Just when I thought the next show to open at an American museum could only be a survey of Tommy Hilfiger’s toenail clippers, this happens. Lucio Fontana has come back to Manhattan.

This is a welcome return – and a long-awaited one. Fontana first saw New York in the early ’60s, when Martha Jackson invited him to display his “Venices” – a suite of works painted in homage to the city. New York stunned him with its skyscrapers – especially the recently-constructed Seagram building – and its electric, modern pulse. He went so far as to declare it more beautiful than Venice. And so it is only appropriate that now, nearly forty years after Fontana’s death, the collections of Peggy and Solomon Guggenheim – in Venice and New York, respectively – have collaborated to honor him in the two cities that inspired some of his strongest work.

This show is required viewing, if anything arty ever was. So you can imagine my surprise at just how soft-pedaled Lucio Fontana: Venice/ New York has been by its host. The Guggenheim is double-booked, with Fontana playing not so much second fiddle as viola to the marquee attraction, a survey of Spanish painters from El Greco to Picasso that spreads languidly along that famous white spool of a gallery. Tucked up and away in the fourth floor Mapplethorpe and Thannhauser rooms, the Fontana show’s entrance sits just behind my favorite quirk of the museum’s design: one of those ladies’ rooms placed at bottlenecks in the floor plan, as if intended to crowd the corridors as much as possible. Persevere, (or cheat, and take the elevator) and you’ll find ample reward in this encounter with a mid-century great.

The show opens conventionally enough: a photo of the artist at work, collected preparatory sketches, the names of corporate sponsors duly silk-screened on the wall. A meaty chunk of text is there, too, full of well-worded aperçus to arm yourself with before entering, lest you have too raw and unmediated a run-in with the art itself.

And I’ll be frank: just getting the works on the walls makes the show a success. Too many museums have succumbed to putting on “blockbusters:” curatorial shell games that re-arrange popular works and slap on a veneer of fresh critical perspective, like so much whitewash. But this is not the Met’s “Monet: Water Lilies XVI.” This exhibition is critical because you will not see this art again – it is the first major Fontana show since the Solomon Guggenheim’s retrospective in 1977. Fontana should be, by rights, a household name. I chalk up the fact that he isn’t to the extraordinary proportion of his best work that is held in private hands – as I scoured the labels, scarcely a single major museum’s name was to be found.

The exhibition is grouped thematically. There are the “Venices,” those works that first brought Fontana to New York: paint sculpted into bas-relief by his fingers, canvas studded with shards of Murano glass. He knew Venice – the sumptuous elegance of its glory years, the golden mystery of its Byzantine roots. But these works are abstractions, thematic tours-de-force – thrillingly, they explode Venetian kitsch.

There are the ‘concetti spaziali,’ the iconic, lacerated canvases for which he is famous. Fontana was a painter for the age: faced with his century’s changing concept of man’s place in the cosmos, he became fixated on questions of space. In 1949, he left traditional perspective behind when he began to puncture his canvas. By the mid ‘50s, he had moved painting out, onto another plane, actually slicing the canvas –now recognized as his trademark gesture. Fontana remained adamant that these were not acts of destruction, as so many critics wanted to label them, but creative, imaginative leaps beyond the confines of the two-dimensional.

And then there are the “New Yorks,” great carved and slashed metal sheets. Here, they are clustered in deep blue alcove, and lit so their reflections mingle on the gallery floor. Standing among them, I immediately understood what Fontana saw in the city: the entrancing aloofness of our buildings, the play of abstract light and form in this wholly modern environment.

I first saw this show at its opening in Venice, six months ago – the night a scene out of the wet dreams of Louise J. Esterhazy (or, perhaps even more seedily, John Berendt). I had spent all day sick in bed, but pulled myself together in time, and I arrived in the splendid full bloom of fever. There was a line by the gallery entrance that night, too – but they were guests waiting to be admitted, one by one, as if into a sanctuary – and it coiled out through that great Venetian space, the garden of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where Peggy Guggenheim lies buried. And the moment I walked into the Mapplethorpe gallery last week, I knew her museum had outdone Solomon’s.

That night in June, every room had been covered floor to ceiling – the entire wing transformed into a catacomb of midnight blue. Spare, intense lighting made the works loom, supernatural. The setting seemed out of space and time – which I can only imagine Fontana would have appreciated. People lowered their voices to whispers, instinctively, stunned by the totemic presence of the art. This is the work one expects from famously sharp curator Luca Massimo Barbero (who, admittedly, is better known in certain precincts of Cannareggio for his breathtaking little moues). And it’s the sort of majesty lacking in New York.

The curating here couldn’t be farther from Venice’s interpretation: intrigue and mystery have been swapped for an atmosphere-killing one-two combination of clinical white walls and flood lighting. The works lie on the autopsy table, or as if under interrogation lights, forced to give up their secrets. The only time the New York show begins to approach Venice is in the alcove housing the brassy “New Yorks” – but it feels like too little, too late. In the end, I can’t help but feel that only the Peggy G. really put its heart into the effort.

And as I left I couldn’t help but linger over the final painting, “The Sky of Venice,” and be moved for a moment, nostalgic for those last days of unironic high art, proud and still unbroken. Fontana stood by red-blooded, go-for-broke Modernism until the end, dying just as art as he knew it began to get turned inside out. There is a wonderful purity to his work, and, for all his worldliness, an innocence.

Ultimately, this show is not bad, of course – in the sense that nothing a museum of this caliber puts on is ever really bad. It just feels perfunctory. I’m dissatisfied at the potential squandered here, having seen how this art can enchant, when given the chance.