Born in 1899 in Santa Fe, Argentina, to Italian immigrant parents, Lucio Fontana spent there his early years but was sent to Italy in 1905. He always considered himself Italian. He started working as a sculptor with his father, Luigi Fontana, and then on his own. Already in 1926, he participated in the first exhibition of Nexus, a group of young Argentine artists.
Fontana studied alongside Fausto Melotti under the sculptor Adolfo Wildt at Accademia di Brera in Milan from 1928 to 1930. It was there he presented his first exhibition in 1930, organized by the Milan art gallery Il Milione. During the following decade, he traveled to Italy and France, working with abstract and expressionist painters. In 1935 he joined the association Abstraction-Création in Paris and, from 1936 to 1949, made expressionist sculptures in ceramic and bronze. In 1939, he joined the Corrente, a Milan group of expressionist artists.
In 1940 he returned to Argentina. In Buenos Aires (1946), he founded the Altamira Academy and published the White Manifesto, where he began to formulate the theories that he was to expand as Spazialismo, or Spatialism, in five manifestos from 1947 to 1952. Upon his return from Argentina in 1947, he supported, along with writers and philosophers, the first manifesto of spatialism (Spazialismo). Fontana had found his studio and works completely destroyed in the Allied bombings of Milan but soon resumed his ceramics works in Albisola, a little town on the coast near Genova. In Milan, he collaborated with noted Milanese architects to decorate several new buildings that were part of the effort to reconstruct the city after the war.
Following his return to Italy in 1948, Fontana exhibited his first Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (‘Spatial environment’) (1949) at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan. From 1949 on, he started the so-called Spatial Concept or slash series, consisting of holes or slashes on the surface of monochrome paintings, drawing a sign of what he named “an art for the Space Age.” He devised the generic title Concetto spaziale (‘spatial concept’) for these works and used it for almost all his later paintings. These can be divided into broad categories: the Buchi (‘holes), beginning in 1949, and the Tagli (‘slashes’), which he instituted in the mid-1950s.
Fontana often lined the reverse of his canvases with black gauze so that the darkness would shimmer behind the open cuts and create a mysterious sense of illusion and depth. He then created an elaborate neon ceiling called “Luce spaziale” in 1951 for the Triennale in Milan. In his important series of Concetto spaziale, La Fine di Dio (1963–64), Fontana uses the egg shape. With his Pietre (stones) series, begun in 1952, Fontana fused the sculptural with a painting by encrusting the surfaces of his canvases with heavy impasto and colored glass. In his Buchi (holes) cycle, begun in 1949–50, he punctured the surface of his canvases, breaking the membrane of two-dimensionality in order to highlight the space behind the picture. In 1959 Fontana exhibited cut-off paintings with multiple combinable elements (he named the sets quanta) and began Nature, a series of sculptures made by cutting a gash across a sphere of terracotta clay, which he subsequently cast in bronze.
Fontana engaged in many collaborative projects with the most important architects of the day, in particular with Luciano Baldessari, who shared and supported his research for Spatial Light – Structure in Neon (1951) at the 9th Triennale and, among other things, commissioned him to design the ceiling of the cinema in the Sidercomit Pavilion at the 21st Milan Fair in 1953.
In 1961 Fontana participated in a group exhibition along with artists Jean Dubuffet, Mark Rothko, Sam Francis, and others. For the show entitled “Art and Contemplation,” held at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, he created a series of 22 works dedicated to the lagoon city. He manipulated the paint with his fingers and various instruments to make furrows, sometimes including scattered fragments of Murano Glass. Fontana was subsequently invited by Michel Tapié to exhibit the works at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. As a consequence of his first visit to New York in 1961, he created a series of metal works, done between 1961 and 1965, consisting of large sheets of shiny copper, pierced and gouged, cut through by dramatic vertical gestures that recall the force of New York construction and the metal and glass of the buildings.
Among Fontana’s last works are a series of Teatrini (‘little theatres’), in which he returned to an essentially flat idiom by using backcloths enclosed within wings resembling a frame.
In the last years of his career, Fontana became increasingly interested in the staging of his work in the many exhibitions that honored him worldwide, as well as in the idea of purity achieved in his last white canvases. These concerns were prominent at the 1966 Venice Biennale, for which he designed the environment for his work. At Documenta IV in Kassel in 1968, he positioned a large plaster slash as the center of a totally white labyrinth, including ceiling and floor (Ambiente spaziale bianco).
Shortly before his death, he was present at the “Destruction Art, Destroy to Create” demonstration at the Finch College Museum of New York. Then he left his home in Milano and went to Comabbio (in the province of Varese, Italy), his family’s mother town, where he died in 1968.
Considered today one of the most important Italian artists of the 20th century, Fontana has dominated the art market in the last years, with his works reaching record prices at auction. In 2015 one of his “Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio” sold at Christie’s New York for 29.1 million dollars.