ASPEN - Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, says the museum's current exhibition of works by Lucio Fontana is a look into the future. The exhibition is representative of what the museum will be able to do when it moves into its new building and new location, a relocation scheduled for 2014.
"It's a glimpse into the diversity of programming, that will include modernism, when we will have state of the art galleries, a physical environment that we don't have here," Zuckerman Jacobson said from her office in the current museum building.
Barbara Bloemink, executive director of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, says the Fontana exhibition is vividly of-the-moment. "They look like they were just made, like the artist just the minute before, stepped away from them," she said.
The pieces are, in fact, from the past. Fontana, who was born in Argentina and spent most of his working life in Italy, lived from 1899 to 1968. Even in the context of Fontana's life, the work is old: The exhibition, titled Lucio Fontana: Ceramics, centers around the artist's clay sculptures, most of them dating from the 1940s and early '50s. That predates the Concetto spaziale paintings - works which feature holes or slashes through the canvas - for which Fontana is best known.
For the Aspen Art Museum, this practically counts as ancient history. From its beginnings, the museum has been devoted to contemporary art. Under Zuckerman Jacobson, who has headed the institution for seven years, the emphasis on being au courant has been heightened, with shows that are starkly contemporary. Often, the museum's mission seems to be not about what is happening in the art world at the moment, but what is about to happen; Zuckerman Jacobson has a track record locating artists who are in the early stages of stardom.
The Aspen Art Museum and Anderson Ranch will co-host a panel discussion on the exhibit Saturday, Aug. 4 at Anderson Ranch. The discussion, at 4 p.m., will feature Zuckerman Jacobson and several artists - Kathy Butterly, Charles Long and Katy Schimert - whose work is oriented toward sculpture. Bloemink will give an introduction to the discussion.
The Fontana exhibition, which shows through Oct. 7, marks a break with the recent past. While the museum under Zuckerman Jacobson has included a few handfuls of older pieces in its exhibitions, this is the first to focus on a deceased artist - the first to offer a concentrated look into the past.
But the show also fits the museum's mission to be on the leading edge. (The museum's promotional materials state in part that the organization presents "the newest, most important evolutions in international contemporary art.") For one thing, it is the first American museum show to focus on Fontana's ceramic work and should fill in the profile of a pioneering artist of the mid-20th century.
"I think it will prove to be a historically significant show," Zuckerman Jacobson said. She told of a prominent collector who came into the museum while the show was being installed, and had no knowledge of Fontana's ceramic sculpture. "I think there are going to be a lot of 'A-ha!' moments with the exhibition," she added.
The show also makes sense in a museum devoted to contemporary art because of the nature of the work. Lucio Fontana: Ceramics spotlights work from just after World War II, and into that new reality Fontana introduced a new kind of art - an integration of abstraction and representation, the treatment of ceramics as modernist sculpture, and clay pieces that left the artist's touch visible on the finished product.
"Most sculptors who were ceramists molded figures. But these are not molded or cut with tools - they're done with fingers," Bloemink said. "They look like they've just this second broken out of the abstract form. I'm astonished at how contemporary they look. The two crucifixions - they are absolutely as contemporary as anything I've ever seen. They're transformative works."
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The pieces strike a perfect meeting between abstract and representation. When I glimpsed "Battaglia," a piece from 1947, my first thought was that it was reminiscent of a war scene. But I had no trust in the reaction until I looked closer and longer. Even then, I needed to look from various angles to confirm that Fontana had depicted a battle. It was a similar experience with his sculptures of dolphins and the crucifixion - it took a while to convince your mind to trust your eye. That blurring gives the work a sense of life.
"They're not immediately visible, what they are. They're on the edge of being, of becoming," Bloemink said. "You're rewarded taking a longer look. They become more interesting the more you look at them. You can't just scan the clay to understand it. You have to look."
And a look at the entire exhibition rewards the viewer with some grasp of the full Fontana picture. At the back of the exhibition is "Red Three Slash," an example of his slash paintings; it is a red color field interrupted by three clean, nearly parallel slashes. Zuckerman Jacobson is intrigued by the progression from the ceramic work to the Concetto spaziale - spatial concept - paintings.
"It gives so much insight into Fontana's work," she said of the ceramics. "It looks like he did early models of slash paintings in ceramic, to test the gesture. And the paintings have always been about abstraction. But the ceramics, while they may appear abstract, every one of them in our show is figurative and narrative."
"He always thought of himself as a sculptor," Bloemink said. "Even the paintings are about space, about dimensionality. So our view of Fontana is not fully represented by the paintings."
While the slash paintings were a new way of making art, the current exhibition demonstrates that Fontana was on the cutting edge even before he took a knife to canvas. The show features a pair of Christ figures that won't remind viewers of what they have seen before.
"Is it innovative to make religious objects in the 1930s? No. But to make them expressive and personal and abstract? Definitely," Zuckerman Jacobson said. "Particularly at a time when artists were talking about social realism, economic struggles, the struggle over political ideology. It was definitely outside the mainstream to be making this work. It might even have been seen as regressive. But with the advantage of time, we see how progressive it is."
"They remind me of early Jackson Pollock paintings, which were about expression and emotion, not just composition and modernist organic forms," Bloemink added. "They feel like pure expression, a real passionate art-making. It's like he attacked the clay with his hands. And certainly the slashed or punctured paintings are violent, even if very quiet."
Bringing Anderson Ranch into the picture deepens the exploration of Fontana. Anderson Ranch was built in good part on sculptors who worked in ceramic, including the late Aspenite Paul Soldner, a Ranch co-founder and a pioneer in clay.
"This is an acknowledgment of their history, their commitment to ceramics," Zuckerman Jacobson said of the collaboration.
Ceramics are also having their moment on the cutting edge. On a visit to Manhattan's gallery-rich Chelsea neighborhood two years ago, Zuckerman Jacobson saw a trend that was impossible to overlook. Clay, generally associated with functional vessels, was everywhere.
"Clay was never part of the vernacular - up until this time. Then boom, there it is, the zeitgeist," she said. "Here it was in all these avant-garde galleries."
If Fontana were still around, Bloemink says he would have fit right in at the Ranch.
"If he were still alive, we would definitely ask him to teach here," she said.