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Notes on Lucio Fontana

Visiting a recent exhibition presenting the seminal Italian-Argentinian Lucio Fontana at the prominent Galería Helga de Alvear in Madrid, prompts a whirlwild of thought to the fore on the artist's legacy for contributor Alexander Hughes. "The more I contemplated Fontana’s show, the more I realized what the team at Helga de Alvear had on display were works showing Fontana grappling fiercely with his aesthetic demons.", writes Hughes.


Installation view, Lucio Fontana, Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid


My first reaction to the Lucio Fontana show at Galeria Helga de Alvear was disappointment. I had been excited about what the acclaimed Madrileña gallery would show us of the iconic Italian-Argentinian artist. I left perplexed and disillusioned, assuming that they were trying to move a second-rate collection to make a buck off the artist’s name. But later I thought, maybe not. Could it be that our modern gaze does not fully appreciate Fontana’s works, at first glance? I slowly came to question if what we saw may – regarded in a certain light – actually be considered some of Fontana’s finest works: those sincerely grappling with the boundaries of the the media of both painting and sculpture; with colors; with the canvas; with the infinite, and of course, with space itself, literally and metaphysically. Galeria Helga de Alvear presented two salons of Fontana works, including sculptures that hang flat on the wall (even describing them so unambiguously evokes the question of whether to call them sculptures or paintings), several small ceramics, some traditional-style abstract paintings, and a number of smaller, abstract sculptures.


Installation view, Lucio Fontana, Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid


The most palatable, and perhaps accessible, were Fontana’s flat, wall-hanging sculptures, many punctured, where the artist combines his skills as a sculptor with the (now) classic hallmarks of Spazialismo, playing overtly with the frontier between canvas and sculpture. The several ceramics on display were similarly pleasant, but struck me as boring, as if they could have been from a West Elm catalog. I wondered if Fontana was trying to bridge classic sculpture with modern forms, in a way evoking something like William Spratling’s marriage of pre-Colombian art with modern jewelry. I dismissed the idea; it seemed too vague

The smaller sculptures on display were a mix of abstract figurative works and the plainly abstract, with intriguing, but not necessarily pleasing, use of colors. Several others looked like mounds of crystalline dirt. And not in a reductive commentary on sculpture, but literally like mounds of dirt. My initial reaction to the show was that it was cliche, financially opportunistic, or both; trickling in a few sculpture-like works that, on the surface, highlight the artist's most famous themes, with a few others that might sell for his name. But something kept nagging at me – particularly something about those ceramics. Perhaps to our modern gaze they looked boring, a now-common, bland, style, but that to think so was to underappreciate Fontana’s boldness in his time? Were the works in fact so profound that they had come to define the canon so meaningfully, that his forms, shapes, and styles were so appealing and inspiring as to now strike us as banal?


Installation view, Lucio Fontana, Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid


The more I contemplated Fontana’s show, the more I realized what the team at Helga de Alvear had on display were works showing Fontana grappling fiercely with his aesthetic demons. He sets aside traditional notions of beauty, color, and form, and fights with space, with the media, with light, and with our fundamental concepts of art and beauty. Those ceramics are indeed the fusion of traditional form and the modern, scientific ideas that inspired Fontana; the dirt-like sculptures are indeed the result of aggressively questioning traditional notions of sculpture and the foundations of the media. While the works may not have been the most classically aesthetic of the artist’s oeuvre, they allow us to speak to the past to more intimately understand Fontana’s artistic pursuit, and perhaps to learn a humbling lesson about the arduous artistic process required to create profound, seminal works.


Alexander Hughes is an entrepreneur, technologist, and investor. He studied Early American and European Intellectual History at Brown University.



Note: The recent Lucio Fontana exhibition at Galería Helga de Alvear in Madrid was on view September 8 - November 19

www.helgadealvear.com



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