The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940–1994) has its pleasures, but mostly it made me wonder, Why, of all the artists who could have been showcased in MoMA’s prime summertime slot, was Boetti chosen? What was the calculus of institutional connections to the artist’s New York dealer, or need to attract tourists from Europe, where he is a major figure? Questions like these are admittedly irrelevant to visitors trooping through the exhibit. They probably think, Hey, this guy is at MoMA; he must be as good as Picasso! Well, no. However, he is dead, which means he can’t express ingratitude for a career-making survey the way Marina Abramovic did not too long ago.
With his elegant, if slight, Conceptualist style and his globe-trotting, peripatetic practice (he was big on mail art, employed Third World artisans to create his work and even ran a hotel in Afghanistan for a spell), Boetti can be seen as a forerunner of Relational Aesthetics and such artists as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Maurizio Cattelan and Francis Alÿs. That’s damning him with faint praise, however, so if there is a case to be made for his significance, it lies with his start in the late-’60s Italian movement known as Arte Povera, and his eventual evolution away from it.
Usually translated into English as “poor art,” Arte Povera was the Italian analog to the antiform aesthetics of American Postminimalism in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Like their American counterparts (a group that included Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and Keith Sonnier), the Poveristi employed raw industrial materials to create sculptural objects and installations that emphasized process over product. But while the Americans remained, for the most part, resolutely nonobjective, the Italians added a philosophic or poetic spin.
For Boetti, this meant pursuing ideas that wandered all over the place, though his fondness for wordplay and the witty, refined gloss he imparted to his pieces do provide a semblance of coherence for his work. The show makes the not-altogether-convincing argument that however many directions Boetti took, his art was fundamentally about the dualities that complicate human experience: life and death, order and disorder, rationalism and irrationalism. To this end, MoMA kicks things off with a mural-size blowup of his 1968 postcard project, Gemelli (Twins), in which he is seen strolling down a leaf-strewn street, hand in hand with his own charming self as a photomontaged doppelgänger. It’s a clever image that, more than anything else, speaks to his precious brand of solipsism.
You get a sense of this throughout the show, beginning with the first room, in which MoMA re-creates Boetti’s 1967 solo debut at a gallery in his hometown, Turin. A group of formalist objects installed on a low plinth take up the center of the space. As in the original exhibition, they’re bunched together to evoke the ambience of a hardware store. Among other items, there’s a squat latticed tower, created by stacking pairs of squared-off cement pipes at right angles to one another, and a large, upright roll of corrugated cardboard, tapering into the shape of a dildo.
These pieces exists with others that seem to convey the vagaries of existence. A giant lightbulb within a glass-topped box illuminates for exactly 11 seconds every year, though at random intervals during the calendar, so that even Boetti wouldn’t know when the piece came to life. In another work, the phrase the sighted—a term used by the blind to describe people who can see—is spelled out in Italian by finger holes poked into a plaster slab when it was still wet. As superficially diverting as some of these are, none of them possess, say, the majestic fuck-you attitude of Richard Serra’s work or the extraterrestrial creepiness of Eva Hesse’s.
These early efforts established Boetti in the firmament of Arte Povera, but within a couple of years, he began to decry the movement’s emphasis on what was, basically, sculpture. This hardly stopped him from making objects, of course, but he started to focus more on underlying stratagems than on the works themselves. Thus, a notable disparity often exists between the weight of his conceits and their rather weightless visual expression.
In a piece titled Dodici forme dal 10 giugno 1967 (Twelve forms from July 10, 1967), for example, Boetti engraves a series of polished copper plaques with small, delicate maps of Cold War hot spots (Vietnam, the Middle East and Prague Spring–era Czechoslovakia) taken from the newspaper that day. Boetti deploys the irony of using a neutral term—form—to describe geopolitical conflicts as if they were nothing more than the result of arbitrary lines drawn in the sand. Of course they are, though that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. The other, more nuanced point raised by the piece, perhaps, is the impact of time on humanity’s petty disputes. This notion—that today’s headlines inevitably recede into tomorrow’s history books—is made a bit more explicit in Boetti’s most famous works, his series of embroidered tapestries depicting maps of the world. Created for him by Afghan tribesmen over the course of a decade, they use national flags to outline the boundaries of countries, so that, for example, we can see the former hammer and sickle of the USSR give way to the current tricolor of the Russian Federation.
Fans of Boetti might say that he was an alchemist of language, place and time. That may be true, but too often his own insouciance and the sumptuousness of his material subsume the substance of his work. And frankly, the whole globe-girdling, outsourcing aspect of his art is a little bit grating given our current economic straits. Ultimately, this, too, shall pass, at which point Boetti’s efforts may seem a little less twee and self-absorbed than they do now.—Howard Halle