Lucio Fontana + The Gothic
May 4 through June 11, 2022
By DONALD KUSPIT, June 2022
In a brilliant feat of exhibition creativity, Robilant+Voena presents, side by side, but at odds—but the exhibition proposes that they are not at odds aesthetically, spiritually, conceptually—several so-called “slash” and “puncture” paintings, along with some of his “plate paintings,” by the great, seriously original avant-garde Italian painter Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), and three great Italian Gothic painters, Taddeo di Bartolo (1362-1422), Jacopo di Cione (1325-1390), and Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452). As art historians note, Gothic painting was eclipsed, regarded as retardataire, with the development of Giotto’s naturalism, with its somewhat more expressive, limber, animated figures, ostensibly more life-like than the somewhat more stiff, stylized, emotionally remote figures in Italian Gothic painting. But then the figures in Bicci di Lorenzo’s The Massacre of the Innocents, 1430-40?, on display in the exhibition, are hardly emotionally inert, however fixed in place, but the larger point of the picture is that they stand on a golden ground. The same flat golden ground fills the space in one of the two Spatial Concept, Waiting, 1960 works by Fontana, the other one with a pure white ground, both equally luminous, confrontational, insistently present. One might say that Fontana is regressing from—dismissing—Renaissance naturalistic representation to medieval spiritual abstraction—from a humanistic art to a transcendental art. As scholars have emphasized, Italian Gothic Painting was strongly influenced by Byzantine Painting, which was explicitly religious. The two-dimensionality—flatness—of Byzantine figures made their spirituality—otherworldliness—clear, for this-worldly figures, such as Giotto’s, are three-dimensional. It seems clear that the emphatic flatness—two-dimensionality --of Fontana’s paintings, and above all their luminous gold and light-filled white, is meant to signal their spiritual character. Gold, traditionally regarded as the most precious metal, is a symbol of the sun, for it flashes like light, indeed, embodies light. “The backgrounds of Byzantine icons are gilded as a reflection of heavenly light,”(1) suggesting that Fontana’s gold painting is a sacred icon, and his pure white painting is an “embodiment” of heavenly light.
Fontana’s “slash” and “puncture” paintings—or as they have also been called his “stabbed” canvases--suggest that “pure” abstract painting is not so pure, not so spiritual, not so sublime, but informed by aggression, by impure instinct, implicit in the “expressive gesture” of the slash or puncture—the saber cut that leaves its indelible scar on the face of the painting, that perversely cuts a hole in it that suggests its inner emptiness. A destructive act that mars the smooth surface of the painting, an “impure act” that subverts the notion of “pure art” in the act of making it, Fontana’s “wounded” paintings epitomize T. W. Adorno’s idea of negative dialectic, an absurd dialectic in which opposites remain permanently at odds and simplistically given rather than seamlessly integrated to form a complex new whole. Fontana’s slash and puncture paintings epitomize the avant-garde idea of “creative destruction” and provide what Baudelaire called the “sensation of the new.” Fontana has been called a performance artist--slashing, puncturing, stabbing a painting is a performance, the flat painting becoming a stage on which Fontana acts out his aggressive feelings--suggesting a certain theatrical character to his paintings. Their violence seems to mock the idea of what the critic Michael Fried calls absorption however self-absorbed, self-sufficient, hermetically sealed they seem by reason of their resolute flatness. Or the slash, puncture, stab may be a sign of what Adorno calls the “shudder” of subjectivity that their smooth surface seems to deny—a disruptive expressive breakthrough in an otherwise inexpressive surface, or, as I sometimes think, airholes in an airless surface. They rupture the painting, form an unhealable wound in the painting, or, if one wants, a permanent scar in its purity, a flaw in its perfection.
Ironically, the violence of Fontana’s slashes and punctures humanize and personalize what is otherwise a dehumanized and impersonal abstract painting. And they are what connect his paintings to the Gothic paintings, two of which explicitly deal with violence, the violence done to Christ in Apollonio di Giovanni’s depiction of him crucified, the violence done to the Innocents in Bicci di Lorenzo’s depiction of their massacre. The figure in the central panel of the Demidoff Triptych is the archangel Michael, “the great captain, the leader of the heavenly hosts, the warrior helping the children of Israel.” He is usually shown with a sword; in the Demidoff panel his right arm is poised to thrust a spear into the damned, while his left hand holds a pair of scales to weigh the souls of the dead. The crucified Christ, his body pierced by a spear, the way the body of Fontana’s painting is pierced by a knife, appears on a ground of gold, the way the pierce in Fontana’s painting appears on a ground of gold. The archangel Michael also appears on a ground of gold, the spear he holds like a slash or gash in it. And the figures being massacred in di Lorenzo’s painting—the soldier attacking the infant is about to slash him with a knife—stand on a gold ground. In all three paintings gold, a symbol of the everlasting light of God, of eternity by reason of its durability, is contrasted with death, symbolized by the skull and bones and cross in di Giovanni’s painting, the knife in di Lorenzo’s painting, the spear in the central panel of the Demidoff painting. If heavenly gold is a symbol of salvation, and the murderous weapons are a symbol of hell on earth, then Fontana’s gold symbolizes heaven and the cut in it symbolizes death—a hellish kind of death, for in hell one is tortured forever. Thus heaven and hell appear together, paradoxically implicated in each other, as they do in the Gothic masterpieces.
Fontana’s expressionistic Deposition, 1955, an ingenious gestural masterpiece—the cross is mounted on what seems to be a figure in flight, as the two legs that support the amorphous figure, the hint of a profile emerging from its fluid shape suggests—suggests his long-standing concern with Christianity. If the Deposition is a figurative expressionist religious painting, then the golden Concetto Spaziale, 1960 is an abstract expressionist religious painting. Fontana made these abstract religious paintings—avant-garde religious paintings which distill the essence of traditional figurative religious paintings, for abstraction at its most convincing essentializes what is existentially fundamental rather than abandons or denies it—from 1958 to 1968, the last decade of his life. It is said that nothing concentrates the mind like the thought of death, suggesting that the slashes and punctures that rupture and mar and wound the smooth, golden, seemingly impenetrable and impervious surface of Fontana’s painting are intimations of death, cryptic signs of its intrusiveness, casting doubt on the gold, emblematic of eternal life, of the saving grace of God, without denying its possibility, for the gold is indisputably there.
I suggest that Fontana became a serious Christian at the end of his life, that the slash in Concetto Spaziale alludes, however obliquely, to the Lance of Longinus, the Spear of Destiny, the Holy Spear “that pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross during his crucifixion,” knowing he would die. I suggest that the heavenly gold that fills the space of Fontana’s abstraction signifies Jesus’ resurrection as Christ. “O death, where is thy sting?” Saint Paul wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. The slash in Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale is its sting, but the slash is covered with—absorbed by—the gold, which transforms it into the purified body of the resurrected Christ—a sort of disembodied body, a spiritualized body. If Kandinsky’s paintings are the first Christian abstractions, as scholars have suggested, noting the eschatological import of many of them, and above all the “spiritual experience” he said he had whenever he entered a Russian Church or a Catholic Chapel—it has been said that the Blue Rider is Kandinsky as St. George eager to do battle with the dragon of materialism—then Fontana’s eschatological paintings are the last Christian abstractions. WM
(1) Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London: Penguin, 1996), 439
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author