10 things to know about Alighiero Boetti
The colourful life and art of the maverick Italian conceptualist, featuring standout works from his Arte Povera period, as well as his acclaimed ‘Arazzi’ and ‘Tutto’ series
Born in the industrial city of Turin, Italy, in 1940,
Alighiero Boetti came to prominence as part of the
Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s. Its artists rejected
the marble sculptures and oil paintings of their grand
Italian forebears to work in everyday or organic materials
such as slate, wax, wood and felt.
Boetti’s early works such as Mazzo di tubi, Collina — a
sculpture that comprised a series of metal tubes stacked
up to resemble rolling hills — and Rotolo di cartone ondulato from 1966 —
a roll of cardboard pushed up in the middle to form a Ziggurat-like
tower — recall the curious and playfully
inventive gestures and interactions with material that are instinctive in children, and which Boetti himself recalled making in his youth.
In 2014, Boetti’s sculpture Colonna (above) — created at the
high point of Arte Povera in 1968 — sold at Christie’s for £2,434,500,
achieving what is still the world-record price for the artist
at auction. At first glance, it looks like a marble-hewn
Classical column, but it is actually a quintessential piece
of Arte Povera, made up of myriad paper doilies laid one on top of the other over an iron rod.
Some of the best moments in Arte Povera were hardware-shop moments, there’s so much in a hardware shop,’ reflected Boetti in 1972. ‘This got so exaggerated in 1968 that it ended in nausea, then that was it — finished!
Divorcing himself from Arte Povera in 1972, Boetti moved to Rome and became a master of Conceptual
Dossier Postale (1969-70) demonstrated his preoccupation with improbability and chance, consisting of 26 letters sent to famous recipients at imaginary addresses — including
Marcel Duchamp, who’d recently died — and charting their random progress.
It was also around this time that the artist changed his name
to Alighiero e Boetti (‘Alighiero and Boetti’) and started
signing his work this way — as though he were two artists
In 2011, Boetti received a major, posthumous retrospective
at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, which then travelled
to Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
in New York. Its title, Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan, reflected the ludic
nature of much of Boetti’s art. In her review for the UK newspaper The Observer, Laura Cumming wrote
of ‘the sheer joy of his art,
its wayward and gorgeous appeal’.
An early-career example
of this playfulness is Lampada Annuale (1966), first made in 1966 for the artist’s maiden solo show at the Galleria Christian Stein in Turin. It consists of a light bulb
in a wooden box that turns on once a year for just 11 seconds, with the random moment of illumination being determined solely by the mechanism. Once the viewer is made aware of this, their expectation for the object to suddenly light up imbues it with a peculiar, almost magical aura, as well as a sense of possibility.
Boetti often created work in series, and one of his best-known is the multicoloured embroideries known as ‘Arazzi’. These
are mosaic-like grids of individual letters, which combine
into words and phrases that the viewer must decipher (by
reading, in unconventional fashion, from top to bottom,
left column to right). The phrases range from proverbs and
poetry to, in the case of 1974’s Addizione, the
setting out of a mathematical problem.
Each letter serves as an autonomous form — and by breaking
text down into its constituent parts, Boetti exposes language
as a sophisticated but ultimately artificial arrangement
Boetti claimed descent from an 18th-century Dominican monk
called Giovanni Battista Boetti, who is said to have converted
to Islam while on a mission in Mosul, changed his name to
Sheikh Mansur, and led a Chechen rebellion against Catherine
the Great’s Russia.
The facts of Mansur’s life are open to conjecture, but what is undeniable is that Boetti declared he was following in the
former’s footsteps, when he made regular visits to Asia in
the 1970s. The artist even bought a hotel in Kabul and —
for his ‘Arazzi’, ‘Mappe’ and other tapestry series
— employed local Afghan embroiderers to make them.
Boetti’s most famous series is his Mappe — tapestry maps
of the world on which each country is represented by the
colours of its flag. A total of 150 exist, in a variety of sizes, dating from 1971
to 1994 (the year of the artist’s death). Together they form a holistic, ideological portrait of the passing of time and geopolitical shifts while simultaneously postulating the notion of a united world.
The colour of the ocean often marks out one Mappa from another
— for example,
the deep purple of this one from 1984 and the
greyish-white of another from 1990. A lifelong fan of chance, Boetti largely let his Afghan weavers
decide the colour of the ocean themselves, which, given that they inhabited a landlocked country and had never seen the sea,
made for richly varied results.
‘For me the work of the embroidered Mappa [is the] ultimate in beauty,’ Boetti said. ‘For that work I did nothing, chose nothing, in the sense that the world is made as it is, not as I designed it, the flags are those that exist, and I did not design them. In short, I did absolutely nothing; when the basic idea, the concept, emerges, everything else requires no choosing.’
Boetti was also a published author and, perhaps inevitably,
the book bearing his name is anything but conventional. In 1977, he and his wife Anne-Marie published Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, a tome that took seven years to complete and involved sourcing,
reconciling and tabulating a mass of inconsistent data to
rank (in order) the 1,000 longest rivers on Earth.
Boetti made a number of vast works in minutely scrawled biro,
I sei sensi (The Six Senses), which is part of a series of drawings done in code. The overall
effect of the ‘Lavori Biro’ works tends to be gorgeously uneven, resulting in rich expanses
of deep blues and greens with gradations and patterns within.
Often they recall a sea or night sky.
‘The Mappe is certainly Boetti’s most iconic — and highest-priced
— series,’ says Italian Art specialist Mariolina Bassetti, ‘but in recent years the Biro works
have seen as sharp a rise in value as any. In 2001,
the top price for one of these works at auction was £41,000. Now
it’s around £1.5 million.’
In 1979, Soviet troops invaded and occupied Afghanistan, putting
a halt to Boetti’s tapestry production in the country. Before
long, though, he reconnected with his weavers, who’d taken
exile in the Peshawar area of Pakistan.
He went on to collaborate with them on his final embroidery
series, ‘Tutto’. From a distance, these seem like Abstract
Expressionist compositions, yet a closer look reveals they
actually depict everyday objects and symbols, packed together
as if forming a brightly woven jigsaw puzzle.
Explaining how this series was first conceived in Afghanistan, the artist recalled, ‘I asked my assistants to draw everything, every possible shape, abstract or figurative, and to amalgamate them until the paper sheet was saturated. Then I took the drawing to Afghanistan to get it embroidered with 90 kinds of different coloured threads, provided that there was an equal quantity of each of them. The different colours of each shape is chosen by the women. In order to avoid establishing any hierarchy among them, I use them all.’
Boetti chose the various objects to be depicted from encyclopedias, schoolbooks, magazines and newspapers. Such an approach ensured the wide range of motifs, although the degree of this range and its scope was always ultimately determined by Boetti himself, with many stencils made of certain favourite motifs so that they could be reused in later Tutto designs.
Boetti died in 1994 aged 53, and there has been a marked rise in his market since 2000, especially since the Game Plan retrospective in 2011/12, which significantly raised his profile. ‘Where once he was considered a purely Italian artist for the Italian market, now he’s very much a global figure with a global market,’ says Bassetti.
‘At the turn of the millennium, the record price for a Boetti
was £144,000; now it’s £2.4 million,’ continues the specialist. ‘As with a number of
other Italian artists from the second half of the 20th century — including Alberto Burri, who had a retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2015 — awareness has grown
internationally. This interest didn’t exist two decades ago, and Christie’s Italian Art sales have helped to drive awareness that these truly were heavyweight figures, a fact that is now
reflected in their prices at auction.’