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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

At An Exhibition: The Burning Red

My visit to the works and world of Lucio Fontana.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(Yes, this is not a music review, but the first installment in a new series about visual art, called At an Exhibition.)
No way out: the claustrophobic, unsettling work of Lucio Fontana.
Photo taken at the Met Breuer by the author, who is still feeling the retinal effect.
Writing about the visual arts is not something that this blog is particularly known for. And yet, one of the perks of doing this blog is being able to accept an occasional invitation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to experience the opening of a new exhibit. This morning, your faithful correspondent put on two layers of clothes and sallied forth to see Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold, the new exhibit celebration work of the 20th century artist.

This is the first major retrospective of Fontana’s work in forty years in North America, jointly presented by the Met and El Museo del Barrio. Fontana, whose first work was as a sculptor in bronze and ceramics (his busts, ceramics and abstract works open the exhibit) became a painter late in life. He brought the three-dimensional force of that discipline to painting: first in watercolors on paper and then in oils. Still later, he hybridized the two disciplines, working on canvasses that were altered with a sharp knife, and  to create fields of color. Throughout his career, the artist violated the traditional surfaces and parameters, as well as the perceptions of his viewers.

Fontana’s mature method was as follows. He would paint a flat canvas, (often using ordinary house paint) usually with one color. He would then slash the canvas, sometimes once, sometimes in parallel lines (looking remarkably like the signature mark of the Marvel comics superhero Wolverine). Other works feature crazy surfaces, pocked with holes, wedges and stab marks. Some of these are monochrome in violent, artificial reds and blues, others are thick, oily impasto, swirling black eddies around embedded imitation gemstones that peer out next to the holes as of missed by some errant treasure hunter.

2019 Fondazione Lucio Fontana/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome
On most of the paintings in this exhibit,  the cuts were “healed” with black gauze on the back of the canvas, creating a negative space. In other cases, Fontana let the cuts show all the way through, revealing the void behind the artwork. This negative space drew the viewer in, allowing the play of light and shadow on the gallery wall behind the hung work to become part of the conversation.

The last works on the third floor of the exhibit is New York No. 10. These are not paintings per se but hung sheets of copper, gleaming under the intense white lights of the gallery. Deep slashing cuts run north-south in parallel, angry jagged lines, a change from the surgical cuts in the other canvasses. The light hitting the copper made the surface gleam and boil, throwing a spill of fiery light on the floor. Visitors wandered forward, seeking their own reflection, wading unwittingly into the  “flames” thrown by the light.

Just across was darkness, a room just off the gallery across from New York No. 10. This was a spatial experience first built for display in the city of Milan. This was an entirely black room lit only by two snakelike rows of green lights. Not too dim and not too bright, they shine through the darkness like  an endless infinite underground river. This immersing, unsettling environment echoed the impasto paintings seen earlier: Stygian darkness surrounded by a thick, unsettling river.

Upstairs on the fifth floor was a second environmental work: Spatial Environment in Red Light. A square structure stood in the center of the gallery, with a glowing slab of red light at one end. This proved the gate to,a kind of experimental hell. The work itself consisted of two red neon lights above the entrances to this structure. Inside, it was divided by high walls into a series of narrow, claustrophobic corridors. The solarizing effect of the light on one’s rods and cones was oppressive and disturbing, and after some time in the walk-through, one started to see the white walls as green, blue or anything but that invasive burning red.

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