Luciano Fabro with Martin Schwander
Martin Schwander: Your artworks are so different from each other and, because of their complex internal structure, are hard to characterize.
Luciano Fabro: In contemporary art, the dominant tendency is that the artist gives a clear and firm idea of his work. The reason for this process of reduction is probably due to the fact that people today do not have time to reflect on works of art and their complexity. My work contains a multiplicity of points of view that are complex to present in their different aspects and which may seem contradictory from the outside.
Schwander: Does art serve man in his search for identity?
Fabro: Art does not seek, it creates identity. Identity and creation are the same thing. They close the circle. Each new work also broadens our knowledge of nature. Art defines the limit. What lies beyond that limit remains excluded.
Schwander: In the writings you have published you are entering ever more deeply into the metaphysical characteristics of the works.
Fabro: Art has metaphysical qualities. Many times a thing changes very little physically when it becomes a work of art. What can change, however, are its metaphysical qualities. When I take a piece of marble, I can change, more or less, its outward appearance. As soon as this stone is treated as a work of art, it takes possession of something that it did not have before. This was understood very early on. To make the menhir prehistoric man took a stone that was not different from the others, but he isolated it and at the same time gave it a metaphysical dimension, which even today we remain impressed by as spectators. In order to give the metaphysical aspect to a work of art it is necessary that there is no apparent effort, everything must appear as a miracle. This is the garment of creation.
Schwander: There are only a few works of art that manage to have these metaphysical dimensions.
Fabro: Just as only very little fruit tastes good. Quality is a very selective thing in nature and is subject to strong oscillations. There are times when quality [in art] reaches its full development. It’s like in nature: there are times when storms prevent the ripening process and other periods when the fruit becomes perfectly ripe.
Without a doubt [today] we are living in very difficult times. This becomes particularly clear with the fact that everything that is done for art must be justified. We must always justify the right of art to exist on social, philosophical, aesthetic, and moral levels. It is particularly difficult for society to understand that art still has metaphysical roots. Already in my earliest texts I talk about this problem. I am thinking in particular of a text from 1964. 1 In that text I already say that I am a “humanist”. The word “humanism” cannot, however, be considered without the word “identity.” When identity is established there is a fixed point upon which things depend. In religious times, God was the central point. In modern art this point is perhaps man. He is, in all cases, responsible for everything that happens around him because he has the ability to come into contact with everything. It’s like in geometry: as soon as I have determined a fixed point, I can determine another point and connect the two points. The crisis of our times comes, among other things, from the fact that man does not try to identify the center, but instead always remains on the periphery. We must learn to talk about art again. In my lessons at the Brera Academy I am trying to start up a discussion on principles. 2 We need to reacquire confidence in things that go beyond immediate experience.
Schwander: Underlying this premise, is there a reason to have hope for art?
Fabro: We must have hope on principle. Every work of art we create brings with it an extra moment of identity and thus enlarges the basis for what we call culture.
Schwander: Is there, in your work, a point of mediation between political and social reality on the one hand, and the metaphysical approach that you add to the work of art on the other hand?
Fabro: The work of art, from the moment when it emerges from the hands, becomes open to possibilities when it comes into contact with something that determines its extension. However, none of my works were created for a certain circumstance or from a reaction to a certain event, due to the fact that I am rather skeptical about all political solutions.
Schwander: In the last few years you connect yourself, through the titles of the works, to ancient myths. Do these myths represent a living power for you?
Fabro: Yes, of course. We are in a situation in which we have to create anew the myths upon which art and all spiritual things can develop. We are in a direct relationship with myths because they are the basis of our culture. Myths are not part of history, they are life that is cleansed from all the casual incidents of everyday life. My works take shape from a complex series of thoughts. Suddenly I have a clear vision before my eyes, it appears to me like a revelation. Everything is so clear to me that usually not even a detail needs to be changed. Only in a second phase do I become “mechanical” and I look for technical solutions.
Schwander: Do you sometimes have doubts about the accuracy of these “inner visions”?
Fabro: No, never. Already in the invitation to my first show I tried to define my relationship with the materials. Each material has its own particular experience, its own history. When I look at a stone, I come to know something about the mountain from which this little stone has been detached, and also about the earth. Then, at the moment when this stone has been worked, it brings with it the history of the sculpture inside it and I come to know something about the person who worked on that stone. In my work, one cannot speak of a choice of materials, because as soon as a work appears before the inner eye, its shape, its dimensions, and its materials are already given. The materials on their own do not interest me at all.
Schwander: Another known feature of your works is the explicit reference to the works of artists [of the past].
Fabro: In my works there is never a question of quotations. It is to take those points of reference that make the continuation of the journey possible.
Schwander: Do you mean by this that there are some ideas in art that survive over time without changing?
Fabro: Not ideas. They are a priori, and an artist can reactivate them if they have the ability and the sensitivity to do so.
Schwander: The discourse on many levels that you have with tradition contradicts most of the positions of avant-garde artists who have taken their legitimacy and energy from the verbal rejection of tradition. At the same time, your work has always been related to Arte Povera, one of the last classical avant-garde movements.
Fabro: Even if I have opposing ideas or thoughts, I feel closer to the avant-garde because they have the same mentality that I have. The reactionaries, on the other hand, fight against every vital situation.
Schwander: What was the meaning of Arte Povera in the development of your work?
Fabro: I was with the group that “founded” Arte Povera. 3 Germano Celant was looking for young artists with works that were different from the usual works of those times. In Rome, he found Pino Pascali and Jannis Kounellis, in Turin, Giulio Paolini and Alighiero Boetti, in Genoa, Emilio Prini, and in Milan he found me. On the other hand, when Arte Povera became something of public interest in ’68 with the exhibition in Amalfi, my work was removed from that context. 4
Schwander: Did the alienation between the representatives of the avant-garde and you reach its greatest point with the presentation of a group of Feet made of Murano glass at the Venice Biennale in 1972?
Fabro: I had already started working on the Feet in ’68. The first exhibition with the Feet made of marble and metal is from 1971 at the Borgogna Gallery in Milan. In 1972 there was the presentation in Venice, in which I exhibited only the Murano glass Feet. I had no shame anymore [Laughs]. The Feet just made people shake their heads... Some friends who, up until that point, were begging me to do exhibitions with them did not want anything to do with me anymore. I explained this in a short text. 5 At the same time, however, I made new friends.
Schwander: Undoubtedly, it was clear to you that the Feet would be perceived as an aesthetic provocation.
Fabro: No, I do not like provocative gestures in art at all. I am of the opinion that provocation limits the visual field. Usually I try to do some kind, nice gestures that, however, are not always understood [Laughs]. Another reason I was able to save my innocence in that situation was that I always had someone around me who had faith in my work. I never had the feeling of being alone.
Excerpt from: Martin Schwander, “Luciano Fabro, Kunst schafft Identität”, in Luciano Fabro, edited by Martin Schwander, Kunstmuseum Lucerne (Basel: Wiese Verlag, 1991), pp. 193-206.
English translation by Sharon Hecker
- Luciano Fabro, Atti del comune di Milano, in Luciano Fabro, Attaccapanni (Turin: Einaudi, 1978), pp. 11-16. English traslation in Luciano Fabro (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992), pp. 25-27. Translation by Sharon Hecker.
- Luciano Fabro, Arte torna arte. Lezioni e conferenze 1981-1997 (Turin: Einaudi, 1999).
- Arte Povera - Im-Spazio, ed. Germano Celant, Galleria la Bertesca, Genoa, September 27 to October 20, 1967.
- Arte povera più azioni povere, ed. Germano Celant, Arsenali dell’Antica Repubblica, Amalfi October 4 – 6, 1968.
- Luciano Fabro, “Questi piedi non sono un’idea,” in Flash Art, n. 24, Milan, May 1971. p. 5. English translation in Luciano Fabro, “These Feet are not one idea,” in Carolyn Christov - Bakargiev, Arte Povera (London: Phaidon, 1999), p. 245 and in Luciano Fabro, “These feet are not an idea, but all of your ideas,” in Zero to infinity: arte povera 1962 - 1972, ed. Richard Flood and Frances Morris (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center and London: Tate Modern, 2001), p. 214.
MARTIN SCHWANDER is an art historian and curator. He is a curator at large for the Beyeler Foundation where he curated an exhibition on the work of Georg Baselitz in 2018. In 1991 he curated an exhibition on Luciano Fabro’s work at the Kunsthalle of Lucerne, where he was director from 1989 – 1997.