Lucio Fontana: On The Threshold
At the Met Breuer until April 14, 2019
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future
At the Guggenheim until April 23, 2019
On a brief (call it a micro) trip to New York, I was able to squeeze in two deliriously good exhibits. It was an exhilarating day of art viewing that left me inspired and nourished.
The first show I visited was Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold at the Met Breuer. Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) was an Argentine-Italian artist well known for his radical Cuts series — slashed paintings that disrupted the notion of painting. This is a rare sighting of the artist in a US institution as it is his first exhibit in over forty years.
Working in chronological order, the show begins with Fontana’s earliest works which are sculptures. Milena Milani from 1952 is one of the glazed ceramic busts on display that shows Fontana’s nimble use of the medium with edges morphing from sharp to dull and back again in one fluid gesture. The rough hewn quality of the sculpture gives it a seemingly casual edge laced with immediacy — as if it was created in one brief and spontaneous sitting. In an earlier bust dating from 1940, Portrait of Teresita, the artist draws from a multitude of diverse sources such as Byzantine mosaics and Art Deco. The piece exudes a delightfully campy and decorative aesthetic, in my opinion the standout of his early career and the entire exhibition.
Progressing from sculpture to painting, Fontana begins his foray into the medium around the age of 51. Having moved back to Italy from Argentina after WWII, he began experimenting with abstract, monochrome paintings. In these early compositions the artist begins to puncture the surface with slight holes and add bits of colored Murano glass as seen in Spatial Concept (Concetto Spaziale) from 1955. Still dabbling in the decorative with his use of glass, the work is layered with texture from the myriad of holes punctuating the surface, rough application of paint and the embedding of sharp, jewel-like glass. The work radiates a celestial aura as if Fontana already knew what the surface of the moon resembled eleven years before the first pictures of it emerged and ingrained in our cultural psyche.
Moving beyond these gloriously blighted surfaces, Fontana begins to pare down his paintings by solely slicing the surface to revel in the Void and all of its existential meaning. In the show, two neon hued paintings hanging side by side are eye catchingly bizarre. Both entitled Spatial Concept, The End of God and dated 1963 and 1964 have been aptly compared to Easter eggs with shotgun holes riddling the surface.
Like Fontana, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) did wildly unprecedented things to painting. Sadly unknown and excluded from the narrow, male centric and, may I say, at times ignorant canon of art history, the Guggenheim is righting the wrong with the first major solo show in the United States of af Klint.
This comprehensive survey of the Swedish artist is staggering and breathtaking upon first encounter. The Ten Largest are a series of paintings nearly 10 feet tall by 8 feet wide that begin the show and set the stage for a revelatory experience. Created in 1907, The Ten Largest depict the cycles of life from childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age in rhythmic abstraction with swirling arabesques and undulating orbs. Gradually ascending from pastels to bold, vibrant hues then descending to paler, whiter colors our eyes are on a journey through the beginning to the end of existence, and it is one extraordinary trip.
Spiritualism and, in particular, Theosophy cannot go unmentioned when discussing the artist’s oeuvre. Participating in seances with four women friends – calling themselves The Five – they communed with spirits. One “guide” instructed af Klint to design a circular temple and create a series of paintings for this holy structure. Known as The Paintings for the Temple, the artist went into creative overdrive painting 193 works between 1906 and 1915. Af Klint integrated a vast array of symbols, languages, and forms in all of the pictures that seem random but it is her way of synthesizing her unique codification of the world.
By 1915, the series culminates into the last three paintings titled the Altarpieces which denotes their location in her mythical temple. In No. 1 Altarpiece (Altarbild) a large triangle built of rainbow colored segments points to a golden sun that rises above illuminating all below it. Imagine how otherworldly and mesmerizing it would have been to be gazing up at this celestial body of work.
Though never getting her chance to build her own temple, it seems providential that she finally got exhibited in Frank Lloyd Wright’s circular monument to Modern art. Perhaps we weren’t ready for Hilma af Klint until now, and, as the title attests, these truly are paintings for the future.