Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my position at Dia, an institution so closely connected to a minimal tradition, I had started to look at Fabro’s work, and specifically at his work from the early 1960s, in relation to a reduced language of form. Yet even a cursory look into Fabro’s production makes apparent that the connection to American minimalism is next to non-existent, and that it is rather the material selection and fabrication of work that structures his thinking. Fabro’s early investigations into space, the viewer’s relationship to vision, and the environment of the installation form a discrete body of work—which includes Impronta (1964), Mezzo specchiato e mezzo trasparente (1965), Tutto trasparente (1965), or Ruota (1964), and Croce (1965). The trajectory of these works rather abruptly comes to an end in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Fabro’s investigation of materiality takes a perhaps surprising turn with the start of Piedi and Italie series. In these series he is not only unafraid to be referential, metaphorical, and even humorous, but the presence of iconic or representational forms seems to exuberantly fly in the face of so much contemporaneous work.
Fabro’s move from a pared down formal object—the materialism of which is, literally, rendered open and transparent—toward a subjective iconography is mirrored in his writing. His occupation in the 1970s with educational and social narratives, still avowedly materialist, introduces an expansive, inclusive perspective. He wrote in Attaccapanni (1978):
I have always had an authentic distrust of ideas; for this reason, from the beginning, I made sure that my work does not coincide with the ideas that it represents. Technique, I found, can be useful as a good alibi to postpone the result of the excitement of the idea, so that [the idea] seems cold and impersonal to me. In this, I am helped by the fact that I am not a master of any particular technique. So, when I’m realizing a work from myself, I have to learn everything down to the most elementary things, always focused on how to do rather than on what to do, and when I must ask others to do something that I cannot to do for myself, my sole concern is that the work be so simple and legible that another person can do it well.
(Atti del Comune di Milano, 15 marzo 1964, in Luciano Fabro, Attaccappani (Turin: Einaudi, 1978), pp. 11 – 16.)
Fabro’s need to be open and transparent finds itself in the communication of processes, rather than in final works. The working method leads to understanding so that, even when the appearance of the work is highly metaphorical, or its iconography rendered opaque, his audience can follow him. Simplicity of form becomes—across a time of development and while finding a considered vocabulary, simplicity of communication—a far from simple achievement.
In this way, and indeed in many others, Fabro differs from the occupation by many of his Arte Povera contemporaries, whose symbolism circumnavigated an often hermetic (neo)classical canon. Fabro can reference a Neapolitan sunset, classical antiquity, and animal or human forms, but his work with craftspeople in glass, marble, bronze, and fabric brings us back to a process of thinking through making, and a marriage of the modern and antique that remains as surprising and compelling today as at its moment of production.