PRINT October 1988


ACCORDING TO LUCIANO FABRO, sculpture is a metaphor and allegory for sculpting. The artist, then, rather than cultivating his or her own identity, must pay attention to art’s identity: must face the immensity of a flood of “things"; must question everything that seems to have been already thought out; must be willing to travel from rhetoric to linguistics to reveal the process of creativity itself. The art that emerges from such explorations will win out over any motif, found or invented; for it will serve, as Fabro puts it, as “consciousness in movement, . . . an invention that disturbs the peace, that manifests dissatisfaction, that poses the conflict between silence and stimulation.”1

"The two branches of modern estheticism,” according to Fabro—“on the one hand, the concept of the world as an ancient stage on which we can act out our dreams; on the other hand, the scientific concept of the world as an exemplary demonstration of realism”2—demarcate the twin poles of being itself: a condition understood “at the same time as fantastic and rational, oneiric and mechanical, instinctive and geometric.”3 Thus, art is not conceivable without the insights of natural science. Art is, in a sense, a scientific process for heightening poetic consciousness—an “operative awareness” that doesn’t generate figures or projects, but routes without ends and without end. Given these terms, one can understand the “incoherence” of the artist, who over the span of 25 years has produced groups of work nurtured by apparently divergent and contrary flows, for Fabro projects the light of his artistic identity not upon images, but upon the norms and the method of creating, and has been willing to take the risk that sometimes it requires a good deal of time for that light to reach its target.

From the early ’60s, then, when Fabro first began exhibiting, he used his artifacts to express his clear denial of the “reductionist project image” as it was configured in Europe by artists such as Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni. In their work, aimed at the liberation of artistic language from the gestural abuses of the Abstract Expressionists, Fabro sensed the danger of a leveling out, a diminishment of the idea to an image, and ultimately to a logotype. No longer expressing the experience of research, art threatened to become its own ideal codification, turning everything into a cut or a hole, a blue or a monochrome. Fabro consistently rejected any conjecture aimed at single solutions, and turned his attention instead to the practice of seeing and building, thereby turning the viewer’s attention to the fact of feeling and touching. To obtain a “true image,” he sought to externalize the identity of a “thing” as a perceptual synthesis between the voluntary and involuntary modes of experience. He built “things” or sculptures, like Fausto Melotti, an artist whose importance to younger generations is equal to that of Fontana, that were events of unresolved tension, apertures through which visual and plastic awareness could pass, interlocutors for the dialogue between active and passive vision. In early works such as Buco (Hole, 1963) and Cristallo mezzo specchiato mezzo trasparente (Half-reflective, half-transparent crystal, 1965) the dialogue between a “reflection” and a “direct vision” bears witness to the artist’s desire to maintain the attitude of art as an imitation of nature (and therefore a technique for reflecting upon it), as well as the attitude of direct experience of the world, that is, unmediated sensation. Each is certainly a possibility for art; yet for Fabro, knowledge comes from neither one nor the other, but from both, as complementary extremes of a natural whole. With Buco’s scattering of reflective and opaque material across a thin sheet of glass, awareness becomes an uncertainty about the moment when images pass from what is represented to what is reality. Fabro pushed the notion further in his Cristallo: the coexistence of a celestial or metaphysical register (the mirror that makes the world light and immaterial) and a terrestrial register (the transparent crystal through which we look at the world) simultaneously affirmed the division between the two as it clearly described their shared edge. Mimesis and reality, in ever-shifting references to one another, served to affirm that to see—and to make art—the two moments must remain simultaneous in order to establish a third moment, the one offered to the viewer (or to the artist) that demonstrates the balance between these vanishing points.

Yet Fabro’s “short circuit” between these two systems also produces an imbalance in the order of things: the art object, inscribed within pure and theoretical form—infallible and perfect, immobile and static—establishes a tension with the “real” world, so that the act of sensing, that which gives meaning, is constantly being solicited. It is this tension that distinguishes Fabro’s work from the objects made by American Minimalists of the time. His 1964 Ruota (Wheel) is a case in point: on a slender chrome-plated brass rod extending from the wall, Fabro welded an equally slender chrome-plated circle that, by virtue of its weight, lowers the rod, making it seem elastic and unstable. The figures are minimal—a line and a circle; the material is primary—brass. Yet what arrests our attention here is the way Ruota extends into space, interrupting it, indeed threatening it, not through aggression or rigidity, however, but through the power of elasticity—and here we have our first analogy with the Baroque—and through the dynamic capacity of geometry. Though Ruota’s line appears preconceived, it assumes its final figure through the deformations imposed by weight and gravity: Ruota disobeys order, becomes inopportune. Its uniform and rectilinear alignment„ its controlled sequence of geometric and volumetric articulations, serve, in fact, to emphasize the repressed (or ignored) quality of the sensuous within those very terms. Like the intersecting steel poles of his Croce (Cross, 1965), with the pressure of the horizontal pole sending the whole structure tilting gently into the room, Ruota becomes an event, postulating a relativity, and expressing the controlled and voluptuous energy of the Baroque—perfection and fallibility, pleasure and dissipation.

Fabro’s subjection of works to the principles of equilibrium and grace, autonomy and singularity—qualities we might say they share with a multitude of similar forms produced by other artists during the same years—allied with an approach where less can always give way to more, the necessary always to the superfluous, demonstrates his connection with dandyism as well as the Baroque. But it is important to specify that the term “dandyism” refers to that passion for making and exhibiting a thing that is unique and sensual, that gives, to the touch of the hand, a sensation enigmatic and indescribable. And the dandy object neither negates the past nor worships it; it’s cynical, but believes in discrete and discreet forms and never becomes vulgar. With its elegance, it seeks to become, as Baudelaire describes Edgar Allan Poe’s work, the “supreme incarnation of the ideal of the beautiful given expression in material life.”4 Thus, for those who are “at once [dandyism’s] priests and victims,” as Baudelaire wrote in his “The Painter of Modern Life,” 1863, “all the complicated material conditions to which they submit, from an impeccable toilet at every hour of the day and night to the most perilous feats of the sporting field, are no more than a system of gymnastics to fortify the will and discipline the soul.”5 As an instrument of mediation between the duty and pleasure of being, then, Fabro’s sculpture is embellished with gestures that lie somewhere between the essential and the elegant, like a suit that by necessity covers (and uniforms) the body, but, through elaboration, becomes a graceful and gracious definition of an identity, an emblem of distinction. Fabro has said that “the appearance of things and ideas is the skin that gives form to nature,”6 and that “in my process of embellishment, you cannot deny what you have underneath. You continually dress and undress.”7 In his work, then, by manipulating the skin that covers things, Fabro clothes and unclothes the world.

His 1966 In Cubo (In cube, also incubo, “nightmare” in Italian) is in its simplest terms a parallelepiped of wood with walls of white canvas. Yet by tilting up this simple box from the bottom, a person can move from the exterior space it echoes into the interior space it defines. In Cubo becomes a strictly personal space or volume (its dimensions correspond, in fact, to Fabro’s height and the spread of his arms), quietly attesting to the absence of distance between subject and object, to the continual flow between inside and outside, to the subterranean and intimate current that merges the body, and its functions, with the artifact, and its factuality. With In Cubo, as with the delicate canvas cloths of Fabro’s series “Indumenti” (Clothing, 1966)—in which the Posaseni (Breasts rests) are a consequence of the form of the breasts, the Calzari (Stockings) take their form from footprints, and the Bandoliera (Bandoleer) from the relationship of the genitals to the back—we have a manifestation of the concept of creative immanence, of art and poetry as inseparable from the flesh. With the minimum necessary, Fabro verifies the multiplicity of any given identity, postulating the sensitive borders that experience runs through; those fractal places where all moments of intersection will be moments of energy and tension.

In Cubo and “Indumenti” represent a crucial moment in Fabro’s development. They signal a move beyond the temptation toward abstraction and reduction evident in his earlier works; they are a dive into the void of creation, the encounter with it, and the rebound. But we have just arrived at that landmark year in the art scene—1967–68—when, around the globe, the fascination with the spontaneous and the material, perfectly superimposable in their degrees of adherence to the “living” and the “real,” seems to burst artists free from bondage to the monolithic, reductive, and minimal object. This is the year when the pioneers of arte povera, earthworks, conceptualism, and performance art unleash their forces, positing visions of art that enthusiastically embrace the physical and the mental, the theatrical and the quotidian, the natural and the artificial. In the arc of that single year, Fabro introduces several series of works that clarify his distinctive notion of invention as “consciousness in movement,” that argue for the necessity for a passage, for a creative transit, that present art as the “latest news,” the unique and original action that makes the impossible attainable. Let’s take a look at these arguments through which “a reasoning that frees the senses“’ passes (and in reaction to which Fabro will soon introduce interrogations that lead toward new leaps). In his “Italia” series (begun in 1968, and produced in variants up to the present) Fabro chooses an “already made” icon, known yet out of use, and plunges into it in order to empty that image of myth or value. In an early piece, Fabro has affixed a road map of Italy to a sheet of iron, cut to the shape of the country and suspended from a hangman’s knot of steel cord. This “map,” however, has been turned upside down, so that the south is in the position of the north, and vice versa. Dangling topsy-turvy, subjected to the play of air, Italy loses its weight, its iconic gravity, to become a buoyant rhetorical “ornatus” on which we can hang the shifting variables of our formal and material imaginations. Since 1968, Fabro’s Italy has, indeed, presented and represented herself in countless guises. At times she will border on caprice and whimsy, at other times on the tragic. On the wall or on the floor, made out of leather or lead, glass or netting, fur or gold, brass or steel, Italy can be smooth or curly, whole or broken, folded or crumpled. The titles that accompany her are both true and false, glorious or banal, permitting illustrious or vulgar associations: L’Italia di Pelo (Italy of fur, 1969); Sullo Stato (On the state, 1970); Speculum Italiae (Speculum of Italy, 1971); L’Italia dei Pupi (Italy of the puppets, 1975); L’Italia del dolore (Italy of sorrow, 1975). Sometimes Italy will be accompanied by rationales, for a hanging form is always a form of little authority. (”Before I succeeded in cutting out a glass form of Italy [for Italia Cosa Nostra, 1971] several forms shattered. I held this one together with mafioso wire.”9)

Original and iconoclastic, the Italy pieces made it evident that Fabro is not content only to move forward—he also reaches back, to mine the lodes of memory and history. And so, even in the midst of the year of dematerialization, he was willing to churn the avant-garde waters with his outright indulgence in Baroque pleasures. He chose marble and shantung silk as the materials for his first “Piedi” (Feet) in 1968, an “insolent” choice at the time, evoking as they did (and do) a rich, aristocratic tradition. And Fabro continued his “transgressions” through 1972, with “Piedi” in bronze and Murano glass as well. Balanced between nostalgia and refinement, Fabro’s “Piedi” kick aside the prevailing formulations of sculpture to revive the eccentric in-congruencies of the media from Medardo Rosso to Constantin Brancusi, from Alberto Giacometti to Lucio Fontana; even their title baldly refers to the prototype of high sculpture’s base or pedestal (piede-stallo in Italian). But they accept this memory by allegorizing it. From huge claws of glass or from imposing paws of metal on the gallery floor, aerial cylinders of delicate colors rise up, dandified silk “trousers” with elegant embroidery and folds that fly free at the ceiling in an exuberant celebration of the image that isn’t there. “It is specifically in the plasticity that resides the revelation I call sculpture,” says Fabro. “I call it revelation to distinguish it from the vision of painting.”10 And it is revelation through plasticity that we find again in Fabro’s Lo Spirato (The deceased, first executed in plaster in 1968, then in marble in 1973), where history and contemporaneity sleep mysteriously together. As in so many Baroque funerary figures, we see folds of marble drapery covering a human body. But in Fabro’s execution, those sheets lushly articulate and elaborate the contours of the body from the feet to the mid chest: then, where the upper portion of the body disappears, they sink down again into the marble mattress to cover the absence, the void. Here again, Fabro emphasizes how seeing gives substance to absence as well as presence. This is the very basis of sculpture, of course, but in Fabro’s work it is newly applied to the “apparent” opposites of real and unreal, experience and consciousness. Art simulates reality at the same time that it asks us to question whether reality is a perception or a fact. Have our eyes deceived us, and our minds not, or vice versa? And is sculpture itself a living tradition or a dead language—or both? Art is a mask, and maintains its silence at the same time that it breathes out its secrets through the marbled inhalations, and final exhalation, of the expired one. Those same “natural” folds we find in Lo Spirato we find again in Fabro’s allusive and seductive “Attaccapanni” (Coat stands, 1976–77). Here, however, the material is painted canvas, suspended and undulating from ornate crowns of bronze leaves, and evoking the passage from day to night, from the known to the unknowable, in formal but passionate sequences from a fiery light—through all the gradations of pink-blue, green, and blue—to a deep violet. And in Naples, where Fabro exhibited his first “Attaccapanni” pieces, he brought some street singers into the gallery to perform lyrics he had written; their voices and words added to the mystery and enchantment of this sunset of painting and sculpture.

Fabro’s “natured” nature thrives on tradition, and on the history of voyages from the biological body to the physical and cultural world in which that body finds itself. Thus, it can be cold and rigorous in Milan (from Ruota to Cristallo), aquatic in Venice (Piedi di Vetro [Glass Feet, 1968–72]), and radiant in Naples (“Attaccapanni”). Beginning in 1975, Fabro’s installations find and announce their meanings in the sensuous refractions between past and present, between the real and the unreal, between the primal foundations of life and the theatricality of art. His 1978 lo (I) is a bronze, hollowed-out, egglike form (of dimensions and volume corresponding to Fabro’s own body in a fetal position—this is, in fact, the image drawn on the exterior surface) that finds its womb through its installation in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Fontana delle Api, in Rome, from which it draws its “nourishment.” The waters flow into and out of Io, multiplying reflections in the shining bronze: exterior becomes interior; an image a sensual body, a sculpture a natural archetype. This egg-form will return in Fabro’s Tu (You, 1978) as a handsized oval of red sealing-wax inscribed with the image of a couple making love; and within the slender steel cords of his Ovaie (Ovaries, 1988).

The shell of the natural figure, symbolized in the womb or the egg, in addition to evoking the primordial ego and history, participates in other dialectics. The egg, with its eccentric perfection of form, expresses the dialectic of being enclosed and being free, and thus marks the conflict between the sweet security of art and its frenzied quest, the play between tradition and the avant-garde. It rests at the center of the pictorial world of Piero della Francesco; it is the signature emblem of that great protagonist of the Baroque, Francesco Borromini; it is the basis for the Modernist synthetic innovation of Brancusi. It is the form that gives original birth to the multiplicity of meaning, and as such, for Fabro, speaks as the “matrix” of every beauty.

And, in a sense, Fabro’s “Habitats” are eggs, for they are environments constructed to contain and generate multiplicities of meaning. The artist calls his 1981 Rotterdam Habitat an “image place . . . for feeling pleasure.”11 Its appeal is utterly sensual ("Who wouldn’t want to walk in a house on a layer of perfumed grass, refreshed every day like the apartments of the Pope of Avignon?”12) on the basis of both the material and the perceptual. With its walls and beams of paper, its fragile backdrops, its open perspectives, and its circuitous paths, it becomes a site for visual regeneration, for an experience of the sublime through the material, for a graceful traveling between spaces both physical and metaphysical. This pilgrimage is embodied in La Dialettica (Dialectic, 1985). Here Fabro begins with a rare block of marble—coarse and dark, and almost rectilinearly striated—and chooses a simple image: the face. But to have it function in an unusual manner, he cuts every context, so that all that is left is the eye and the mouth. The unworked marble remains coarse and natural; it is only the power of art that makes the incisions read as known images. So that La Dialettica has traveled over the sea of creation, from the womb to the marble, to give rise to this fragment of a face. At the Paris Biennale in 1985, where the piece was first installed, viewers found the fragment of marble at the entrance, and floating above, a spider web of brass threads, with a few filaments looping down to the marble and through, almost as if ensnaring it. Later that year, in Pittsburgh, this web of brass, clinging to two planks of wood, extended from each side of the marble. Thus, two different positionings emphasize reciprocal victories over and submissions to the weight and lightness of material, while the elements themselves evoke the history of art. The spider’s web of brass recalls the one painted by Veronese on the ceiling of Palazzo Ducale in Venice; the transposition of elements, so that the spider’s web ultimately emerges out of that fragment, like sprouting branches out of a trunk of marble, turns the sculpture into a fossil drenched in mystery. In La Dialettica, however observed, “the drama occurs where you don’t see.”13

"The sciences that we now possess are merely systems for the nice ordering and setting forth of things already invented,”14 wrote the philosopher Francis Bacon in 1620. His texts have “illustrated” Fabro’s publications since 1968. Linked, then, to moments of history, Fabro’s work at the same time breaks with history, reordering its vital data in perpetual instability. The presence of archetypal figures and primary sources of art confirms a continual regeneration in time and space, and expresses an energy—half subjective, half nonsubjective—that transforms his sculpture into a progressive emanation of the body in time. To fill the world with “new things,” Fabro’s work attests, is to render tangible the nature in and the nature of being itself.

In his recent Nu descendant un escalier (Nude descending a staircase, 1988) Fabro ultimately proposes art as nature, with the famous work of Marcel Duchamp its panorama. “The two things are similar enough. . . . If at a certain point I find something that interests me, Duchamp perhaps, it might be the same thing that I find interesting in a leaf. There is no boundary, no difference.”15 In Nu descendant un escalier, then, Fabro turns the natural truth of art into a “piece of data” in which an art of ideas, like that of Duchamp, meets the continuous experience of the nature that is art: praxis. But what is important is not that art imitates history, but that it is its practices. If Duchamp traveled through Cubism and Futurism, Fabro travels through Duchamp. In essence, he gives the stockings (remember his “Indumenti”) to the feet of Duchamp’s nude; gives body and weight to a mental vision. Thus Duchamp’s nude descending becomes Fabro’s nude ascending, a marble Mercury rising out of the realm of the imaginary. And the movement of this messenger’s feet, materialized in that stone slab across stairs, marks out our journey, and the journey Fabro began in 1963: one in which what the eye can see merges with what the hand can feel; in which the pure visuality of painting merges with the aerial sensuality of sculpture, in which, as Fabro puts it, we understand “matter, sign, space—and things particular and general . . . not as principles, but as a way toward principles.”16

Germano Celant received the 1988 Frank Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association of America. His book Unexpressionism will be published this month by Rizzoli International. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Luciano Fabro, “Lettere ai Germani,” 1979, in Luciano Fabro: Lavori: 1963–86, Turin: Umberto Allemandi & C., 1987, p. 170. Translations from this book are by the editors of Artforum. An abridged version of the text has been published in English by the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh.
2. Ibid., p. 171.
3. Ibid.
4. Charles Baudelaire, “New Notes on Edgar Poe,” 1857, in Baudelaire as a Literary Critic, eds. and trans. Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., University Park : the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964, p. 124.
5. It is interesting to note in this context that in his Letture Parallele III (Parallel readings III, Turin: Galleria Stein, 1975), after illustrating his Italia di Cartoccio (Paper bag Italy, 1970), Fabro tells the following anecdote: “They say that Gian Lorenzo Bernini one day, finding himself in the kitchen and finding that the butter had gone bad, modeled it into an animal of such grace that, brought to the table, it was cheerfully eaten.” Fabro attributes the story to a book called Capolavori nei Secoli, by a certain Ponta, supposedly published in 1818.
6. Fabro, p. 170.
7. Quoted in Lisa Licitra Ponti, “Attaccapanni, bronzi, colon e musiche a Napoli,” 1977, a conversation between Ponti and Fabro, in Luciano Fabro, p. 168.
8. Quoted in Bruno Cora, “Un Habitat Geometrico,” 1983, a conversation between Cora and Fabro, in Luciano Fabro, p. 185.
9. Fabro, “Vademecum,” 1981, in Luciano Fabro, p. 182.
10. Ibid., p. 182.
11. Ibid., p. 179.
12. Ibid.
13. Fabro, in conversation with the author, Milan 1988.
14. Quoted in an excerpt from Novum Organum, in Francis Bacon, Essays, Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis, and other pieces, ed. Richard Foster Jones, New York: the Odyssey Press, Inc., 1937, p. 273.
15. Fabro, in conversation with the author, Milan 1988.
16. Quoted in Jole de Sanna, “Introduzione a Regole d’Arte,” 1980, a conversation between de Sanna and Fabro, in Luciano Fabro, p. 175.