Ambiente for the Triennale di Milano, which is actually incredible because it was 118 meters of neon. It was key that, as a sculptor, he found a way to draw in space with light. And that’s why architects were interested in him for light installations. “When I’m drawing a line,” he said, “I’m always drawing a movement in space,” and that’s why he says the movement of a butterfly excites him more than anything else—it literally makes a sketch of light in space.

What we have in Fontana is a kind of naïve energy that knows that the Ambiente won’t last, and so it has to be fast, effective, and a short, intense experience, really relating with the person moving through the work. It’s always related to movement: there’s always a way in or a way out, and it’s a kind of performance space that you experiment in. He also put rubber or plastic or other soft materials on the floor in some of them, so you can’t move easily or you feel displaced, and there’s a couple of them with curves or carpets—it actually works on perception or the idea of the body being a little bit lost. Also, as a member of the war generation, Fontana knew that everything is ephemeral, that there are no temples: the Ambienti are like capsules for the future—he was dreaming the future, the unknown. It was the birth of the new era.