10 things to know about Alighiero Boetti
The colourful life and art of the maverick Italian conceptualist, who came to prominence as part of the Arte Povera movement and was celebrated for his ‘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 was then 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 art. 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 one.
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 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 of forms.
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. 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, such as 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, reds 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 Mariolina Bassetti, Christie’s chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, ‘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 around £40,000. Now it’s around £2 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.
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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 more than £7 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.’