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Like the Surrealists, the Futurists and many others who preceded him, the Italian-Argentinian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) was an energetic maker of manifestos about his art. One of these, composed on the subject of Spatialism – a movement which Fontana founded towards the end of the 1940s – currently blazes down from the walls of the Estorick Collection. It is devoting two galleries to a selection of Fontana works – paintings, drawings, ceramics, clothing and fashion designs – that are usually locked away in private collections.

What was Spatialism about? Like Futurism, it was concerned with art in motion, with art as a manifestation of pure energy that would engage with, and somehow come to represent, notions of space and time. Spatialism was a kind of mould-breaking, anti- illusionistic art that managed to synthesise art and science – having, along the way, turned its back on figuration and representation – while subsuming radio, television and even neon light into its ever-thirsting vortex.

This sounds headily ambitious – and also somewhat difficult to get to grips with. The works on the Estorick’s walls often look not so much like finished pieces as experiments towards an art in the making. They look provisional and made at speed, as if moving towards a destination that may not yet be quite visible. There are fussy drawings here that look like scientific diagrams – bisected circles and spheres, complete with furiously busy annotations. Fontana is working out what it is he is about to do, and how it differs from what has been done before. In short, he is one of the forerunners of conceptualism.

Fontana’s most eyecatching decision, from first to last, involved acts of violence to the surface of the canvas. He would slash it; he would punch or skewer holes in it. Many of the works here show evidence of such joyous mutilation. This gesture meant several things simultaneously. It had to do with pure gesture – he wished to draw attention to the fact that his act of making had involved physical action, in time. The picture space was not some dead surface that was pretending to look like something else. When we examine the cut in “Spatial Concept – Tear” (1955), for example, we see through to the cross- weave of the canvas itself. We become aware of what it is made from – which draws our attention to the fact that the finished work is a piece of pure artifice.

What is more, this act of wounding has a metaphysical dimension, too. Fontana is inviting us to explore the idea of the space beyond and behind the canvas, to see it as an opening on to a wider world. The act of physical violation also hints at criminality – which, once again, represents a break with any idea of the sacredness of the art object. At the same time, Fontana’s limited palette – blacks, greys, whites in various combinations predominate – suggests a certain high-flown intellectual rigour.

The forms he makes, however, are crude – lumpish drawings and paintings of ovoids that look as if gobbets of matter have been flung at the canvas. Indeed, like the sculptor Carl Andre, Fontana is something of a matterist: he does not want to disguise his materials in any way, to pretend they are something they are not. This is most evident in some of his small clay works, which writhe and twist about with such furious energy, lumpishly gesticulating.

In his manifestos, Fontana expresses himself in language that is barely clearer than mud. Yet if the theory was opaque, Fontana’s rigorous, uncompromising practice helped clear the way for the time-based artists, gestural painters and conceptualists who came after him.

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