‘I am a creator of rules, once these rules, games and mechanisms are created, I can play and I can let others play’ (A. Boetti, in interview with A. Mulas, in In prima persona. Pittori e scultori italiani, 1984, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80Z4JmnZlgI [accessed 16 May 2016]).
Executed on a large scale, Piccolo medio grande (Small Medium Large) (1981) belongs to the iconic series of Biro drawings which Alighiero Boetti began in 1972. The present work consists of three identical rectangular sheets of plain paper; on the first panel Boetti has vertically aligned the letters of the alphabet, while the remaining two panels are strewn with commas, constructing a code which the viewer is invited to decipher. Each comma corresponds to letters of the alphabet, which run vertically down the panels; when read in sequence from left to right, the commas form the title of the work. The letters are intentionally white, placed against a monochromatic red background that covers the whole surface of the triptych. Extending across the sheets of red colour, the white commas represent the infinite progression of time: a concept fundamental to Boetti’s oeuvre. ‘Time is at once present in all the biro drawings in such a lyrical way that it becomes a tangible and achievable category. … However in these works time is also present in a metaphorical way, precisely in the shape of scattered commas across the surface. The mentioned aesthetic connection of the commas with the notes of a musical composition, as well as the time it takes the viewer to see the work and read the hidden text intensifies the idea of an abstract temporality’ (R. Lauter, Alighiero e Boetti. Il sogno della riscoperta del mondo, p. 23). The intensity of the pen marks, created via a humble, everyday writing tool, creates an undulating rhythmic drama, elevating the quotidian to a field of rich and unfamiliar beauty.
Like Boetti’s embroidered Mappa, the Biro drawings required the involvement of assistants who created the works according to the artist’s instructions. Each sheet of paper had to be coloured by a different assistant, usually by a man and a woman, never by the artist himself. In this way, the three panels of Piccolo medio grande are made unique by the hand that has coloured it. The assistants were coordinated and supervised by Mariangelica De Gaetano, who worked with thirty men and women on several series concurrently. The first work of the Biro series, Mettere al mondo il mondo (Bringing the World into the World) from 1972-73, became something of a touchstone for the artist’s aesthetic philosophy: bringing a new world into an old one implies the deconstruction of traditional language and the rebirth of all words, signs and colours. The Biro works that he continued to create until his death in 1994 became a depositary for Boetti’s thoughts, much like the word square works, which convey the poetic qualities of language without being limited by strict pre-established systems. Piccolo Medio Grande encapsulates Boetti’s desire to offer the viewer a work that in part he created and in part already existed: as the artist asserted, ‘The greatest joy in the world consists in inventing the world the way it is without inventing anything in the process’ (A. Boetti quoted in ‘Interview with Mirella Bandini’, in Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2001, p. 190).