Bronzo patinato nero e seta naturale (Piede) (Black Patinated Bronze and Natural Silk (Foot)) is a large sculpture by the Italian artist Luciano Fabro. It consists of a cast bronze tripod base that sits flat on the floor and is topped by a long vertical sleeve of blue silk. The base has double-pointed shapes at the end of each of its three supports such that it resembles the foot or claw of a bird, and it has been chemically patinated to produce a finish akin to aged bronze. The tube of silk above it surrounds and is supported by a vertical metal pole. A triangular Perspex template fitted to the top of the pole ensures that the silk hangs properly. Towards the bottom of this blue silk column there are two sets of eight parallel lines of stitching that run horizontally around it.
This work is one of a number of sculptures made by Fabro in Milan between 1968 and 1971, all of which have the generic title Piede (Foot). While the overall form is shared by all of the works in the series, the sculptures are made from different materials. Fabro first exhibited a group with bases of marble and aluminium at the Galleria Arte Borgogna, Milan, in 1971, and at the Venice Biennale the following year he showed another group with Murano glass bases and Shantung silk sewn by his mother. Bronzo patinato nero e seta naturale (Piede) was initially shown at Fabro’s first major retrospective at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, in 1988.
Born in Turin, Fabro lived and worked in Milan from 1959 until his death in 2007. He is associated with arte povera, or ‘poor art’, a term coined by the Italian curator and critic Germano Celant in 1967 in reference to a number of Italian artists whose work explored a wide range of materials and processes in a direct manner that consciously resisted established institutional presumptions. Beside Fabro, who contributed to Im Spazio (The Space of Thought), the first arte povera exhibition curated by Celant at the Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa, in 1967, the group included Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, Giovanni Anselmo, Gilberto Zorio, Pino Pascali and Giuseppe Penone. Despite the movement’s name this by no means meant a rejection by those artists of traditional fine art materials. This is evinced by the Piedi, such as this one owned by Tate, which employs established craft skills to realise a work that is at once weighty and delicate in appearance.
While the bronze part of this work resembles a bird’s foot, the silk element may consequently function as a sock or trouser leg. However, the bronze base might also be seen as a more regular three-pronged stand over which fabric has been draped. As such the bronze element is both part of the sculpture, and at the same time a stand for it, a double existence that is reminiscent of the problematic relationship between plinth and sculpture that was explored in the work of modernist sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi (1876–1947) (see, for example, Fish 1926, Tate T07107). While the viewer would usually recognise the expressive qualities of a sculpture from the features of a face or the gesture of a hand or arm, here all we have is a foot, and as a consequence we are drawn to look for those live qualities in the materials themselves and their arrangement. Fabro wrote of the Piedi in 1987:
Anyone who has touched these feet will have realised that hands feel; and anyone who has seen these feet will have realised that one can listen to stone. But anyone who is deaf will not have even thought about touching them, and will certainly not have looked at them with feeling.
(Fabro 1987, p.163.)
Sculptures in another of Fabro’s series, Italia (Italy) 1968–2006, are formed using Italy’s unmistakable boot-shaped outline. Although the likeness here is less clear-cut, there is nonetheless a strong sense that Bronzo patinato nero e seta naturale (Piede) alludes not only to the body, human or otherwise, and in its columnar form to architecture, but also to Italy itself – both the country as it is today and the weight of its history, especially that of the Renaissance and the classical tradition that helped shape it. ‘I do what I do as best I know how’, Fabro stated in 1987. ‘Phidias and Praxiteles, Donatello and Michelangelo, Bernini and Canova are my witnesses. I don’t use them as examples but I have found them to be exemplary.’ (Fabro 1987, p.163.)
Fabro’s direct attitude towards materials and to the richness of reference and allusion that such an approach can provide can also be seen in Clotheshanger of the North (Attaccapanno del Nord) 1981, also in the Tate collection (Tate T12003).
Luciano Fabro, Fabro: Works 1963–86, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1987.
Luciano Fabro, Luciano Fabro, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 1992.
Supported by Christie’s.