It was an upside-down Italy, hanging like a hanged man, like a rag hung out to dry and abandoned; it was my country; taken and turned upside down … I was a young artist and I asked myself who that visionary was. What artist could express such a profound group of concepts and meanings in such a simple, elegant, and absolute way, that profoundly Italian culture made up of genius and contradictions? With that first image by Luciano Fabro, I encountered what would be a surrogate father, a constant presence in my path of creative thinking as a man and an artist. It was the 1980s and I was taking my first steps as a student at the Art Academy in the forest of the contemporary. It was a period populated by obscene people, ugly painting, and aggressively ambitious critics who would transform the perception of art in the years to come, and who would announce the victory of globalized materialism that was waiting for us in the twenty-first century. That artist left in me something that never abandoned me; a feeling of intimacy and, at the same time, the feeling of an unbridgeable distance, something I frequently sensed when going into those sacred places that we call museums. In that upside-down Italy I felt the incumbent stature of an artist but also the smile, ironic and confident, that a master has when seeing his young pupil. I met Fabro personally many years later. Thanks to another great artist of Arte Povera, Jannis Kounellis, I became part of the historical Christian Stein Gallery. In 2004, while mounting an exhibition of mine in the gallery, I saw Fabro enter, look at me, and smile. It was in that way that we introduced ourselves to each other.
I saw him again on other occasions—I lived between New York and Rome and the contacts with other Italian artists were infrequent and formal; but I was particularly grateful to Fabro for transmitting to me a vision of the artist’s role in a contemporary society through a book-collection of his lessons as professor at the Brera Art Academy of Milan and his conferences in museums and institutions.
That role did not stop at making art, but broadened the responsibilities of teaching, as a moral and ethical way of thinking, a social need that Fabro had sensed and understood, and that he had posed to himself as a problem. My being an artist today and a professor at the Art Academy of Rome owes much to his idea of transformation and the help that an artist can, and must, give to the younger ones.
Fabro’s thinking was fundamental for my generation, artists like me, Liliana Moro, Stefano Arienti, and Bruna Esposito were able to grow in the generous intellectual legacy of Arte Povera, far from contemporary conformism and from the way in which society induces one to think in restrictive terms without true visions and perspectives.
Through the eyes of my students I see how teaching—which does not accept institutional didactic systems: the propaganda, the devious message of advertising and all that lies beneath an idea of profit and exploitation—can create an intimacy in the work, and a value for it that can also be gleaned in its physical dimension, not imposing or overwhelming, but possible and comprehensible. The trace that art can leave can be profound and can be followed and used as an indication for others.
I think that Fabro taught us how art is knowledge and, without knowledge, art cannot exist.
Translated by Sharon Hecker
PAOLO CANEVARI is an Italian artist.