‘One of the thousands and thousands of sheets that make up this column created in Turin in ’68, in silence and far from the furious protests alighiero e boetti' (inscription on one of the paper doilies)
Executed in 1968, at the height of Boetti’s involvement with ‘arte povera’, Colonna (Column) is a highly important, historic and also pivotal work that marks both the culmination of the artist’s early ‘arte povera’ explorations and the beginning of the more conceptual direction that his art would take after this decisive year.
Comprising of numerous thin confectionary paper doilies bought from a cake shop suppliers and each laid vertically over a central iron rod to form a large, robust and also decorative column, Colonna is a unique example made for one of the very first arte povera exhibitions to be held in Rome. It is the first of a group of nine such paper columns that Boetti would make throughout 1968 and which culminated in a group showing of five similar ‘centrini’ columns at Boetti’s solo exhibition Shaman Showman held at the Galleria De Nieubourg in Milan in April 68. Of these nine works, Colonna is a uniquely open and interactive example that contains within itself numerous ‘secret’ inscriptions and dedications that were made by fellow artists, guests and exhibitors at the Rome exhibition for which it was first made at the very beginning of 1968.
Entitled Il percorso (Itinerary), this landmark exhibition of works by arte povera artists in Rome was held at Maria Coccia’s gallery Arco D’Alibert and unofficially curated by Michelangelo Pistoletto. It comprised of the work of nine artists: Giovanni Anselmo, Boetti, Mario Merz - who presented his first igloo, the Igloo di Giap - Aldo Mondino, the pop artist Ugo Nespolo, Guilio Paolini, Gianni Piacentino, Pistoletto himself and Gilberto Zorio. For many of the Turin-based artists, like Boetti, this seminal exhibition was not only their first showing in Rome but also an occasion that marked their first visit to the city and their first meeting with like-minded Rome-based artists such as Pino Pascali and Jannis Kounellis.
Boetti’s decision to make a classical-looking column from an assemblage of cheap, commonplace materials was therefore appropriate to both the ‘arte povera’ context of the show and its location in the Eternal City. The concept of building something so solid, constructive and archetypal as a classical column from a seemingly infinite vertical sequence of simple, frivolous, extremely fragile and very thin component parts such as confectionary cake doilies was one that encapsulates much of the essence of the arte povera aesthetic that was then being championed by Germano Celant as the driving tendency of the most interesting recent Italian art. Colonna is a work that expresses not only arte povera’s embracing of the use of ‘poor materials’ to articulate new forms and a new beauty, but it also displays these artists’ often playful sense of tautology and of their opening up of the artwork to the entire world of commonplace, quotidian objects, materials and events of daily life. In addition, the repetitive sequencing implicit within this elegant paper column that has been built into a monumental entity from the tiniest of individual component parts, each built one upon the other, also invokes the central arte povera concept of the artwork as a bridge from nothing to everywhere. Like many of the greatest arte povera works, Colonna is an element that reaches from zero to infinity and, significantly too, it does so in a way that, can be seen to anticipate much of the mathematical sequencing and systematizing that was to underpin so much of Boetti’s later work. Colonna is, in this respect a work that represents a coming together of many elements within one single, familiar, cohesive and yet also surprising image that is wholly appropriate to both the time and the place in which it was made.
Indeed, as Boetti himself recalled, not only the making of his Colonne (columns) but also the Il percorso exhibition itself was so replete with a sense of synchronicity and of the shared nature and purpose of the ‘arte povera’ artists at this time and their coming together from North and South around this shared aesthetic, that he found it both astonishing and, in some ways, representative of the culmination and conclusion of this tendency in their work. ‘I remember having exhibited Colonne di carta (made of paper from a cake shop) in Il percorso (Itinerary) an exhibition of Arte Povera in 1968 at Galleria d’Arco d’Alibert in Rome’ he told Mirella Bandini in in 1972. ‘On exactly the same day an exhibition by Pascali opened at L’Attico; his Bachi da setola (Brush-worms) were on show, made with brushes - the same sort of thing really. Pino and I were amazed by the story: on the very same day, I went to the cake shop to buy paper and he went to the hardware shop to buy the brushes, which he put together in a group. We had reached the limits of certain possibilities, and then Pascali died. I’ve often had this experience - great enthusiasm blocked by a situation which prevented one from doing such things...(The situation) was certainly more stimulating but we faced terrible risks – doing things that were basically not that important. This is what was going on: the feeling of being a shaman, a bit of a magician, who became a showman, who took everyday objects and put them together in slightly different situations. ’ (Alighiero Boetti, ‘Interview with Mirella Bandini’, 1972, reproduced in Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972, exh. cat., Tate, 2001, p. 190)
Colonna is a work that marks not just a shared approach to materials but also the same playful sense of childlike investigation that also underpinned so much of Pascali’s work. It, like other of 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 ondolato - a roll of cardboard pushed up in the middle to form a Ziggurat-like tower, recalls the often unconscious, curious and playfully inventive gestures and interactions with material that one makes as a child and which Boetti himself recalled doing in his youth long before he ever considered himself an artist. As Boetti recalled in 1967, shortly before making Colonna for example, in 1948, at the age of eight, he had torn ‘a large sheet of brown paper to get little rectangular pieces that I piled up and with which I erected a unstable column.’ (Alighiero Boetti, quoted in Barry Schwabsky, ‘Alighiero e Boetti’, Artforum, February, 2000, p. 115) Similarly, the motivation behind his creation of Rotolo di cartone ondolato had derived from him recalling how at around the same age he had ‘rolled up a yellow tape measure and pushed my little finger into it, forming a kind of tower of Babel.” (Alighiero Boetti quoted in 1983 in Alighiero Boetti 1965-1994, exh. cat., Turin 1996, p. 206)
But it is not only in its evocation of the instinctive invention and response to material of a child that Boetti’s Colonne echo Pascali’s powerful aesthetic. These works also, like much of Pascali’s work from this time, reference the then dominant, but for Italian artists also alien, aesthetic of American Minimalism. In its repetitive, sequential and columnar form, Colonna, for example, clearly also invokes the simple and infinite progression of that proto-Minimalist icon, Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column. At the same time though, it is a work that playfully undermines the austerity and apparent seriousness of American Minimalist form through its use of what are deliberately ephemeral, humorous and even trivial component parts. Colonna also undermines the supposed integrity of the Minimalist object - its assertion of its own singularity and expression of itself as a unique or ‘specific’ entity set apart from its environment - by being essentially an open and communal construction that, in the case of this unique Colonna in particular, was, in part at least, created in partnership and collaboration with other artists at the Rome show.
Reflecting the spirit of integration and openness that the exhibition at Maria Coccia’s gallery seemed to invite, Boetti there encouraged fellow artists and guests to each write an inscription or dedication on one of the doilies that comprised his Colonna. Foreshadowing the many ‘hidden’ strategies and secret codes or messages that would be enshrined in so many of his later works, these writings would ultimately, remain an unseen constituent part of the column’s construction. Only in the reassembling of this work for exhibition do these inscriptions from the night of the show’s opening ever become visible. Among those hidden within this work are the following:
Michelangelo Pistoletto has written to Boetti appropriately: Non voglio avere segreti con te. Michelangelo (I don’t want to have secrets with you. Michelangelo) while an anonymous contributor has written: Il cinema independente di Torino é una grande sega (Independent cinema in Turin is wank). Another inscription reads: Vous ipocrite lecture mon sembable mon frère. Baudelaire (You hypocritical reader –my similar – my brother, Baudelaire) and someone else has written an appropriately reflexive and twinning poem that reads: Ciao Alighiero, Le colonne sono belle, Sono bianche, Sono poetiche, Sono bianche, Sono molto bianche, Ciao Alighiero (Ciao Alighiero, the columns are beautiful, they are white, they are poetic, they are beautiful, they are white, they are very white, Ciao Alighiero)
Among these many inscribed papers are two by Boetti himself – one which reads Adoro Anne Marie Sauzeau. Boetti (I love Anne Marie Sauzeau. Boetti). The other is a kind of signature and certificate for Colonna itself that reads: Uno dei mille e mille fogli che compongono la Colonna realizzata a Torino nel sessantotto fuori e in silenzio dalla furiosa contestazione. Alighiero e Boetti (One of the thousands and thousands of sheets that make up this column created in Turin in ’68, in silence and far from the furious protests).
It is this openness and sense of communal enterprise that so encapsulates what was to prove only a brief moment of collective arte povera practice. And it is here, in Colonna expressed in one powerful, singular and archetypal image of one of the most fundamental and founding elements of civilization: the column. Colonna also stands, like other columns throughout history, as a symbol of a specific style and moment in time - one which, in this case, as Boetti was aware, was all too brief.
Indeed, by the end of the year Boetti felt that the unique moment of arte povera, which had proved so enticing in Rome at the beginning of 1968, was now over. Despite the riots and political protests that so distinguished the year elsewhere, for Boetti, 1968 had been a particularly ‘joyful’ period he recalled in 1972. ‘These were tremendously exciting times (and) for materials ... a revelation... I went to a supplier of building materials. It was thrilling to see the wonderful things that were there! There was everything, from refractory bricks (which are stunning), to glass wool, to polystyrene, everything. Seeing all these materials filled me with such crazy enthusiasm (but) in the end it turned into nausea! Still, some of the best moments in Arte Povera were hardware shop moments, there’s so much in a hardware shop. This got so exaggerated in 1968 that it ended in nausea, then that was it – finished! At the end of 1968 there was an exhibition in Amalfi, Arte Povera + Azioni Povere in which a lot of my work was shown. I exhibited a group of items entitled Shaman-Showman… In 1968 I broke away; this was the most baroque year of all: after Amalfi I’d finished with material and synthetics.’ (Alighiero Boetti, quoted in ibid p. 188).