Marrying conceptual rigor with a dazzling play of color on an epic scale, this monumental work is an exceptional and rare example of Alighiero Boetti’s celebrated Arazzi series created in 1982. Titled Sottrazione, or “Subtraction,” this particular work—along with its sister work Addizione—is among the largest Arazzi that Boetti ever produced. It is also one of only four known pairs to be titled Addizione and Sottrazione, only three of which are in color.
The mysterious embroidered arazzi — word squares — of the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti are among the most intensely eye-catching of all conceptual art. Their vivid, mosaic-like grids of blocky letters — so similar yet always different — seem eminently covetable…but their meanings are more difficult to grasp ...the textiles, in which naturally colored materials are ordered and compressed by weaving, have a pictorial power all their own.”
Just as, in 1958, Jasper Johns painted the numbers 0 through 9 to invite the viewer to carefully examine their individual forms, Boetti has arranged an apparently random collection of colors and letters, to spell out an invisible mathematical formula. Each vertical column of letters spells out a different subtraction problem, all of which equals the year of its execution—1982. Close interrogation reveals that, for example, proceeding from top to bottom along the left edge: 2,000 minus 18 (“duemila - diciotto”), 2,600 minus 618 (“duemilaseicento - seicentodiciotto”), are equal to 1982. Thus, the conceptual premise of Sottrazione is fundamentally based upon a series of numerical equations that lie hidden unless the viewer closely examines the work in detail. Moreover, the equations are spelled out in letters rather than numbers, making for a brilliant iteration of the opposing forces of ordine e disordine—order and disorder—that lie at the heart of this maverick Italian artist’s work.
Boetti often worked in series, and the Arazzi—produced in association with local craftswomen in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later, the Peshawar region of Pakistan—are among his best known examples. The process was a collaborative one, in which the artist would send a set of instructions about the concept of the work, with the individual artisans making the decision about which colors to use, depending on whatever materials they had to hand. Thus, although these works are composed of the same basic visual units—capital letters within a single square—no two are ever the same. Each is imbued with the handmade, tactile presence of the Afghan craftswomen who undertook the meticulous and time-consuming process of their making, along with the conceptual strategies that underpin so much of Boetti’s work, having first developed as part of the Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s in Italy.
Do you know why dates are important? Because … if you write ‘1970’ for example on a wall, it looks like nothing much, nothing at all, but in thirty years’ time … With every day that goes by, this date becomes more beautiful.”
An ambitious, awe-inspiring celebration of the multifaceted nature of Boetti’s work, Sottrazione is a feast for the eyes—a scintillating arrangement of color, line and form. Seen from a distance, the colorful lettering ceases to operate as part of a linguistic system, instead breaking free to become a purely optical extravaganza. Its candy-colored arrangement of pale pink, green, lavender, blue and yellow verges on pure joy despite the complex mathematics of its ingenious arrangement. Straddling the line between organizational schematics and a sort of unabashed, visual cacophony, Sottrazione brilliantly epitomizes the dual concepts of ordine e disordine that underpin so much of Boetti’s greatest work.
Born in the industrial Italian city of Turin in 1940, Boetti would go on to become a leading figure of the Arte Povera movement of the late ‘60s. Based in both Turin and Rome, Arte Povera was one of the defining artistic movements of the latter twentieth century, and its lasting effects can still be measured today. The term was coined by the Italian critic Germano Celant, who organized the first Arte Povera exhibition in 1967. It included Giovanni Anselmo, Mario Merz, Jannis Kounellis and Alighiero Boetti. Together, these artists embraced unusual materials like wood, coal, rope and even fire, to create beautiful and poetic works that were conceptually and spiritually unlike anything that had gone before them. In 1968, at the high point of Arte Povera, Boetti created his sculpture Colonna, which appeared to be an elegant marble column, but was in fact made by stacking paper doilies around an iron rod. Many of the fundamental tenets established by Arte Povera, like their embrace of low materials and the ephemeral nature of many of their works, along with the diminishing role of the artist as author, would become crucial to Boetti’s methodology.
“I have done a lot of work on the concept of order and disorder,” Boetti has explained. “Someone who doesn’t know them will never see the order that reigns in things. It’s like looking at a starry sky. Someone who does not know the order of the stars will see only confusion, whereas an astronomer will have a very clear vision of things” (A. Boetti, quoted in Alighiero Boetti: Un Pozzo Senza Fine, exh. cat., Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, 2006, p. 11). Indeed, Boetti organized the Arazzi around a principle known only to the artist, and without it, the work dissolves out of “order” to become purely “disorder.” This highlights how the underlying systems with which we organize our world, including mathematics and Euclidean geometry, are essentially arbitrary and meaningless, a meek attempt to enforce order over a vast, impenetrable universe. But there is still beauty to be seen and felt in Boetti’s work, and humor too, just as in life. Above all it’s the poetry of his work that highlights how unpredictable and arbitrary are the rational systems that we use to understand the world in which we inhabit.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).