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Joseph Masheck: "Luciano Fabro"

Installation view: Luciano Fabro, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2023. © Archivio Luciano e Carla Fabro. Photo: Steven Probert.

The Paula Cooper Gallery has a terrific exhibition of works by the conceptual sculptor Luciano Fabro (1936–2007), from May 6th to July 28th, at both 534 and 521 West 21st Street. It includes a couple of large pieces as well as a number of remarkable painting-sized reliefs titled “Computers.”

Fabro was part of Italian Arte Povera—meaning poor (though not abject) art—a parallel to, and in ostensible rivalry with, Minimalist sculpture in the US. Minimalism made such a point of spurning anything transcendental that it might have looked pigheadedly American from the Arte Povera point of view, but Arte Povera was really something else entirely. It puts ordinary, even cheap, materials to artistic use, and seems not so dogmatically anti-formal. The important thing is to see the relation to Minimalism as antithetical. (If that means it now starts to look “proto-postminimal,” maybe that’s interesting).

Arte Povera welcomed a dialectic requiring idealist as well as blatantly materialist factors, including a knowing sense of form, which Americans were starting simplistically to trash. As Germano Celant, the critic who put Arte Povera on the map, said, regarding an attack on Arte Povera by Judd and Stella in 1966, “We were not interested in linearity but in ‘conflict as the mainspring of history.’ We understood the mutual conditioning value of form and ideology, and hence the European difference.”[1] That “conflict” is obviously dialectical. Well, I have never seen an exhibition of sculpture in which such rigorous materiality, and form, was on as high a pitch of ideological certitude as this.

Larger works here—in terms of wingspan rather than either mass or even volume—include L’Infinito (The Infinite) (1989), often illustrated: a big figure “8” of twisted steel cable like an infinity sign, on the floor, with chunks of white marble acting as chocks keeping the curves of the infinity sign—“drawn” in heavy cable—from kinking. Unknown to me was La Scala di Giacobbe (Jacob’s Ladder) (1988–96), a slender metal zigzag hanging from the high ceiling, with “earth” globes atop as well as on a sort leash on the floor (apropos of the latter: "ball-and-chain" has an equivalent Italian figure of speech). The piece is at once humble and grand. Two smaller pieces are re-dos of earlier works, both in editions of eight: Tubo da mettere tra i fiori (Tube to Place Among Flowers) (1963/2001), likely familiar for its somewhat didactic structuralist integration of nature and culture. Smaller still: probably the most famous wall-mounted piece, Ruota (Wheel) (1964/2001), like a hoop on a wiry horizontal line.

Passing over two installations that strike me as wall treatments (though Penelope [1972], with equidistant vertical “silk threads and needles” has interest), three different but interchangeable “Piede (Foot)” works engage architecture insofar as cylinders clad in silk (green, blue, or red), and suspended over a bronze “foot” base, raise the specter of classical columnar caryatids. On the gallery walls are the shallow reliefs called “Computers.”

Early on, Fabro had shown he was capable of engaging Italian classicism on a conceptual level through his preoccupation with Andrea Palladio’s ultraclassical façade of the church of the Redentore (1576–92). Fabro’s Every Order is Contemporaneous of Every Other Order: Four Ways of Examining the Façade of the SS. Redentore in Venice (Palladio) (1972–73), is a set of four serigraphs, derived from that façade in Palladio’s book, rearranging definitively classical “orders” to produce different but consistent formal effects, defetishizing the canonical example—defetishizing but respecting the logic of the game. One can imagine this project being encouraged by the Marxist theoretician and martyr Antonio Gramsci’s (1891–1937) sense that the working class should not be denied past culture but rather deserves to take possession of it on liberated terms. Fabro would likely have read, in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, published between 1948 and 1951, a section which critiques Nikolai Bukharin’s vulgar-Marxist Historical Materialism (1921), just as the Russian modernist dispute over supposedly reactionary “composition” versus supposedly necessarily radical “construction” had come to a head.

In something of a Gramscian manner, Fabro’s lecture series at the Brera Academy, in Milan in 1995, commemorated a series on space and time in the fine arts delivered at the great Soviet constructivist VKhUTEMAS school in Moscow, in 1923, by Pavel Florensky. By that time, Fabro had recently produced the eight “Computer” reliefs seen here and, soon before them, a freestanding sculpture entitled Dialectic (1985) (now in the Museum of Modern Art): resembling a cobweb stretched down between two archer’s bows, its opposition between tension and compression as much as visualizes the dialectic.

With the “Computers” in particular—which veer close to painting but consist entirely of manufactured materials—some may see their engrossing formal “composition” as a disqualification, on dogmatic Marxist grounds, in line with that old art-political debate about composition as flat-out “bourgie” and construction as flat-out “commie.”[2] Given his frame of mind, I would bet that Fabro read not only the homeboy Gramsci, but Henri Lefebvre, who, in 1940 mobilizes Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy on the wretched commercialization of capitalist society. “Symptomatic of the present reversal of values,” he says parenthetically, is “the way Marx should have been accused of an ‘absolute economicism,’ whereas the essential aim of his philosophy is to transcend economic man.”[3]

Like all of Fabro’s works, the “Computers” use materials without class prejudice, high or low. Their principal material, termed slotted angle iron, or more abstractly, “slotted angle,” is used by Fabro to describe angles in space as well as for flat, wall-bound frames to which other hardware-store items are attached like geometric motifs. My own computer tells me that this is a postwar constructive material credited to the Greek-Australian Demetrius Comino, developed in Britain in the late 1930s and produced from 1947 onwards. Then again, however, a similar system had been adumbrated (a case of the ideal leading the material onward?) in model toys: the British “Meccano,” as of 1898, and the American “Erector Set,” of 1913. As for connections between parts, even ordinary rubber bands are permitted: see the hanging construction Bonjour Monsieur Cézanne (1988)!

The reliefs do welcome formal regard. Take the marvelous Computer (LF-12-SC) (1988–90), consisting of an aluminum irregular right triangle of angle-iron, hanging from the angle between “hypotenuse” and “base.” Along its now “diagonal” bottom (a so-called “perpendicular” side) is a stack of uniformly long steel rods painted in different colors, as if to maintain singularity as well as identity. Think of a single row of pencils held at an angle on a tabletop, its top and bottom edges having the same angle, of course, while the row will be shorter but longer. Likewise here, a stripe-like stack of parallel diagonals braces itself against the inside of the triangle at left while extending out beyond at right, such that the tapered angle of the tubes within equals the opposite taper outside. Drawn into physics as well as geometry, one surmises that a certain cantilever principle is at work, and that the very weight of the extended rods must also affect the angle at which the overall composition hangs on the wall.

An early statement by Fabro observed that the early definitive period of a style becomes its “classical” phase. The trouble is, before long the classical phase will be readily copied, precisely as classic, and tend to forestall subsequent developments; Fabro ends by observing that an art poised to express the happiness of presumably less alienated workers ultimately produced in Russia “the bad faith” of Socialist Realism, which “detoured Marxist society into the realism of improbability.” If a “society founded on work wishes to create a style that represents the peak of happiness, on the basis of its needs, … this peak can only be mechanical—to create machines that create work.”[4] Later, however, in Lecture 6 (May 22, 1995), at the Brera, having made his “Computer” works, he reflects on the use and limits of computers. However clever they are, our instruments have limitations: “they … wear out,” they “begin to have viruses in them,” which can come to disturb “our seeing, our mind, our contemplation.”[5]

This stunning Luciano Fabro exhibition is the perfect setting for rethinking the radically DIY “ordinary revolutionary” production of a great art worker.

1. Germano Celant, Arte povera / Art Povera (Milan: Electra, 1985), 25.
2. A later Soviet Marxist philosopher once called even Bertrand Russell on a related question relevant to abstraction: his notion that all “relations . . . must be illusory.” Evald Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic: Essays on Its History and Theory (1st ed., 1974), trans, H. Campbell Creighton (Moscow: Progress, 1977), 64–66.
3. Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism, trans. John Sturrock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 145.
4. Luciano Fabro, “Lettere ai Germani” (1979), trans. Paul Blanchard, in Celant, Arte povera, 191.
5. Fabro and Pavel Florensky, Betrachtungen zu den Vorlesungen “Raum und Zeit in der bildenden Kunst,” gehalten von Pavel Florenskij, 1923 und 1924 an den VChUTEMAS in Moskau, vorgetragen 1995 an der Accademia di Brera in Mailand, trans. from Italian by Anke Stark (Bern and Berlin: Gachnang & Springer, 2004), Lecture VI, 22 May 1995, 57–70, at 62–3.

– Joseph Masheck