Luciano Fabro: In Virtue of References
One evening in 1989, after dinner at a restaurant in Milan, I was taken by Luciano Fabro to his studio. The artist had been a curious and entertaining dinner companion. A short drive from the restaurant brought us to a quiet street lined with the kind of anonymous and self-effacing façades that are typical of Milan. Fabro’s studio was reached through a main entrance on the street and across a small inner courtyard surrounded by high white walls. Access to the inner sanctum of an artist one admires can give a privileged view of their working methods, in close proximity to tools and models: it can be an occasion for revelations and understanding. On this evening I was disappointed as we entered a pair of small rooms distinguished, at first sight, by an invasive harsh light and a sense of vacancy.
In one corner, however, lay a slab of lusciously veined, pale grey marble. The contours of finely carved drapery revealed the form of a male figure resembling a recumbent tomb effigy. The figure had no head: at the junction of the drapery and pillow the human form subsided, leaving nothing of substance beyond the body other than the imprint of a head on the marble pillow. Not content with leaving the impression of this strange act of disappearance to take root in the viewer’s imagination, Fabro had inscribed the work on opposite sides of the base: Io rappresento l’ingombro dell’oggetto nella vanità dell’ideologia (I represent the encumbrance of the object in the vanity of ideology, 1968 – 1973). 1 These lines seem to warn us against a direct transaction between image and idea, they create a block in the flow of references to sources, both living and dead, whether from classical art history, contemporary news pictures or from biblical scenes of death and resurrection. They call us to pause on the verge of iconographic analysis, for there is an encumbrance or obstruction, there is no solution. The obstruction is the material, obdurate and imposing; matter through which the artist has drawn attention to the opposite, non-matter, and thus, by implication, presence and absence. So the work briefly also titled Lo Spirato (The Expired One) (1974) is not so much an image of death as an image of the transformation of the body into something else; of the body into spirit, of matter into void, and of past into present.
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Fabro, likewise, is an intellectual who trusts in culture. … [The facts of the history of his time] have threatened his basic humanism, but Fabro continues to assert a space for art:
We were in nature, we felt safe there. And suddenly everything in nature became dangerous. Today it is difficult to say where nature begins or ends … we have holes in the atmosphere … We talk about Chernobyl, but these holes have been developing for much longer, and who knows, Chernobyl is nothing compared to what is happening in biology, Aids … that is so immense that everything begins to float. Now art is perhaps like a tiny dust particle which remains suspended and on which nature can be recreated. That can become the new meaning of nature. 2
My last visit to Fabro’s studio, six years after the first, was made in order to see a small maquette of La Luna (The Moon), his first thoughts on this project for the Tate Gallery [exhibited in Luciano Fabro, curated by Frances Morris, Tate Gallery, London, 1997]. Aside from this maquette, little had changed in the studio: Lo Spirato was still in the corner, still a brooding and disquieting presence. This time I was taken to another working space on the other side of town, the space where Fabro stores and packs his work. The warehouse is approached through the studio of [his daughter Silvia], a picture restorer, and the accretion of crates and packages and odd materials in Fabro’s room was thus framed through visions of landscapes and narratives of oil colour, brushwork and craft in the classical manner. These offered fitting reminders of the heritage that Fabro’s career has acknowledged and of his belief that art is not so much about creating new things as about recreating: “The problem, to progress in art, does not arise; what matters is to preserve it.” 3 Fabro’s “references,” whether to historical and mythological figures or to geological and geometrical structures, demonstrate a way in which identity and understanding can be passed on; and he describes the work of art as the “suitcase” of identity, one which “like all suitcases, contains patrimonies which date from long ago.” 4
From Frances Morris, “Luciano Fabro: In Virtue of References,” in Luciano Fabro, Tate Gallery, 1997, pp. 8, 23 and 28. © Tate 1997. Reproduced by permission of Tate Trustees.
- This is the title inscribed underneath the sculpture together with the names of the artist and the craftsmen who executed the piece. The title Dal pieno al vuoto, senza soluzione di continuità (From fullness to emptiness without interruption), appeared Luciano Fabro, Attaccapanni (Turin: Einaudi, 1978) as the caption underneath the photographic work Studi per Lo Spirato. In later sources, this title erroneously appeared as the original title sculpted underneath the sculpture. See Sharon Hecker, “I represent the encumbrance of the object in the vanity of ideology.” Lo Spirato (The Expired One) in Luciano Fabro, ed. Silvia Fabro, Galleria Christian Stein, Milan, 2017.
- Luciano Fabro, interview with Jan Braet in Jan Braet and Luciano Fabro, “After the rain, a flower opens,” exh. cat. Open-Air Museum of Sculpture, Middelheim 1994, pp. 37.
- Ibid., p. 61.
- Ibid., p. 62.
FRANCES MORRIS is Director of the Tate Modern Art Gallery, London.