Monday, July 2, 2012

Jill Krementz covers Alighiero Boetti, Part I

Entrance to the Boetti Exhibition Galleries on the sixth floor.

In the late '60s, Boetti became interested in the idea of twinning himself. He achieved this in the photomontage Gemelli (Twins), 1968, on view here and in the gallery, in which he appears to hold hands with another, slightly different version of himself.

Boetti pushed the concept of doubling to the extreme a few years later by changing his name to Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero and Boetti), representing, he claimed, the different halves of his personality.
Alighiero Boetti
Game Plan
July 1-October 1, 2012

Alighiero Boetti (Italian, 1940-1994) began making art in his home town of Turin in the early 1960s against the backdrop of a resurgent postwar industrial society. He rose to prominence in the context of Arte Povera, a movement of young Italian artists attempting to create a new sculptural language through the use of humble, everyday materials.

A full retrospective spanning Boetti's entire career is now on view at MoMA and is spread out among numerous galleries on the sixth floor as well as being featured on the second floor atrium. Be sure to visit the sculpture garden before you leave the museum so you can see the artist's life-size bronze statue, a poignant self-portrait, sculpted by Boetti shortly before he died at the age of 54.

Featuring over 100 works across many mediums, the exhibition has been organized, chronologically, by Christian Rattemeyer, MoMA's Associate Curator of Drawings. It is the first major presentation of the artist's work in the United States.

Prior to being shown in New York, the exhibit was previously on view at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Tate Modern in London. The catalogue has been published in collaboration with those two museums, along with MoMA, and the three organizing curators: Lynne Cooke, Mark Godfrey, and Mr. Rattemeyer.
Christian Rattemeyer, MoMA's curator of drawings, organized the Boetti exhibition now on view at MoMA.
Offset print on paper

In 1967 the Genoese curator and critic
Germano Celant coined the term Arte Povera (poor or impoverished art) to categorize the work of a group of young Italian artists.

The key players, whose names are listed on this poster, were united by the humble origins of the materials they used to create their art. Boetti participated in the exhibitions Celant organized, but he was ambivalent about the idea of a movement.

In this cryptic "manifesto," Boetti assigned each artist a series of symbols, none of which are shared by all the figures. While he claimed that an envelope containing the key to the symbols had been sealed in a lawyer's office, it is likely that he intended the chart to remain a puzzle, frustrating
the impulse to neatly categorize and label artists' works into movements.
Untitled (Invitation)
Fabric, plexiglass, cork, synthetic polymer tubing, fiber-cement board, treated plywood, electric wire, and ballpoint pen on printed paper

In January 1967 Boetti announced his first solo exhibition—at Turin's Galleria Christian Stein—with an invitation featuring a grid of samples of the industrial materials he used in his art.

Many of the works from the original Turin exhibition are now on view at MoMA .
Entering the first gallery your introduction to Boetti is displayed on a white rectangular plinth (fancy word for platform).

As it is here, the original installation was deliberately crowded, like the displays in the hardware stores where Boetti purchased many of his materials.

These works refer both to the history of manufacturing in Turin (the artist's hometown) and to child's play, the acts of stacking and grouping. In addition, Boetti's embrace of simple, everyday materials aligned him with the burgeoning Italian art movement Arte Povera.
Legnetti Colorati (small coloured sticks)
frou frou
Industrial varnish, wood, and cork letters
Ghise (ABoetti) (Cast Iron [ABoetti])
Cast iron; Two parts

To make this work, Boetti scratched his signature across the ridges of a sheet of corrugated cardboard with his fingernail, then cast the sheet in iron twice (making one regular and one mirror-image version). Language was a fundamental means of visual expression for the artist; here his signatures function as a double self-portrait.

At this time, Boetti was becoming interested in the idea of twinning himself and he produced the double self-portrait hanging in this gallery as well as in the entrance foyer.
Scrittura graffita (scraped writing)
Cement and wood
Territori occupati (Occupied Territories)
Wool embroidery on jute cloth, circular wooden frame

A regular reader of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, in the late 1960s Boetti became preoccupied with the maps of conflict zones and occupied territories frequently published on its cover. From the newspaper's front page he traced maps of China, Biafra, Northern Ireland, Libya, Cambodia, Jordan,
the Basque region of Spain, Laos, and Bangladesh, among other zones, outlining only the map's borders and recording the date in the upper-right corner.
Detail of Territori occupati

Boetti made Territori occupati with the help of his wife, Annemarie Sauzeau, who embroidered the cloth with the forms of Sinai, the West Bank, and Gaza (the first of the twelve maps the artist had copied). Lacking the context of the newspaper page, the maps are nearly abstract, but the specificity of the dates ties them to a precise historical moment and therefore to a particular political and geographical context.
Me Sunbathing in Turin
19 January 1968

Composed of 111 concrete balls, hand molded by the artist, this work depicts Boetti sunbathing in Turin in midwinter—an absurd prospect given the city's alpine climate.

A reaction against the increasingly activist and radical political atmosphere in Italy, this self-portrait embodies the concepts of nonaction and inefficiency, which became very important to Boetti's artistic practice at this time.
The figure exhibits a repose so serene that a butterfly perches on its shoulder.
September 24, 1970
16 mm. film, black and white, sound
2 min, 15 sec
This is the sole installation of this type in the exhibit
Punched wooden blocks
Ink and stickers on paper

This painting is on the cover of the show's catalogue.
The Boetti exhibition publication ($50 hardcover; 277 pages; edited by Lynne Cooke, Mark Godfrey and Christian Rattemeyer) covers the artist's broad oeuvre including early sculptural experiments associated with Arte Povera, conceptual projects of the 1970s, and his monumental embroideries and tapestries fabricated up until his death in 1994.
I vedenti (The Sighted)
Ordine e disordine (Order and Disorder)
Embroidery on cloth
Order and Disorder
One hundred embroidered panels

Four-by-four or five-by-five grids of letters and, later, large complex arrangements of squares—called "word squares" or arazzi (tapestry) by the artist—were signature structures in Boetti's work from this point onward.

This project features one hundred embroidered arazzi, each containing the phrase Ordine e disordine (order and disorder), dispersed randomly over a wall. Each arazzi is governed by a system: within each square, all repeating letters are treated identically, rendered in the same color and background color (except for four exceptions to the rule).

The work opposes the order of each individual square to the disordered appearance of the overall arrangement but also emphasizes Boetti's characteristic desire to find order in disorder and variety in structure.
Close-up showing four of the 100 embroidered panels.
16 Dicembre 2040 - 11 Luglio 2023 (December 16, 2040 - July 11, 2023)
Engraving on brass

This is how long Boetti thought he would live. He died in 1994 from lung cancer.
16 Dicembre 2040 - 11 Luglio 2023 (December 16, 2040 - July 11, 2023)
Embroidery on fabric

These embroidered squares were the first works Boetti had fabricated in Kabul, on his initial visit to Afghanistan.

He supplied the dates to hired embroiderers without further direction, and he was pleasantly surprised when the texts came back surrounded by ornate borders.
Boetti was interested in the idea that an artwork might be produced by different parties without collaboration or discussion—a form of authorship that is split rather than shared.
The dates had superstitious connotations for Boetti: December 16, 2040, will be the hundredth anniversary of his birth; July 11, 2023, is the date he predicted for his death.
Planisfero politico (Political Planisphere)
Mixed media on printed map

By chance, Boetti came across a set of the blank schematic world maps commonly found in school atlases and textbooks.

To make this work, in one such map he colored in each country with the design of its national flag, a simple concept that was the prototype for his most iconic series of work, the embroidered Mappa.

Additional works in this series are on view throughout the exhibit, and especially on the second floor in the museum's atrium.
This was Boetti's favorite artistic strategy: to take an existing system and give it visual form, calling attention to the ways in which such systems structure the world.

Here you see a close-up of South America.
United States is in the shape of our American flag.
Emme I Elle Elle E ...
Crocheted lace

Boetti was interested in the way that dates accrue meaning with the passing of time. On the occasion of a new decade, he created a forty-eight-letter phonetic spelling of millenovecentosettanta, the Italian word for 1970. His wife, Annemarie Sauzeau, crocheted a lace square with the new word — EMMEIELLEELLEEENNEOVIECIEEN-NETIOESSETITIAENNETIA — broken over eight rows (read from left to right, top to bottom).
Emme I Elle Elle E ...
Spray paint on wood

Boetti made other versions of the work, including a grid of wooden letters akin to moveable type.
Dicembre 1983
Pencil on paper on canvas
In addition to the spectacular work on display, it is the installation itself designed by Lana Hum that draws you into Boetti's work.

You will find it worthwhile to tilt your head upward up and read the abundant, and well chosen, Boetti quotes that appear in every gallery.
On the wall in the foreground:
Calendari (Calendars)
Collage on paper

Back wall:
Mixed media on paper
Installation photograph.
Clessidra, cerniera e vice versa (Hourglass, Hinge and Vice Versa)
Pencil on paper

Boetti was right-handed; he used his left hand to transcribe these thoughts about time and its passage because it forced him to write slowly and therefore be more conscious of his thought process. He flipped the page over and tore four triangles outward from the center, folding the flaps over to expose the text.

This is one of Boetti's most private works and one he felt brought together many of his ideas about binary systems—including order and disorder, chance and reason, and improvisation and structure.

Of it he said, "I don't believe I could do anything more concentrated, denser, more diversified, more complete, because there's calligraphy, text, poetry, this visual fact of the opening out ... the being ripped into many pieces and finding unity in the negative, in the void."
Viaggi postali (Postal Voyages)
19 envelopes with stamps

In 1969 Boetti selected 25 artists, gallerists, critics, friends, and family to be each represented by an envelope in a personalized travel itinerary.

He photocopied the front and back of the returned envelopes as a record, then put each one inside a larger envelope and sent it off to the next destination; once more, many were returned, to be photocopied and sent out again until the itineraries were complete.

At the end of the process the envelopes, Boetti said, were "like the layers of an onion, because each contained the one before." Viaggi postali comprises the 19 envelopes in the artist's possession when the project was over (some were lost in the postal system).
The journeys were completed by mail; for example, an envelope addressed to gallerist Leo Castelli was sent to the eight grand hotels of Morocco, and a letter addressed to artist Lawrence Weiner went to the last seven localities listed in an Italian postal directory. Because the addressee did not live at the destination or because, in some cases, the address was fabricated, most of the envelopes were returned to Boetti on each leg of their journeys.
No one seems to know whether or not Leo Castelli and Boetti had ever met one another, but feel certain that each knew of the other's presence. Photographed by Jill Krementz, October 15, 1975.
Susan Eley runs Fine Art Gallery and also writes about art for Huffington Post. I have known Susie since she was 10 years old and appeared in my book, A Very Young Dancer. Christophe Cherix is MoMA's Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books. His department acquired the 82 Boetti prints which are exhibited on two adjoining walls in this exhibition.
Lavoro postale (permutazione) (Postal Work [permutation])
Six envelopes framed
Detail from 24 lettere dall'Afghanistan (24 Letters From Afghanistan)
24 envelopes and 24 drawings
La Mole Antonelliana
La Mole Antonelliana
Guatemala, 1974, 4 photographs.
Mappa (Map)
Embroidery on linen
For each of his Mappa, Boetti traced a world map onto canvas, colored it according to the national flag of each country, and then gave the canvas to Afghan craftswomen to use as the base for a tapestry.
He delivered the first such canvas for production in 1971, on his second trip to Afghanistan. Over the next two decades, more than 150 Mappas of different colors and sizes were created in this way, forming a symbolic portrait of the passage of time and shifting world politics.
Insicuro Norcurante (Insecure Carefree)

Portfolio of 82 mixed media prints. 68 of them can be seen in this photograph. The other 14 are on the adjoining wall.
Close-ups of four of the 82 prints.
Second of the 82 prints.
Third of the 82.
Fourth of the 82.
Regno animale (Animal Kingdom)
Pencil on paper mounted on canvas

Stand up close to this canvas and you will be as enchanted as I was by the various Boetti renderings of animals.

These drawings playfully subvert Carl Linnaeus's Systema Naturae of 1735, which classifies the natural world into animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. The animals in Regno animale are adaptations from an illustrated book that belonged to Boetti's children; he liked that all the animals were reproduced at the same size, regardless of natural scale.
Details of Regno animale.
One of the real pleasures of MoMA's press previews is the interview by Glenn Lowry with whoever has curated or organized the exhibition. in this case, Mr. Lowry talked with Christian Rattemeyer, who put it all together. Technically speaking, since the exhibit originated elsewhere, Rattemeyer is referred to as "the organizer" of the current exhibition at MoMA.

I would be remiss to not mention that we always look forward to seeing Lowry's colorful socks echoing the shades of his shirt, tie, and silk handkerchief.
Christian Rattemeyer and Glenn Lowry.

The conversation (always lively and informative) is scheduled an hour or so after the press preview begins so we've all had a chance to view the works.
Susan Eley and Amelia Reynolds. Ms. Reynolds, a 20-year-old college student, writes for Whitewall Magazine. "We try to break down the whitewall barriers between art and the artists, making art more accessible."
Art & Project Bulletin #62
A detail of a single self-addressed envelope from a set of 156 offset printed bulletins.

Boetti comprised a set of envelopes in which four pairs of colored stamps appear in all possible combinations. Each envelope containied a unique drawing.
One Hotel, Kabul, Afghanistan
Black and white archival photographs

Boetti first traveled to Afghanistan in March 1971. In Kabul, he befriended Gholam Dastaghir, a local man whose ambition was to own a hotel. Boetti provided five years' rent for a building in the Shar-e-Naw quarter of Kabul and, at Dastaghir's suggestion, named it One Hotel.

They divided the space into 11 rooms (Boetti's favorite number, due to its doubled nature), and the artist stayed in Room 11 during each of his visits, twice a year until 1979 (when the Soviet invasion made travel to the country impossible).

Passing traders, hippies, and friends stayed at the hotel, which Boetti also used as his studio and as the base of production for the increasing number of works he was having fabricated in Afghanistan. In 1973 he described the project as an artwork, insisting that "creativity also means opening a hotel."
Gholam Dastaghir in one of the 11 rooms. Dastaghir is the local Afghan whom Boetti set up with five years rent to manage One Hotel. Paper maps can be seen affixed to the wall.
MoMA's Glenn Lowry and Gallerist Barbara Gladstone, who has mounted numerous Boetti exhibitions at her Chelsea Gallery. Barbara Gladstone.
A view of the atrium from the sixth floor, which is best visited after an initial walk through of the galleries on six.

Please take notice of the large rectangular tapestry on the back wall because I am going to tell you a lot more about this as we progress.
Installation as photographed when I was on the atrium level. This work is based on a visual scheme, devised by Boetti, that is composed of a grid of one hundred squares, each subdivided into one hundred black or white pixels.

Boetti instructed students in art schools across France to draw grids following these rules and used their drawings as the basis for fifty kilims (nine of which are on view here), woven by Afghan artisans. In 1993, when they were first exhibited in Grenoble (Centre National d'Art Contemporarian de Grenoble), in Los Angeles (The Museum of Contemporary Art), and in New York (PS1) the installation was similar. Above each kilim hung a suspended single lightbulb.
Renata Knes is the Conservator of the exhibition and was with it when it was previously installed in Madrid and in London. Ms. Knes is originally from Trieste but now lives between Milan and Rome. She met Boetti two years before his death and started working for him at that time. Today Knes oversees the well-being of all the Boetti objects which are housed in Rome and include the mappas, the rugs, the sculptures and works on paper. Colleagues describe Knes "as the real deal, totally entrenched in the modern art world."
Talking to Christian Rattemeyer is Caterina Raganelli Boetti—Boetti's widow and second wife. She is the president of the Fondazione Alighiero e Boetti. Signora Boetti survived a near-fatal accident many years ago in Italy. Because she is so comfortable with who she is as a person, she emerges as a woman of real beauty. Would that there were more women like her.
Mappa (Map)
Embroidery on linen
In 1979, the embroiderers—unfamiliar with the map image—mistakenly filled the oceans in pink, a color they selected because the thread was in plentiful stock. Boetti loved this intrusion of chance into the design and from then on left it to the makers to choose the color for the seas. He was proud of how little he determined the look of these works.
Map of the World
Embroidery on fabric
Mappa (Map)
Embroidery on fabric
Renata Knes and Susie Eley (who speaks fluent Italian) have been friends since the '70s. "I met Renata when I was 20 and working at the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice. She was already a conservator and I was only an intern." Giorgio Colombo shows me the photograph he took of Boetti that appears in the exhibition and in the catalogue. "Boetti," says Colombo, "lived a double life, meaning he lived twice as fast as anyone else." The two men were good friends.
A wall in the atrium with four of Boetti's famous maps. The affection that the producers felt for Boetti--the man commissioning their labor--was often expressed through Persian texts surrounding the four sides of the "mappe" or within the "arazzi."
The Thousand Longest Rivers of the World
Embroidery on cotton and linen

In the 1970s, Boetti and his wife, Annemarie Sauzeau, embarked on a project to identify the thousand longest rivers in the world, accumulating data over several years. The outcome was a book, Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, and a series of monumental embroideries, including this one. Starting with the Kagera, this tapestry lists the rivers in descending order of length.

"It's a linguistic work which grew out of the idea of classifications," Boetti said of the project. "It's based on measurements. Geography has nothing to do with it." Sauzeau and Boetti knew that it would be impossible to rank the rivers with any finality or authority. Sauzeau raised various questions: Should a river be measured during a flood or a drought? Along the left or right bank? As navigated and named by an explorer, or completely, from source to mouth? As much as Sauzeau and Boetti enjoyed the task of classification, they also wanted to reveal its absurdity.

One of the most symbolically far-reaching of Boetti's works, the project exemplifies his interest in the relationship between the unclassifiable multiplicity of the world and our continued attempts to impose order, narrative, and sequence upon it.
Detail of The Thousand Longest Rivers of the World
Embroidery on cotton and linen
Senza titolo (nero su bianco, bianco su nero) (Untitled [black on white, white on black])
Oggi dodicesimo giorno sesto mese anno mille novecento ottantanove (Today the Twelfth Day of the Sixth Month of the Year Nineteen Eighty-nine)

The Persian text in this embroidery is one of the most politically charged statements in all of Boetti's works. Its authors are the Afghan craftspeople who fabricated the piece; Boetti encouraged them to insert their own narrative within the Italian text he provided. They combined famous verses by the fourteenth-century Sufi poet Hafiz with texts describing the contemporary struggle against the Soviets.
Installation photograph. The hanging lights are exactly as the they appeared when this installation was originally shown at MoMA's PS1. On the back wall, is the large embroidered canvas—Tutto (Everything); 1994—which gives you a sense of its scale.
Renata Knes, Susie Eley, and Giorgio Colombo are standing in front of a very large embroidered canvas, Tutto (Everything), 1994.
An orange corkscrew.
Eyeglasses, a lion, and an octopus.
Boetti's name is in the center.
A young girl in blue.
Boetti's recurring airplane motif.
A hat, a bird, and a bicycle built for two. Can you find the yoga poses?
A green teddy bear.
An upside down red dinosaur.
A yellow kitty.
And next to the corkscrew, leave it to my very young dancer Susie Eley to find a ballerina and her partner in a pas de deux.
Susie Eley, now 48, has three daughters, Samantha, Lauren, and Megan, who are 19, 16, and 12.

Eley has owned and run a gallery on the Upper West Side for six years where she represents artist and photographers "whose work I love; and who live here."
At this point it's too hard to resist including a photograph of Susie Eisner, now Susan Eley, and two pages from A Very Young Dancer, published by Alfred A. Knopf on October 12, 1976. That Susan came up to me at the press conference having recognized me is no small miracle.
As many of you know. Stephanie Selby, the young dancer featured in my book, was recently profiled in The New York Times.

I have to admit that I miss my Leica and those rolls of Tri-X film. But I don't miss my lab fees.
Finally ... in the garden of MoMA where you must end your magical visit with Alighiero Boetti. But how better than with a life-size bronze cast of the artist himself holding a water hose above his head?

The hose releases a small steady fountain onto the sculpture's head, which is heated from within so that a small puff of steam emanates from it on contact with the water.

Sometimes nicknamed, "Mi fume il mio cervello" (My brain is smoking), the sculpture casts an elegiac glance onto an interrupted life, with so many things not yet done, so many ideas unexecuted, so much of the great world yet to be explored.
First of all I prefer thought. This is the basic thing. I really think manual skill is secondary .... It's taking things from reality. Everything, however small and humble, always has a beginning and stems from reality."
— Alighiero Boetti
Click here for Part II of  Alighiero Boetti's "Game Plan" ...

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.
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