Alighiero Boetti at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

by Ian Wallace

August 2012

On the one hand, contemporary art history is about the expansion of the site of art from being between one artist and his audience to being about collaboration, relational work, time-based art, performance. On the other hand, ironically, it’s about a narrow focus on individuals, an almost capitalist perspective that celebrates a sole innovator. Now that, beyond anything “new” that crops up (a problematic idea unto itself, to be sure), the major museums are beginning to grow tired of mining the past forty years of art history, it seems that their exhibitions have begun to turn to individual artists who have fallen between the cracks of that history, or who have purposefully gone out of their way not to adhere to strict styles, schools or movements. The irony of this position is, perhaps, another very basic problem in art today. We still need the structure of the movements, that historical skeleton, in order to acknowledge those who might be outside of it. This acts as an entry into the work of Alighiero Boetti at MoMA.

Boetti hailed from Turin, part of Italy’s “industrial triangle.” In the 1950s and ’60s, as Italy experienced its postwar economic boom, the subset of Italian artists with whom Boetti was affiliated, a group that would come to be called Arte Povera (first in Turin, later in Rome), were engaging with a conceptually rigorous interrogation of their history and culture. It was a period, as Germano Celant would write in Arte Povera’s manifesto, of “deculture.” Arte Povera was, depending on whom you ask, Italy’s answer to minimalism, to pop, to conceptual art, or located somewhere between those three. Yet it was distinctly Italian, and distinctly new.

This exhibition, titled Game Plan, emphasizes the ludic qualities of Boetti’s work both expressly in its title, and also in the kind of language that it wants us to use to understand his work, highlighting the material and process-based aspects of his career. We’re presented with Cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione (“Contest of Harmony and Invention”), from 1969, a series of large sheets of notebook paper that have been covered from edge to edge in fine, hand-drawn pencil grids utilizing a simple diagrammatic score. Similarly, L’albero delle ore (“Tree of Hours”), from 1979, is a striking, muted tapestry that records, in perpendicular stitches, the quarter- and half-hourly tones of the chimes of a church in Rome. Several other pieces include such systematic, grid-like constructions, and allusions to play: Rotolo id cartone ondulato 2 (“Roll of Corrugated Cardboard 2”), from 1966, is a large cardboard tower based, structurally, on the way Boetti would create miniature monuments when he was a child by rolling paper around his little finger and pushing out one end of the tube.

This is also, perhaps inevitably, an exhibition about Arte Povera. Boetti’s earliest works are large, minimal, structural sculptures, inflected by provocative conceptual twists and subtle graphic details. Prime examples of what we now call Arte Povera’s aesthetic of industrially derived materials bumping up against conceptual wit, these pieces are large-scale and elemental. The most immediately “fun” is Lampada annual (“Annual Lamp”), from 1966: a simple lamp that is programmed to light up once a year, for eleven seconds at a time and at random. Maybe it will light up during this exhibition; maybe it won’t.

The problem is that Boetti didn’t want to be categorized by Arte Povera at all, and made a conscious effort throughout his career to undermine his own reputation as a member of the group in favor of cultivating an individual sensibility (concentrated on a conception of duality that permeates the later work, when the artist created works under the name Alighiero e Boetti). The 1967 screenprint, Manifesto, serves as a checklist of the artists associated with the movement (Pasolini, Farro, Gilardi, etc.), and was given its name by a social collaborator of the group, aforementioned critic and curator Germano Celant. The list, however, also includes many apocryphal code-symbols next to each name. In this context of this show, this piece is another instance of Boetti playing games with his audience (he claimed to have locked the key to the cryptic symbols in an envelope in a lawyer’s office; in a later performance piece, the artist stood in front of the poster, pointing at his name and grinning). However, it also displays a somewhat resilient—and, in retrospect, perhaps cynical—attitude towards the whole thing.

This exhibition does, however, find the solid ground between Boetti’s material sensibility and his cerebral conceptual work. This transaction always occurred in collaboration for Boetti, and often has to do with geography. His first maps were made in collaboration with his wife, Annemarie Sauzeau, who embroidered them after copies the artist had made from pages of the Italian newspaper La Stampa. An installation on the museum’s mezzanine level—really a fine show unto itself—displays a group of woven tapestries from the ’70s that were created by weavers in Kabul, Afghanistan (a collaboration initiated after the artist made his first of several trips to the country in 1971) after instructions remotely supplied by the artist. They are beautiful in their simplicity; ever interested in the interstices of language, code, and systems, Boetti liked that the resulting maps had no element of design to them; that is, the world map is a standard, (arguably) objective image, and each country was simply made in the colors of its flag. There were, however, certain fluctuations left up to chance, as in the maps where the ocean is pink rather than blue.

The collaborative nature of Boetti’s work may, in fact, be what most appropriately aligns him with the Arte Povera label. While Game Plan organizer Christian Rattemeyer seems to want to lasso Boetti’s wildly heterogeneous work with Arte Povera’s use of industrially-derived, stripped-down materials; but perhaps this is simply an easier way of explaining it to the uninitiated, the “poor” that Celant had in mind when he anointed the group was actually the “poor” of Polish modernist dramatist Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre,” meaning a theater predicated on the relational experience shared by its actors and spectators, rather than on illusionistic spectacle. Maybe it’s ironic that collaboration with craftspeople halfway around the world worked for Boetti when his association with his fellow Italians grew too historically prominent for his taste, but in any case, the spirit of collaboration that pervades this retrospective is all “poor,” in that sense.

Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan
1 July–1 October, 2012
MoMa
New York