Between Utopia and Kitsch
344 pp., 7 x 9 in, 101 b&w illus.
- Published: February 14, 2014
- Published: September 9, 2011
A new view of Fontana showing how the artist combined modernist aesthetics with outmoded forms of kitsch.
In 1961, a solo exhibition by Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana met with a scathing critical response from New York art critics. Fontana (1899–1968), well known in Europe for his series of slashed monochrome paintings, offered New York ten canvases slashed and punctured, thickly painted in luridly brilliant hues and embellished with chunks of colored glass. One critic described the work as “halfway between constructivism and costume jewelry,” unwittingly putting his finger on the contradiction at the heart of these paintings and much of Fontana's work: the cut canvases suggest avant-garde iconoclasm, but the glittery ornamentation evokes outmoded forms of kitsch. In Lucio Fontana, Anthony White examines a selection of the artist's work from the 1930s to the 1960s, arguing that Fontana attacked the idealism of twentieth-century art by marrying modernist aesthetics to industrialized mass culture, and attacked modernism's purity in a way that anticipated both pop art and postmodernism.
Fontana painted expressionist and abstract sculptures in the pinks and golds of mass-produced knick-knacks, saturated architectural installations with fluorescent paint and ultraviolet light, and encrusted candy-colored monochrome canvases with glitter. In doing so, White argues, he challenged Clement Greenberg's dictum that avant-garde and kitsch are diametrically opposed. Relating Fontana's art to the political and social context in which he worked, White shows how Fontana used the materials and techniques of mass culture to comment on the fate of the avant-garde under Italian fascism and the postwar “economic miracle.” At a time when Fontana's work is commanding record prices, this new interpretation of the work assures that it has unprecedented critical relevance.
In Anthony White's incisive account, Lucio Fontana emerges as the most significant Italian artist of the 20th century. He shows that Fontana grew increasingly radical with age and so was able to extend his project from the interwar years all the way to the 1960s. White's argument brings out with unprecedented clarity the artist's capacity to bridge such antithetical zones of sensibility as sublimity and kitsch, dematerialization and the body, and, perhaps most perplexing, fascist state ideology and irony.
Romy Golan, author of Muralnomad: The Paradox of Wall Painting, Europe 1927-1957
Anthony White's fascinating study of Lucio Fontana confirms the brilliantly eclectic artist to be not only one of the great figures of avant-garde Italy but of the modern period more generally. White shows us how, over the course of a career, Fontana mobilized the outmoded to challenge newness, kitsch to subvert elegance, and nostalgia to undermine complacency, overturning modern art's hierarchies and paving the way for a new understanding of radical art in the twentieth century.
Claire Gilman, curator, The Drawing Center
Anthony White's well-argued and intriguing book is informed by a close triangulation of historical insights, stylistic analysis, and theoretical speculation. White reveals Fontana's works—from the colored sculptures of the 1930s to the voids of the 1949 Spatial Environment and the famous holes and cuts of 1949 and 1958—in their artistic significance as well as their interaction with mass culture, politics, and society. The book offers a vivid portrait of Fontana as an artist who adheres to his belief in a new art that exists beyond the object yet never disparages the actual process of art-making. An outstanding contribution to twentieth-century artistic culture—developing a unique dialectic between the material and the immaterial components of artistic creationhere receives its due.
Gabriele Guercio, author of Art as Existence: The Artist's Monograph and Its Project
White provides a fresh interpretation of a man whose innovation and insurgency is now demanding greater recognition and record prices more than 40 years after his death.
This book is not only beautifully written, it is also superbly produced and lavishly illustrated, with colour images throughout. One further delightful twist lies beneath the book's dust jacket. The boards of the hardcover are like a mini-Fontana tribute—a white ground with pink and blue speckles.
The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art