For the annual sculpture exhibition in the Duveen galleries, the celebrated Italian sculptor Luciano Fabro has moulded forms of the sun and the moon in marble, incorporating formal references to architecture and astronomy.
The Doric flutes of “Il sole” spread across the floor coupled with “La luna” pointing heavenward to the dome, suggest connections between the columns in the work and the columns of the Duveen Galleries, between ancient societies and the contemporary world.
Then, as if to show that the earth orbiting between these two spheres is composed of the base and the beautiful, Fabro has poised blocks of marble atop a bunch of children’s marbles in a third piece called “Day weighs on me at night”.
This visual pun, juxtaposing two disparate materials, is par for the course for a leader of Italy’s arte povera movement who made his reputation by transforming humble materials into art. In the 1960s, Fabro began making sculptures from commonly available materials. An early show was curated by Germano Celant, who coined the term arte povera and linked it, among other things, to the economic and civil crises of the time.
Since then, the sixty-one year old artist has created highly individual forms, often using more traditional materials, such as bronze and marble. Fabro acknowledges a connection between his catholic sources of materials and inspiration and his arte povera roots. He has said “my ambition is to do something very complex, but presented in a very simple way. Within this simplicity you must be aware of the complexity. This is what arte povera is all about”.
However, in an interview with The Art Newspaper at the Tate, Fabro preferred not to discuss arte povera, saying, “It is too complex a subject and it is now part of history. In order to talk about it, we would need to involve many different people in the discussion”.
The current show came about as a result of a mutual admiration between Fabro and Tate director Nicolas Serota, who has long been interested in the artist’s simple and enigmatic forms.
Fabro resists the notion that he is moving up-market by creating a series of large-scale marble sculptures. Marble, he reminds us, is a commonplace material in Italy; the streets are paved with it.
“In the Tate I have presented four new works in marble, completed over two years. But I am always using different materials. I do not make a sculpture because I am fascinated with a certain material and I want to explore its properties, like a couturier with fabric or Michelangelo with marble. I use fabric, marble, bronze, plastic, paper, wood—anything—it is spontaneous”, he explains.
“For example, before making ‘Day weighs on me at night’, I had never thought about marbles; in their bag they were just a children’s toy. But spread under blocks of marble they become transformed into something else. It is the work of art that guides the idea and the use of materials for me, not the other way around”.
Nor are Fabro’s marble columns a direct reference to the classical past. To the contrary, insists the artist, who becomes angered when a comparison is made between the broken Doric column of “Il sole” and ancient column fragments.
“Nothing here is ancient. I consider that the past is contemporary. If I see you it is as contemporary as if I see a statue. We have a living experience which is always contemporary; it is not a question of things being ancient, modern, future. What is interesting to me is to see what is still living. It is a question of vitality, of whether forms can continue to be reinvented”, says the artist.
“For example, I just went to Stonehenge to see if the proportions of those blocks were the same as the proportions of my column of “La luna” in the Duveen. Stonehenge is as contemporary as my art; it is living history”.
Curator Frances Morris concurs. “To Fabro, the work of art is not part of dead history; it is alive, just like his cultural references to thinkers as varied as Fielding and Mandelstam, Popper and Parmenides are alive. So in his mind Turner would become a contemporary artist, hung alongside Fabro”.
This mind-set, she explains, may explain why an artist of Fabro’s stature has never had a major retrospective. “One of the reasons institutions may have shied away from a large-scale Fabro show is because he constantly reinvents himself and changes his work, hangs it in different ways, adds new elements at the last minute. He does not want the solidification that occurs with a retrospective”.
A charming man, with a keen sense of humour and an equal regard for Piranesi and Brancusi, Fabro creates sculpture as playful as it is profound. But both the man and his work resist explanations. As the artist says, “The material always comes before the idea”.
In “Il sole”, for example, the geometry of the column interior, with its spiralling star shapes, is extremely complicated. Fabro wanted to have a different star motif as the aperture of each block, cut in such a way as to produce a revolution. Each star conjures a set of relationships between sacred and secular, eastern and western.
But how did Fabro actually conceive the form? “I used cheese,” he says with a shrug. In Carrara he bought a soft, waxy cheese to experiment with carving out the star forms. “What else would you have used?”