Remembering gay artist Sabato Fiorello

Sabato Fiorello photographed in 1986 by Steven Arnold for “Celestial Fraud.” Photo: ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

Editor’s note: A memorial will take place for artist Sabato Fiorello on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the ONE Archives,  909 W. Adams Boulevard. Street Parking is available. Fiorello died on January 13 in Escondido. He was 79.

Born in New York and raised in Redlands, Fiorello’s work, which included assemblage, painting and mail art, was displayed in the exhibition “Forty Years of California Assemblage” at UCLA in 1989. In the 1980s, Fiorello was frequently photographed by Steven Arnold at his Los Angeles studio Zanzibar, and in his later years, Fiorello assisted artist Eleanor Antin with her classically inspired tableaux photographs.

Fiorello, who lived in West Hollywood for many years, and had been living and working in Escondido.

Sabato Fiorello, left, artist Simone Gad, center, and
Richard Adkins seen attending Fiorello’s “Kid” party, circa 1980. Photo: Richard Adkins.

Sabato Fiorello was an artist. It’s a simple truth. In a town where there are a lot of wannabes, he was the real thing. From the top of his shaved head to the tips of his steel-toed boots, Sabato was a complete artist. He could do it all: photography, oil paint, sculpture, assemblage. Nothing was beyond Sabato’s comprehension, and nothing and no one intimidated him.

He was my hero before I met him.

I was still in my 20’s and full of the self-confidence that makes you somewhat fearless. I had started selling drawings and paintings at flea markets and had graduated to juried shows when I became aware of his work, as our artwork shared subject matter — Hollywood legends.

When I was fortunate enough to be in these shows, I examined all the works to see who the artists were and which galleries represented them. The artist whose work I saw most was Sabato’s and the gallery that represented him and the other artists I admired — Simone Gad and Bud Armstrong, among them – was the Orlando Gallery in Encino. In a short time, I joined them. I was eager to personally meet these artists, but Sabato I was not prepared for.

What he lacked in height, he made up for in what can only be described as elegance. Any other man wearing a turquoise kimono accessorized by multicolored scarves and armed with a fan would be looked on as downright curious. But because he seemed so unconscious of it, within minutes you were as well.

Often, it seemed to me that Sabato loved the life of being an artist more than creating the artwork which had secured him standing in Los Angeles art society. He often chided me for not going to all the “important” art openings and hobnobbing with the artists, critics and gallery owners. I thought, With all the art show openings, not to mention the parties, how will I ever find the time to draw or paint?

Sabato’s work was so beautiful that I worried about him when it seemed he was becoming more known for his personal look and behavior than his art, and that the art would suffer for it. The photo postcards of him as Gallipoli or a leather master I thought were distracting from his gift, and that he was cheating himself and us.

I was wrong, of course, because for Sabato, everything was either art or an art, and he was gifted at all of it.

Sabato Fiorello photographed in 1980 for “The Dark Dreamer” (left) and “The Phoenician Storyteller.” The postcard mail art images are from the series “Confessions of an Artist: A Series for 1980” by Joe Messinger. Photo: ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

About the author

Richard Adkins

Richard Adkins is president of Hollywood Heritage, the historic preservation group.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!