from 21 September 2017 to 25 February 2018 – Space: NAVATE
“Ambienti/Environments” is focused on Lucio Fontana’s pioneering work in the realm of installation art, with a selection of his seminal Ambienti spaziali—seen together for the first time—that highlights the farsighted, innovative genius of this twentieth-century master.
The Ambienti spaziali (“Spatial Environments”), rooms and corridors that the artist began to conceive and design in the late 1940s, were almost always destroyed once the exhibition was over; they are Fontana’s most experimental yet least-known works, due to their ephemeral nature. Some of the environments on view have been reconstructed for the first time since the artist’s death through the research of art historian Marina Pugliese and art conservator Barbara Ferriani, co-curators of the show, with the collaboration of Fondazione Lucio Fontana.
Visitors have the opportunity to experience and enjoy this less familiar part of Fontana’s oeuvre for the first time, in an unprecedented presentation that reveals their historical importance while conveying their contemporary nature and innovative power.
Lucio Fontana (Rosario, Argentina, 1899, – Varese, Italy, 1968) was one of the most influential Italian artists of the mid-twentieth century. Fontana dedicated his entire career to investigating the concepts of space, light, the void and the cosmos. His work radically transformed our conception of painting, sculpture, and space by transcending the two-dimensionality of the canvas, and foreshadowed many movements of the 1960s and 1970s, like Arte Povera, Conceptualism, Land Art and Environmental art. As the founder of Spatialism, an artistic movement that emerged in Italy in the late ’40s, Fontana notably did away with the distinction between painting and sculpture, with his famous slashes and holes in the canvas.
The exhibition is curated by art historian Marina Pugliese, conservator Barbara Ferriani and Vicente Todolí, Artistic Director of Pirelli HangarBicocca, and is accompanied by a catalogue, published by Mousse Publishing, that presents the most up-to-date international research into Fontana’s Ambienti, with an extensive selection of essays and images.
Location: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Artist: Lucio Fontana
Allestiment: curated by di Marina Pugliese, Barbara Ferriani and Vicente Todolí
Engineering: MOSAE srl
Team: Michele Maddalo, Alice Brugnerotto, Anna Colombo, Stefano Monaco
Photo: Agostino Osio
Courtesy: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano. ©Fondazione Lucio Fontana
Pictures in slideshow: from the exhibition
Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano, 1951
A luminous arabesque made of over 100 meters of neon tube, this work was designed for the 9th edition of the Milan Triennale, an international event dedicated to architecture and decorative arts. Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano (Neon Structure for the 9th Milan Triennale) was conceived to connect the entrance level with the first floor as an invitation to discovery, to the “new” and to the dialogue between art and architecture. Exhibited in the large monumental stairway below a “Giotto blue” ceiling, it integrated with the surrounding architectural space, reflecting its light and establishing a connection with visitors. Extending beyond the boundaries of traditional sculpture, the work created a relation between the object and the surrounding space, as the artist himself declared: «collaborating with the architects Baldessari and Grisotti (for the decorated ceiling), we substituted a new element that had entered to become part of the man off the street’s aesthetics, the neon».
The use of neon lighting in visual arts can be traced back to Argentine artist Gyula Kosice (1924–2016), among the first to use it in sculpture. Kosice and Fontana shared their artistic vision during recurrent encounters in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, nonetheless only Fontana foresaw the potential of neon to change a person’s perception of space, and used it for environmental works.
The 9th Triennale program included the “De Divina Proportione” panel discussion attended by outstanding personalities such as architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (1886–1965). Fontana had thus the opportunity to present his artistic research to an international audience, illustrating the Manifesto tecnico dello Spazialismo (Technical manifesto of Spatialism), in which he advocated the role of art as the fourth ideal dimension of architecture.
The reconstruction of the artwork at Pirelli HangarBicocca is based on the dimensions of the 1951 exhibition and includes the “Giotto blue” ceiling designed according to the color samples developed at the time by the architect Luciano Baldessari. The Museo del Novecento in Milan also displays a reconstruction of the work.
Ambiente spaziale a luce nera, 1948-1949
With this Spatial Environment (the first Lucio Fontana created), the artist applied the most innovative theories he had developed in his manifestos of Spatialism, published at the end of the 1940s. «Our intention is not to abolish the art of the past, however, nor to put a stop to life: we want painting to emerge from its frame and sculpture from its glass case. An expression of aerial art that lasts a minute, yet appears to last for a millennium, into eternity. To this end, using the resources put at our disposal by modern technologies, we shall produce in the sky: artificial shapes, miraculous rainbows, luminous writings».
Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light) was presented in 1949 as part of the artist’s solo show at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan, founded by the visionary Carlo Cardazzo (1908–1963). The exhibition lasted only six days and was a turning point in Fontana’s career, and would serve as a source of inspiration to artists for generations. The invitation to the show reproduced the words “black light illumination of art/light” on the cover, while several excerpts from the Manifiesto Blanco (White Manifesto)—the first theoretical text in which Fontana outlined, in 1946, the main themes of Spatialism—were quoted on the back. Developing around the end of the 1940s, this artistic current promoted overcoming traditional forms of art, with particular respect to the observers’ static perception. It also championed a vision of art closer to the present day and the technical-scientific progress—with reference to outer space discoveries—, as well as based on an all-encompassing perception of space, conceived as the sum of time, direction, sound and light.
The Galleria del Naviglio was completely darkened for the exhibition, and visitors accessed the space through a black curtain. Plunged into blackness, the gallery was illuminated by six Wood lights (ultraviolet light, also known as “black light,” invented by American physicist Robert Williams Wood at the beginning of the 1900s, and used in different scientific fields—from astronomy to dermatology, while at the center of the room were suspended biomorphic forms made up with papier-mâché painted with fluorescent colors ranging from yellow to violet, rose, and blue.
In this Spatial Environment Fontana merged together base characteristics of painting, sculpture and architecture in order to go beyond the very notion of these artistic languages and create a space visitors could walk through and experience. By the use of unconventional materials like Wood lights and fluorescent paints which altered the surrounding space, the sculptural object shed its static plastic form. Other essential characteristics of the work were the visitor’s perception and direct experience of the event. As the artist noted, «neither painting, nor sculpture, a luminous form in space—emotive liberty for the visitor».
The reconstruction of Ambiente spaziale a luce nera reproduces the dimensions of the work installed in Galleria del Naviglio, including the vaulted ceiling. The papier-mâché forms belong instead to the posthumous reconstruction of 1976 by the architect Andrea Franchi for the show “Europa America. L’astrazione determinata 1960–1976” at Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna and today part of Fondazione Lucio Fontana’s collection.
Ambiente spaziale: “Utopie”, nella XIII Triennale di Milano,
In 1964 Lucio Fontana was among the artists invited to exhibit at the 13th edition of the Milan Triennale. The guiding theme of the event was “leisure,” discerned as an expression of the transformations connected with the strong economic growth of Italy at the time. The introductory section, curated by the writer and semiologist Umberto Eco (1932–2016) and the architect Vittorio Gregotti (1927), contextualized this social phenomenon within multiple perspectives, ranging from optimistic visions to less hopeful reflections concerning the future. Along the Triennale’s monumental stairway were arranged eight corridors in the form of parallelepipeds that visitors could walk through. Assigned to various artists, each embodied a different interpretation of the four themes: Illusion, Integration, Technique, Utopia. The latter was entrusted to Lucio Fontana who realized two environments in collaboration with Nanda Vigo (1936), an architect and artist with whom he had already worked for his solo show in 1962.
The first Ambiente spaziale: “Utopie”, nella XIII Triennale di Milano (Spatial Environment: “Utopias”, at the 13th Milan Triennale) [64 A3] that Fontana devised for the Triennale had walls and ceiling covered with metallic red wallpaper, while “quadrionda” glass sheets were positioned in the two edges of the shorter side of the environment, filtering the red light produced by neon tubes. The undulating flooring was covered with a thick red carpet that originated a soft, continuous space. With its playful and sensorial character, this space recalls a search for perceptive offsetting effects that can be traced back to the optical-cinematic trends popular at that time, to which Vigo was particularly close. At the beginning of the 1960s, the French art current GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel) and the Italian Gruppo T (“T” stood for tempo, or time) had already created their first environmental works based on the study of Gestalt theories (an experimental school of psychology interested in perception’s mechanisms), as well as on image reception within the retina. The unbalancing effect provoked by the uneven flooring also recalled the investigations of bodily instability conducted by the Japanese group Gutai, born in 1954 and whose approach would anticipate the conceptual and performance art movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
The second Ambiente spaziale: “Utopie”, nella XIII Triennale di Milano (Spatial Environment: “Utopias”, at the 13th Milan Triennale) [64 A2] consisted of a corridor painted entirely black and with a curvilinear wall inside. This surface was marked by a series of holes that produced two waving lines, through which a green neon light shone: «So the space was all black—as Nanda Vigo recalls about the experience—and by entering into this “tube” you saw luminous holes that accompanied each visitor along the path, from the point of entry all the way to the exit». With this work, Fontana returned to the immersive nature of the dark space of Ambiente spaziale a luce nera from 1949, depriving it of sculptural forms and playing with ambiguity of perception between light sources and the movement of the sinuous surface of the wall. Ambiente spaziale [64 A3] shown at Pirelli HangarBicocca is the first reconstruction of the original artwork, and was realized with the collaboration of Nanda Vigo, who elaborated the executive project and selected the materials. Ambiente spaziale [64 A2] was reconstructed on several different occasions; for this exhibition it was decided to replicate the dimensions of the corridor consistently to the plans and projects provided by Vittorio Gregotti, as well as to several details found in historical photographs.
Ambiente spaziale, 1966
In 1966 an American institution hosted for the first time an extensive solo show dedicated to the work of Lucio Fontana. Titled “The Spatial Concept of Art,” it was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—at the time one of the most important museums active in promoting avant-garde art—and focused on Fontana’s spatial investigations. Thanks to the curator Jan Van der Marck (1929–2010), the artist presented to the American public his renowned “Cuts” and “Holes,” but also his more innovative work, producing a Spatial Environment for the occasion. Fontana initially conceived a new version of his 1949 Ambiente spaziale a luce nera, but the ultimate outcome (following substantial variations) was a work of its own. Since he couldn’t travel to the exhibition space himself, the work was installed by the architect Duane Thorbeck according to artist’s specific directions.
With this work, Fontana was intervening on the way a Spatial Environment was accessed, designing lowered, slightly inclined corridors that forced the visitor to bend over in order to enter the central space. The unsettling involvement visitors experienced was described by American critic Hilton Kramer (1928–2012) as follows: «One reached this environment through a short dark tunnel, and thereupon entered a room almost but not quite totally dark. One’s feet sunk not unpleasantly into a foam rubber floor. Tiny lights, defining a regular rectangle along the floor, walls and ceiling, created the curious illusion of a wall where, in fact there was only empty space. Groping one’s way through this nocturnal environment, in which nothing was quite what it seemed to the eye, one exited by crouching once again through a dark tunnel, to emerge in the clear light of another gallery».
As for the Spatial Environment of 1949, Fontana designed a dark, immersive space in which the visitor had to deal with the impact of void and an almost tactile sensation of light, as for example along the walls, where holes through which the green neon light filtered were perceived by visitors as painted fluorescent dots. In the darkness, two-dimensionality and threedimensionality melded, disorienting visitors, whose sense of balance became precarious and unstable due to the effects of the rubber flooring.
Ambiente spaziale is being reconstructed for the first time ever in Pirelli HangarBicocca, and faithfully reproduced according to the dimensions and materials based on documentation from the Walker Art Center archives in Minneapolis.
Ambiente spaziale, 1967
Following the American exhibition of 1966, the next year “The Spatial Concept of Art” travelled to Europe under the title “Lucio Fontana, Concetti spaziali” (Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concepts). Inaugurated at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the show then travelled to the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. For that occasion, in addition to exhibiting a series of paintings, sculptures and the Manifiesto Blanco, Fontana conceived three environments distinguished by the use of color: Ambiente spaziale, Ambiente spaziale con neon, and Ambiente spaziale a luce rossa.
For Fontana Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment) [67 A2] was an ideal reconstruction of his 1949 work Ambiente spaziale a luce nera. After the “Utopie” corridor shown at the 13th Triennale in Milan, and the Ambiente spaziale he realized in 1966 for the Walker Art Center, both of which were centred on a black, empty space, in 1967 the artist introduced once again a suspended sculptural element, while changing its form. He made a thin wood cutout that recalled his “Teatrini” (Miniature Theaters), a series of artworks Fontana created shortly earlier with a vaguely pop aesthetic. Outlined like a comma and painted black with fluorescent white borders, the shape extended horizontally across the entire length of the room, as if it was floating in space. This unsettling effect was enhanced by a series of fluorescent white points painted along the walls and on the ceiling of the Spatial Environment, which appeared like a constellation.
Ambiente spaziale con neon, 1967
With Ambiente spaziale con neon (Spatial Environment with Neon Light) [67 A5], an artwork with an essential, minimalist appearance, Fontana conceived a room covered with rose-cyclamencolored cloth, illuminated by a curvilinear red neon light hung from the ceiling. Once again the neon was a key element—just as for Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano —to highlight the characteristics of the surrounding space. By employing colored textile materials as cladding for the walls and ceiling the light perception would also be a tactile experience. The neon light—that Fontana had been using since the 1950s—become an innovative media for modifying the perception of the space, thus anticipating neon light works by Dan Flavin (1933–1996) and the abstract geometrical works of François Morellet (1926–2016).
L’Ambiente spaziale a luce rossa, 1967
Ambiente spaziale a luce rossa (Spatial Environment in Red Light) [67 A6] was modeled as a labyrinthine space. Two red neon lights that emphasized the coloring of the entire environment were positioned at the entrance and exit of a path composed of five red walls that articulated the environment. The narrow corridors originated a disorienting effect due to the immersive nature of a space at once empty and narrow, restricted and single-colored, highlighting the function of the visitor as an inherent component of the artwork. In following years, the corridor as a structural element of environmental works—designed to control the visitor’s body and movement— would become essential to the work of American artist Bruce Nauman (1941) as well.
For “Ambienti/Environments,” these three Spatial Environments have been reconstructed for the first time since the artist passed away. The historical photographs and plans of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam made it possible to faithfully rebuild, in terms of dimensions and materials, the Ambiente spaziale and the Ambiente spaziale con neon. The reconstruction of the Ambiente spaziale a luce rossa relies instead on the version realized for the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven.
Ambiente spaziale in Documenta 4, a Kassel, 1968
Invited by art historian and curator Arnold Bode (1900–1977) to participate in documenta 4, Lucio Fontana created a new environment. In 1968 the international exhibition in Kassel was characterized by the presence of American artists who presented artworks connected to Pop Art, Minimal Art and environmental art.
Following the Ambiente spaziale presented at the Venice Biennale in 1966—an oval, completely white space with five monochromatic canvases marked by a vertical cut (Concetto spaziale, Attesa; Spatial Concept, Expectation), realized in collaboration with the architect Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978)—for the Ambiente spaziale in Documenta 4, a Kassel (Spatial Environment at Documenta 4, in Kassel) the artist worked once again with the subtraction of elements. The result was a white, maze-like space that led to a “cut,” as a review of the time notes: «Another formulation of silence is produced by the space created by Fontana. Through a maze of corridors and corners, painted with a white color as vibrant as the sun, visitors suddenly arrive in front of a black cut in the wall, the only sign left behind by the artist». Visitors, therefore, were provided a total perceptive and immersive experience.
Ambiente spaziale, 1967
In 1967 Fontana participated in the group show “Lo spazio dell’immagine” at Palazzo Trinci in Foligno, Italy. Organized by Roman artist Gino Marotta (1935–2012) and Lanfranco Radi (1932–2006), an architect and secretary general of the event, the exhibition gathered various different Italian artists from recent generations who were conducting environmental and spatial researches. Artworks ranged from kinetic art to pop aesthetics by Gino Marotta and Pino Pascali (1935–1968), as well as experimentations by Michelangelo Pistoletto (1933), one of the first exponents of Arte Povera (an artistic movement born that same year), and were presented within a broader international context. As Italian art critic Tommaso Trini wrote in his essay for the magazine Domus, «At Palazzo Trinci, the artists found themselves experimenting not only with an environment—a sculptural spatial problem—but also with an atmosphere, a relatively exciting operational situation… It became the artist’s space: a space in which to experience a collective effort of immediate, active exchange; a space where artists who no longer make individual art can finally put an end to working alone».
Within this context, the presence of Fontana with Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment) represented a recognition of his investigations into space and the Spatial Environments, highlighting the anticipatory and seminal role they played in environmental art. For the occasion, despite his initial idea of presenting a reconstruction of the Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (1949) with a sculptural element suspended at its center, as he had already done at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam earlier that year, Fontana conceived a stand-alone work that activated a dialogue with the other works on display. The artist based the piece on perceptive instability, abandoning the sculptural presence and reproducing several of the optical elements of the Spatial Environment presented in 1966 for the retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Using Wood lights to illuminate a wall decoration made of touches of fluorescent color, Fontana traced diagonal trajectories that confused visitors’ perception and at the same time he created misleading visual effects by combining colors and light.
Fonti di energia, soffitto al neon per “Italia 61”, a Torino, 1961
This environmental intervention was originally realized for the “Fonti di Energia” pavilion inside the International Work Expo held in Turin for the centennial of Italian Unification, hosted in the Palazzo del Lavoro, designed by Pier Luigi Nervi (1891–1979) and Antonio Nervi (1925–1979).
Fonti di energia, soffitto al neon per “Italia 61,” a Torino (Energy Sources, Neon Ceiling for “Italia 61,” in Turin) presented in the pavilion by the same name inside the main building and commissioned from the artist by Milanese architects GPA Monti (Gianemilio, Piero and Anna Monti), was inspired to the themes of the event and connected to the synthesis of technical progress and development of energy sources over the preceding one hundred years. According to Anna Monti, Fontana’s approach was connected to the context of discoveries in the field of aerospace made during those years: «During our first encounter he spoke about human spaceflights that had taken place in those days, of that “nightmarishly black sky,” that the astronaut had seen».
The work consisted of a luminous structure constructed using blue and green neon tubes that were hung and arranged on seven different levels following convergent and divergent diagonal lines inside an octagonal-shaped room whose walls were covered with a reflecting metal foil. Although this luminous interweaving appeared geometrical and linear, the space filled with light seemed amplified and the distinction between volume and surface vanished. Four neon lights positioned at the entrance to the room acted as a luminous threshold, inviting visitors to walk through the environment, as the art historian Guido Ballo (1914– 2010) underlined: «the space dilates in keeping with the various colored lights, as soon as the visitor (who is always involved in this open form) moves and changes his or her point of view». The artwork led visitors to direct their gazes upwards and contemplate the almost-blinding effect of light in the surrounding space.
Fonti di energia, soffitto al neon per “Italia 61,” a Torino reconstruction is based on the 1961 dimensions provided from the historical plans by GPA Monti architects. It was decided not to rebuild the complex structure of the Turin pavilion, but rather to present the room that hosted the neon light ceiling, as the architects Luciano Baldessari and Zita Mosca did in 1972 for the “Lucio Fontana” retrospective held at Palazzo Reale in Milan.