In an autobiographical statement from 1967, the year of the present work, Alighiero e Boetti described his working process from the age of eight years: “In 1948 I tore a large sheet of brown paper to get little rectangular pieces that I piled up and with which I erected a rather unstable column. In 1954 I straightened out a piece of corrugated cardboard with a surface area of a square meter. Since 1957, without interruption, I have been smoothing out the silver paper from cigarette boxes. In 1962 I began to detach the filters from cigarettes, with which I created long strips…In 1958, under the guidance of Mr. Sergio Vercellino, a resident of Vagliumina (Biella) and an agriculturalist, I cut, with a scythe, about 3 square meters of grass…” (A. Boetti, quoted in B. Schwabsky, “Alighiero e Boetti,” Artforum, February 2000, p. 115). A fascinating retelling, not least for the actions the artist describes: “tear,” “straighten out,” “smooth out,” “detach,” “cut.” All are acts of separation that create fragments, pieces of things. If, or in what way, these fragments might be reassembled is not among Boetti’s reminiscences. Yet “detaching” and “smoothing out” are the acts the artist performs in the striking Mimetico of 1967. The fabric—easily recognized as camouflage material—is actually the “Telo Mimetico (M29),” originally designed in 1929 for Italian wartime troops. It is also the military camouflage pattern longest in use, used as material for shelter tents, “telo tenda,” and ponchos. When the Italian armed forces capitulated to the Germans in 1943, all branches of National Socialist German troops appropriated stocks of the fabric, using it for uniforms and gear. Boetti certainly would have known this. Here, the artist appropriates the version of the pattern of flowing organic shapes featuring yellow, green, and brown, although several color-ways were manufactured. Boetti also exploited the variations in color for his series of Mimetico: a horizontal version from 1966 hung in the Galleria Christian Stein in Turin at his very first one-person exhibition in January 1967.
With Mimetico, 1967, Boetti throws out the critical terms of Western easel painting, abstraction in particular, from the early twentieth century. Both a parody of abstraction and gestural art and a deeply serious politicized statement, Mimetico strides in lockstep with worldwide student protests against social censorship, the flood of workers’ strikes in Europe, especially Italy, and the deleterious affects of the consumer society and spectacular culture, not to mention student actions against the Vietnam War. Mimetico is a statement about camouflage on multiple levels. Miming, yet challenging the easel picture, the image is not only de-centered and anti-hierarchical, but the image is also patterned, like decorative wallpaper, its beginning and end arbitrary and ambiguous. Yet the pattern itself is recognizable; it proclaims its absurdity in terms of context and use. The idea of “use value” was a Marxist idea very current in the thinking of Germano Celant and his formulation of the ideas driving the artists of Arte Povera. To re-insert camouflage material into a dissonant context was an artistic strategy embraced by Boetti and others. This pattern, adopted by fashion houses, was also part of everyday life. Boetti uses it here to critique of “commodity fetishism,” a malaise parodied by a range of conceptual artists at the time (J.-F. Chevrier, “The Political Potential of Art 2,” in Chevrier, B. H. D. Buchloh, and C. David, Politics, Poetics: Documenta X, the Book, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, 1997, p. 628).
A sly and smart conceptualist as much as a materialist, Boetti’s ideas are here suspended in a “decorative” camouflage pattern on mass-produced fabrics. At this time, his works were created with products from building supply stores, such as PVC pipes and pre-fabricated industrial materials, thereby aligning him with the artists gathered under the socio-political rubric of Arte Povera. The group, so named by Germano Celant’s 1967 celebrated manifesto “Arte Povera: Appunti per una guerriglia” (Arte Povera: notes for a guerrilla war), was published in Flash Art the same year the present work was created. The manifesto’s subheading, “gorilla warfare,” evokes Boetti’s thematic use of camouflage material in Mimetico. Boetti’s tactile surfaces draw the viewer in, creating a split between intellection and a deep attraction to sensuous materiality—a double entry point for the viewer, tending between passivity and participation. “I don’t want to waste time finding the art object. These things are suggestions, a mental method to help you see reality and life when we are all so conditioned and alienated that we cannot see anything anymore” (Alighiero e Boetti, radio interview at Amalfi, “Zoom-settimanale di attivita culturale,” Rome: RAI, November 7, 1968, fifth segment).
Mimetico, 1967, also critiques the concept of mimesis both in art historical terms and in real terms. The tension between using a readymade pattern and evoking an illusionistic pattern on painted canvas, such as one might find in works by Henri Matisse or Édouard Vuillard, plumbs the depths of Boetti’s intension here to create, in a sense, a false reality. Boetti’s admiration for Marcel Duchamp, sometimes loosely referred to as “the father of Conceptual art,” is well documented (L. Cooke, “Boetti’s Game Plan,” in Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan, New York, 2012, p. 17). This is especially apparent in his miming of the Duchampian turn in a work, also made in 1967, titled AB: AW= MD: L (Alighiero Boetti: Andy Warhol=Marcel Duchamp: Leonard), in which Boetti drew a goatee on the Warholian icon of Jackie Kennedy, thereby acknowledging his debt to—and rivalry with—French Conceptual and American Pop art.
Boetti parodies both the readymade and the easel picture. He also rejected the idea of the aura of the artist and his/her vaunted authorial agency signaled in painting by the overt gesture of the brush. Boetti instills wryness and a subversive sense of humor in Mimetico that is as playful as it is compelling. Mimetico represents both Boetti’s sly wink and his fierce commitment to serious thought, the latter “the most important thing that humankind possesses” (Alighieri e Boetti, in ibid., p. 13).