I remember being mesmerized on seeing Fabro’s L’Italia d’oro (1968) for the first time back in the early 1980’s. Fabro’s portrayal of Italy, hung inverted, like some heretical carcass, ironically gilded and sacrificed, seemed to me at the time to be the epitome of a disrupted nationalism. To put this into the context of early 1970’s Italy, politics and news media were dominated by the exploits of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) who sought, amongst other things, to extract Italy from NATO by means of violence, kidnapping, extortion and murder. If you think this a tangled view of art and life, then think again; in the ‘Red Belt;’ of Italy, (Emilia-Romagna et al.) the formidable history of resistance, suffering, communism and conspicuous partisanship post-WW2 were significant. The conditions that informed Luciano Fabro (1936-2007), and that were perhaps crucial to the development of a shared sensibility for a number of the exponents of Arte Povera, were borne of poverty, post-war rebuilding, emigration and the emergence of the Christian Democrats party who would come to dominate Italian politics for almost half a century.

Strangely, the combination of the aforementioned forces seemed to forge, in a generation of artists (including Fabro), an understanding of space, material and the metaphysical that for me remains unsurpassed. Like the Trojan Horse, Arte Povera assumed the mantle of the language of sculpture to insinuate metaphysical propositions using a syllabary of sumptuous materials: Bronze, silk, marble, wood, gold, excrement etc. Fabro, Pistoletto, Kounnellis, Boetti and others were the fulcrum of this movement and it is a rare and great pleasure to see Fabro’s work at Simon Lee Gallery, London. The works in the show capture and re-kindle the extraordinary incandescence of Arte Povera and its seminal brokerage for audiences between space, material intervention and experience.

Tubo da mettere tra i fiori (Tube to put amongst the flowers, (1963-2001), occupies a pivotal space in the gallery, its luxuriant reflection colliding exquisitely with Tondo e rettangolo (Circle and Rectangle, 1964-2004) and one’s own fleeting appearance. The gallery space is confounded in a way that brings to mind Pistoletto’s mirrors and Broodthaers’ installations by turns. Oddly though, my favourite piece in the whole show is probably Contatto.Tautologia (1967-2001) which, though sounding literal and descriptive, is anything but; to use a translation of Fabro’s own description: ‘A straight blade of steel…, fixed at the ends to two opposite walls, is cut at its central point. The cut makes the two segments of the blade bend slightly’. He also said of this work: “I think of things, not of what I can think of things, this is tautology”[1].

Whether the work is truly tautologous I think is more open to question; there is little here of repetition or the superfluity implied by the title, and the work appears entirely economical and tersely poised. The emphasis for Fabro seems perhaps more on the state of mind or approach of the artist to the state of the work than being descriptive of the work itself. Also included in the exhibition are four vetri (glass-based) works from the 1960s that Fabro re-visited from 2004-2007 and which re-enact the artist’s early experiments with perception and illusion. Buco (Hole) (1963-2005), takes the form of a sheet of decorated mirrored glass. From the viewers’ eye level a hole appears in the pattern with the observer presented with the perceptually disconcerting dual aspect of partial reflection and transparency within a single plane.

Descriptions of Arte Povera, to my mind, lose much in translation, but also when experienced vicariously rather than in person. One cannot grasp this show or the works in it solely from the mediated experience of the internet. When looking at Fabro’s work, as with much Arte Povera, one has the feeling of being addressed with super-articulacy in a vernacular that one somehow understands but cannot classify as being verbal, visual or literary. I really do wonder if the conditions that incubated Arte Povera enabled that generation to de-mist, albeit briefly, the lens onto metaphysical and metaphorical dimensions that are now hard for us to understand in our world of big data and interrupted consciousness. Standing in the gallery I felt transported intangibly to an anterior plane and another place.

The last word on this multiverse/multidimensionality probably should lie with the artist Ian Burn (1939-93), who, in 1967 painted onto a mirror the assertion that: “No object implies the existence of any other”. In our material world it is easy to forget that material presence and objecthood can be signifiers of ulterior absence; I would like to think that Fabro’s Tautologia refers then to the re-iteration provided by the dual state of matter present in reality but referred to (metaphorically) in absentia. An important show to see and reflect upon.

[1] Luciano Fabro in Attaccapanni, Galleria Framart, Napoli, 1977