We met in Ponza.
Three weeks into September, long after the world had shut down but near the end of a summer that felt somewhat “normal”. The prior month was distinctly characterized by a lack of sleep.
We spent that day in September on Frontone – a small piece of the island accessible by water taxi followed by a short walk on well placed large stones – diving from rocks, swimming to the tip of the island and back, drying off, eating watermelon, repeat ad infinitum. This process is a ritual; end of September, the last weekend before the island starts shutting down for fall, is carefully marked on our calendar; this time is key to enjoying this island as many of the Romans that call Ponza their summer home have returned to work.
We left Frontone as always, immediately after sundown, and made our way to dinner. After, drinks at Bar Tripoli to meet a friend. Table of four, became six, then eight, then, after a few games of musical chairs, seats ran out and we took over a small part of the walkway above Ponza’s port. A quintessential Italian interaction, I knew very few of the people around me but they were all friends.
In between hallucinations from the aforementioned sleepless month aided by gin tonics, one man listened carefully, puffed on his cigarette with a purpose (seemingly draining half of it in one inhalation), and observed each of our interactions. He introduced himself as Alberto and through our common friend I found out he was an artist who lived part-time on the island.
iPhone open, google his name: “Alberto Di Fabio”, hallucinations begin to intensify.
His art revealed itself to me as an expression of the human psyche, a deep dive into our synapses, a combination of science and spirituality. We spoke briefly about his art, his home on Ponza; he was kind, gentle and attentive, he listened to everything we had to say taking our thoughts one step further with his questions.
We made a vow to re-encounter each other at his studio in Rome.
Five months later in the February cold we walked outside the old city center and transported ourselves to the Pigneto neighborhood of Rome. A neighborhood that feels very much left behind. Left and down an ordinary street we found the plain white gate immediately next to an underground garage, looking straight ahead at the long, open walkway we see a man washing down what appears to be a mosaic in the distance.
He walked us into his studio, the warmth of objects that told the story of time grabbed hold, nothing modern about this place. Past the doors on our left a simple bordeaux colored futon with a vintage Alitalia blanket; he urged me to hold the blanket, an expression of the quality that existed in this country 40 years ago which led us down the long and winding path that is Italy’s tremendous rise and fall. While the topic is exhausting it’s important to note, despite general agreement among the population, the Italian’s wouldn’t trade their current situation for anything – a very clear contradiction which speaks to their persistent and unwavering love for their country. Alberto says this love and admiration, and I think even a certain obligation, is why he refused to sacrifice his life in Italy for one in New York where his “success” would likely have reached stratospheric proportions. From my standpoint, if his success is judged by the works that adorn his studio walls and drawers (and nearly every crevice in between), he didn’t need New York, and that’s a lot coming from yours truly, a lifelong New Yorker.
Alberto did spend some time in the big city, he worked and studied under some of the greats (not in the least Twombly who he reveres), and is represented by some of the most famous galleries in the world. He reminds us several times that he is Abruzzese, persistently aware of where he comes from and choosing the little known Pigneto as his primary studio despite having homes in some of the coolest cities in the world.
The conversation turned to the Air Algerie blanket on the chair immediately to the right. In front of us was a table displaying a project he is reviving, radishes he turned into sculptures, and magazines which mention Di Fabio and his work – my favorite is one he created in the early 2000’s exploring the beginning of our oversexualization, overstimulation, and mass marketing, all themes that reappear in his work, albeit indirectly. The flat drawers in this table are literally packed with various studies. In this first room, no more than 30 square meters, all the walls carry the weight of his work.
We walk into the next room, where in the distance we see a shockingly massive pink painting; “we’re coming back to that” I say to myself as we’re ushered into the next room. He flicks a single switch, and like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie the lights turn on, two at a time and in a row, coming to life and clanking as if someone was smacking each of the bulbs in coordination. Above us is a brutalist skylight with matte glass squares. This room is overwhelmingly large, and everywhere you look, other than a small sitting area with well-abused chairs in the middle of the room, there’s his work. It’s clearly toeing the line between other-worldly, transporting you to another galaxy, and an expansion of our individual consciousness. A lot of Di Fabio’s work is full of color, think Pollock tie dyes sans texture and with a bit more coherence. Some recall visualizations of the brain you may have seen in a documentary, others pure abstraction, one study borrowed from Yves Klein, and a few, including his mountain series, seem to foreshadow the work of his contemporaries.
We returned to the big pink painting, I stood two inches in front of it and looked left to right, up and down as I had learned to do with Barnett Newman’s similarly overwhelming Vir Heroicus Sublimis; I stepped further back, this motion made way for perspective. While his work gave me a sense of joy, mezmeration, and perspective, it also extracted a certain energy, it gave and it took.
Di Fabio very apparently has an obsession with the brain, which he says is the destroyer of mankind. I tell the story about my experience with social media… immediately after joining I began to receive advertisements for all of man’s vices. We touched on sexuality, ego and how to shed it, the importance of education in art and the misdirection of said education, and the simplest rule of all: “learn by doing.” It’s obvious that Di Fabio subscribes to this, as every inch of this otherwise nearly bare warehouse, and several other warehouses we didn’t have the opportunity to see as time dripped away, show signs of a prolific amount of work.
He reminds us that he has done over 280 shows. I asked if he’s thinking of taking a break or will he keep pushing forward at this tremendous pace. This sent us back to the conversation of education, Alberto has students from all over the world cycling through to hear the story of the man who stayed in Rome. All at once, like one of his paintings folding into itself and making synaptic connections, he said: “its time to give back.”
When we met in his studio, in his place of artistic expression, the man who listened took the frenetic energy of his work and transformed into the man who teaches.
Was it the same energy I felt the work took away from me?