Luciano Fabro: Timely and Defiant
My first encounter with Luciano Fabro’s art left me fascinated and perplexed. Who was this artist who, in the 1970s and 1980s, in a landscape virtually dominated by the language of Minimalism, dared to make an art that so boldly eluded comparisons with his peer group, or classification of any kind? Starting in the late 1960s, Fabro’s vocabulary was overtly referential to his Mediterranean culture, evoking, among other motifs, the boot of the Italian peninsula (the Italie), a reclining tomb figure (Lo Spirato), classical columns with no supporting function (and sometimes translated into silk: the Piedi). He unselfconsciously quoted eternal myths by invoking Prometheus, Venus, or Sisyphus. His materials were anachronistic (silks, bronze, gilt, Murano glass, Carrara marble), whereas the fabrication was entrusted to expert artisans (sewing, carving, casting). The resulting works are beautiful, elegant, and metaphorical. Paradoxically, the term that keeps coming back to me is that of “baroque.”
This perception is not totally arbitrary. After discovering Fabro’s sculptures in the mid-1980s, I then met him in person at his retrospective exhibition at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1986. This event, however, rather than clarifying my ideas about the artist and his art, mystified me even more. Everything enchanted and escaped me. In the summer of 1989, I visited his exhibition at the Castello di Rivoli and, during those long summer nights, he initiated me to the baroque splendors of Turin (in particular, to the architect Guarini), to which he was a passionate guide. Perhaps this planted a seed in my perception, but no matter what, the analogies are there.
We worked together on several occasions, and in a sense, he was an incredible mentor; however, for me, the usual approach to an artist’s oeuvre (analysis-synthesis) continued to get me nowhere. Upon his untimely death in 2007, I felt that a critical monograph was necessary—for myself, and others. Even more difficult than I expected—there were so many questions left unanswered—this endeavor took me the better part of eight years.
Fabro recognized that his work was difficult, in particular, for an Anglo-Saxon or “northern” (as he liked to put it) audience, unsteeped in (or forgetful of) the Humanist tradition he chose as his source. His determination to resist the trends of the international avant-gardes demanded that his viewers shed their acquired habits of seeing in order to come to terms with his art. Fabro’s avowed guiding principle was to express complexity, clothed in what he considered simple or obvious forms. This objective came again from his Italian background: the Franciscan idea of povera, signifying a natural simplicity that embodies deeper truths. And yet paradoxically, for me, the baroque is never far away, in an elegance and seduction that deliberately mask other preoccupations.
On the surface, Fabro’s art appears in total contradiction with the artistic mores of the period, and for these reasons, his relation to the paradigm of modernism is difficult to grasp. However, the lushness and metaphoric content of his work obscures a range of underlying issues that were shared by many late-twentieth-century North American sculptors. His main plastic concerns—the visitor’s direct experience of real as opposed to illusionistic space, the haptic or tactile quality of perception, the sculpting potentials of light and color, the enormous importance of materials, the dialectics of instability and gravity, and the use of repetition or serial sequences, for instance—were in fact absolutely of their time.
Fabro’s “spatial concepts,” a central thematic initially inspired by Lucio Fontana, propose experiences to the visitor that show affinities with the work of Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra. These artists explored comparable ideas beginning in the 1960s, with a view to stimulating the mind and body’s response to unprecedented physical situations. It should be said that the Americans’ and the Europeans’ knowledge of each other’s work was relatively superficial, gleaned from international exhibitions, mostly in Europe. So it was not a question of cross-fertilization as much as one of artists on two continents addressing certain ideas that were in the air.
Finally, whereas the specific contexts and contingencies on each side of the Atlantic clearly contributed to shaping these artists’ world views, as well as their sensibilities and ultimately their plastic expressions (one relatively abstract, and the other infinitely baroque), it should nonetheless be said that a political and cultural critique of the state of the world was common to both. Their filters were definitely different, but it was the same post-war, consumer-oriented world that they sought to dispute and defy.
MARGIT ROWELL is an art historian based in Paris. Her monograph on Luciano Fabro is scheduled to appear in early 2019 (ed. JPRingier, Zurich).