BUENOS AIRES –– Lucio Fontana isn't all that well known in Argentina despite being Argentine, which is itself a little-known fact. The late great 20th-century artist is generally cited as being Italian, where he did much of his work.
Still, Argentina has every right to claim Fontana as its own. The innovator who anticipated installation art was born in Rosario in 1899, moved to Italy shortly thereafter, but returned to Argentina while still just a boy, remaining here throughout his childhood. He also lived in Argentina for stints as an adult.
Decades later, Argentina's National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires (MNBA) is housing a special exhibition on the work of Fontana, a leading proponent of the Arte Povera movement that focused on making art with ordinary objects. The show opened April 28 and runs until July 30.
Fontana's best known works are perhaps the ripped canvases or "slash series" (tagli) that illustrated his bid to break with dominant art cannons and de-emphasize the art object in favor of its space. The space in question here and in the earlier "holes series" (buchi), in which canvases were punctured, is just behind or "inside" the canvas. The MNBA exhibition also emphasizes Fontana place as an Argentine artist, as a product of specific Argentine influences. In that sense, the show invites the public to explore the idea that "no one is a prophet in his own land," as the saying goes.
"He was a diverse artist," says Andrés Dupra, the director of the MNBA and co-curator of the show alongside Fernando Farina. The exhibition contains pieces from the MNBA's own Fontana collection along with items gathered from various museums throughout the country. They include plaster and bronze busts from his early years, and little clay figures perhaps similar to those Fontana frequently destroyed with his hands before pupils in the avant-guard Altamira school, which he co-founded in Buenos Aires in 1946.
Fontana's best known works are perhaps the ripped canvases or "slash series" — Photo: Lucio Fontana Facebook page
"These figurative works correspond to a period when Fontana had won some recognition locally," Fernando Farina explains. "In addition to the Grand Prize of the Salón Nacional, he won many provincial prizes. As such, several of his works entered public collections in the provinces."
Most of these works date back to the 1940s, when the artist returned to settle in Argentina after a decade in Italy. That was also when he collaborated on the so-called "White Manifesto," which was signed by his pupils but is universally accepted as being conceived by Fontana. The manifesto became the cornerstone of a vast production of texts in which the artist would express his tradition-breaking ideas. A fragment of the original text is included in the MNBA show.
"Fontana is a very curious artist," says Farina. "He had a very important trajectory. He developed his main ideas in Argentina, connected himself with avant guard groups and yet, is not given prominence in Argentina. We haven't appropriated him, strangely. If you go to the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, you'll see an entire room devoted to his work."
In the late 1940s, after several years in Buenos Aires, Fontana returned to in Italy where he began developing his "spatial concepts" (concetti spaziali), which explore various means of opening up, literally, space in his works. First he perforated the surface of canvases, while showing the stained or untouched backside of what should have been a picture. Then he began cutting finely-drawn slash lines, which in contrast with his perforations leave the canvas unperturbed, without signs of violence. With these lines the artist was cutting a path away from the artistic dichotomies imposed in the first half of the 20th century.
Fontana always remained close to Argentina and certain letters indicate the importance he gave to his years in Rosario. By the time of his death, in 1968, his work had featured in some of the world's most important exhibitions, including the Bienal de Sao Paulo, in Brazil. Declining health prevented him attending another important exhibition of his works at the Instituto Di Tella in Buenos Aires.
"That may have been final break that made us lose him," says Farina. Now, nearly 50 years after Fontana's death, maybe there's a change for Argentina to get its prodigal son back.