A Slash of Genius

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With varying degrees of success, photographers and filmmakers have sniffed for clues about the nature of the creative process by trying to catch painters in the act of making art. For his 1950 documentary, Visit to Picasso, Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts asked the Spanish master to apply his magical brushstrokes to large glass plates as Haesaerts filmed from the other side. Around the same time, Hans Namuth was photographing Jackson Pollock from all angles as the American artist dripped, splashed and poured paint onto canvas.

Fifteen years later, Milan photographer Ugo Mulas had something similar in mind when he asked his friend Lucio Fontana, famous for slashing through large monochrome canvases, for a chance to record his unusual technique for posterity. The resulting six-photo series is presented alongside a major exhibition of the artist's work now at Verona's Palazzo Forti. We see the elegantly-dressed Fontana approaching a solid white canvas, a Stanley utility knife gripped tightly in his right hand. In successive shots, we see him with his arm raised and the blade about to pierce the center of the pristine surface; in a whirlwind of motion finishing off the single top-to-bottom slash of the canvas with his knife; and finally, standing by the completed work-a 1.5-m-by-1.5-m white canvas with an enormous gash in it-looking at the camera with a chilling glare of satisfaction.

Though powerful, the photo series was staged. The finished work seen in the last picture had been completed several weeks earlier, and an identical canvas used in the preceding prints was never actually punctured. Fontana told Mulas the best he could do was simulate his slashing process for the camera. A real work, he told his photographer pal, almost always came in an unexpected instant after days or weeks of eyeing and pondering a painted surface. The moment of inspiration is a deeply mysterious thing, but visitors to the Verona show "Baroque Metaphors," on through March 9, will feel the artist's creative stabbings even though they escaped photographic investigation. The Attese (Waiting) series of slashed canvases still convey the full force of Fontana's unusual technique.

Born in Argentina to an Italian sculptor father in 1899, Fontana was a decidedly intellectual artist, who published several manifestos to explain the ideas behind his work. He was most concerned with space-and how to overcome its preconceived limits. Before ever piercing a canvas, he produced ceramic sculptures so jagged and indented that it's difficult to know where the base of a piece finishes and its twisted, figurative elements begin. The 1947 series entitled Way of the Cross, with its elaborate, twisted, gold-painted forms, is the most obvious connection to the Baroque alluded to in the show's title. Soon after, Fontana began to puncture holes in painted canvases. While an apparent act of rebellion, the stabs were really just a logical outgrowth of his quest to blur the lines between sculpture and painting, and open up new dimensions for each. The principal objective was to cleverly occupy, divide and utilize space rather than to represent the world. In a technique he called "Spatial Concept," Fontana blended small, round holes with a variety of substances and glued objects-including thick paint, glitter, colored stones and sand-to draw the viewer's eyes in a controlled swirl of fanciful symmetry while almost surreptitiously adding third and fourth dimensions. His large, egg-shaped works from the La Fine di Dio (The End of God) series of 1963-64, where a uniform surface is entirely pocked with deep gashes, could just as well be considered sculpture as painting.

By the time Fontana died in 1968, the initial snickering (particularly from the New York art world) that his work was gimmicky had largely been replaced by admiration for his genius. His slashes still have the power to open up an entirely new perspective on painting.

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