His slashed paintings of the 1950s remain one of the 20th century’s most influential bodies of artwork, but the unveiling of an almost forgotten series of Lucio Fontana’s earlier work in Milan could change the way the late Italian artist is perceived in the future.
In 1949, Fontana came up with an experimental ‘environment’, the first in a series of 15 Ambienti Spaziali (‘Spatial Environments’): labyrinths of light, installations that filled rooms and corridors. Exhibited at the Galleria del Naviglio in 1949, ‘Ambiente spaziale a luce nera’ centred on an organic shape, lit with neon in the centre of a dark room.
Created for specific spaces, all of the environments except one were deliberately destroyed as soon as an exhibition ended – conserving them was largely dismissed, since they were regarded as having no market value. Much of the documentation was also buried, meaning these works are little-known today, and Fontana’s status as the first installation artist has never been truly recognised.
In collaboration with Fondazione Lucio Fontana, art historian Marina Pugliese, art conservationist Barbara Ferriani and artistic director Vicente Todolí have rebuilt five of Fontana’s pioneering works of this ‘lost’ period for the first time, at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan. These are shown alongside a further four environments (and two additional installations which bookend the exhibition) that were loosely reconstructed in an ad hoc manner in 1972 for Fontana’s retrospective at Palazzo Reale, four years after his death in 1968.
Installation view of Fonti di energia, soffitto al neon per ‘Italia 61’, a Torino, 1961/2017, at Pirelli HangarBicocca. Courtesy of Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana. Photography: Agostino Osio
It is, therefore, the first time all of these environments have been presented together as one comprehensive cosmos of Fontana. Pugliese and Ferriani have gone to great lengths to ensure every detail of the environments – their original colours, lights and textures – have been adhered to, recreating the structures as they were then in a precise and accurate way. ‘If you change one element, it’s like changing the syntax,’ says Pugliese, who curated the exhibition after four years of research.
‘[It was] an entire piece of history that was lost,’ she continues. When Fontana produced his first environment installation in 1949, Pugliese says, it was ‘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’. However, she adds, Fontana was too far ahead of his time.
The artist wanted to create a second environment for the Venice Biennale, but his proposals were rejected twice in the 1950s, when there was no understanding of installation or environment art. It was only in 1960, 11 years later, that Fontana was able to realise a second installation at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. By this time, installation art had been co-opted by his American peers as the next big thing – a fact, Pugliese explains, that angered the Italian.
Created around the time Fontana founded the Spatialism movement, these neon-lit, rainbow-coloured and transcendental environments are undoubtedly his most engaging works. Thanks to this new research, they are now reproducible for posterity. ‘This,’ says Pugliese, ‘is a huge gift to Milan and the history of art.’