‘Some of the best moments in Arte Povera were hardware shop moments, there’s so much in a hardware shop.’ (Alighiero Boetti Interview with Mirella Bandini, 1972, reproduced in Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 exh. cat Tate, 2001p. 188)
Zig Zag is one of the great works of Alighiero Boetti’s brief but important involvement with arte povera between 1966 and 1968. Measuring 54.5 cubic centimetres, this work is the largest of seven similar-type cubes made of aluminium and a single folded strip of colourfully striped industrially manufactured fabric that Boetti made between 1966 and 1967. The first versions of this work, which are each comparatively smaller cubes ranging from 50 to 54 cubic centimetres in size, were made for and exhibited at Boetti’s first one-man-show held at Christian Stein gallery in Turin in January 1966. The present work, measuring 54.5 cubic centimetres, was made in 1967 and is a unique, larger, example that anticipated and was perhaps made in conjunction with a group of several other cuboid sculptures, each made from a variety of different industrial and organic materials, which Boetti first exhibited at the Deposito D’Arte Presente in 1968. This groundbreaking and experimental exhibition was one of the great collective showings of arte povera and ran throughout 1968 in a vast artist-run space in Turin that was used as an aesthetic forum wherein each artist’s work was encouraged to enter into a dialogue with those of the others.
A precursor of the ‘cubes’ in this show, Zig Zag is comprised of an aluminium frame across which a single strip of colourfully striped deck-chair-like fabric has been stretched in a zig-zag pattern to encompass and articulate its interior. It is, therefore, a highly aesthetic but openly purposeless object that both subverts the utilitarian ethics of modern industry and also pokes fun at the apparent seriousness of modernist abstraction and the fascination with the cube that was, in the late 1960s, so much a part of contemporary American Minimalism. Zig Zag belongs among a series of works, sometimes referred to as ‘dysfunctional designs’ or as ‘disencumbered objects’ in which Boetti had deliberately taken simple everyday objects and materials (usually from a hardware store) and, in the manner of a playful drawing, extended the formal logic of their design in such a way that they became highly aesthetic, abstract and also completely functionless sculptures. In his works Scala (Ladder) and Sedia (Chair) of 1966 for example, Boetti took a chair and a wooden ladder and, using extra wooden planks of the same kind from which they were made, symmetrically extended the lines of their construction by adding on extra bars of wood, so that the form of each became a more unified and geometrically complete but also totally functionless sculpture. In a statement that he published in 1967, Boetti explained how these objects had been born of an idea ‘to create works one different from the other by embodying my individual perception in the variety of its everyday evolution.’ (Alighiero Boetti quoted in Jean Christophe Ammann, ed. Alighiero Boetti 1965-94, Milan, 1996, p. 200).
It is the same process that Boetti applied to his zig-zag cubes of the same period. In these works Boetti has taken a long strip of patterned industrially-manufactured fabric - of the type used for deck chairs - and stretched it in a zig-zag pattern across the width of the metal cube and rising in proportional increments of the height of its metal frame. In the case of the present work, as with that of the Zig Zag, now in the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin and entitled 8, 50, these increments are divided into ten equal parts. Other similar works of these cube are segregated in different ways and in a variety of increments ranging from 6 divisions to eleven. In this way, a colourful, abstract and playfully aesthetic work of art has been created out of simple manipulation of ordinary, everyday, ready-made material easily available in a hardware store. Zig zag is therefore, like Boetti’s colour-chart paintings Rosso Guzzi, Rosso Gilera of the same period for instance, a playful poke at the pompous sincerity of much colourfield abstraction and Minimalist concern with the authenticity of the grid and the concept of the work of art as a specific object.
Functioning almost as a fusion of Morris Louis’ paintings and Donald Judd’s Stacks, Boetti’s Zig Zag both undermines the apparent grandeur of the Americans’ work, by reducing their aesthetic to the level of a DIY enthusiast’s appropriation of their work and, at the same time, it expands this aesthetic into the realm of the ordinary materials and components of everyday modern life. As the title of ‘arte povera’ (poor art) which Germano Celant bestowed upon this collective tendency to embrace ordinary and ‘poor’ looking materials in much of the work of young Italian artists of this period attests, Boetti’s choice of quotidian materials in this work was symptomatic of the period 1966-67. ‘These were tremendously exciting times, for materials…a revelation,’ Boetti later recalled. ‘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, in the end it turned into nausea! But still, some of the best moments in Arte Povera were hardware shop moments, there’s so much in a hardware shop.’ (Alighiero Boetti Interview with Mirella Bandini, 1972, reproduced in Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972, exh. cat., Tate, 2001, p. 188).
As well as being a riposte to Minimalism and the American artists’ apparent worship of the grid and the cube, Mark Godfrey has seen in Boetti’s Zig Zags also a playful mocking of contemporary Italian design. The years of the ‘economic miracle’ in Italy had led not only to huge leaps in productivity in the country, but also to a flourishing of design. Godfrey has written that Zig Zag ‘can be read as a riposte to both the classic Minimalist cube and to contemporary Italian chair design. Boetti inserted fabric associated with working-class leisure into the precise cubic space of the cube; this material was a complete anathema to the moulded bright and shiny plastics of Italian 1960s chairs. At the same time, he created a model of anti-function: the form mimicked the folding structure of a deckchair yet, whereas the deckchair’s folds facilitate easy storage, here the folds were not put to any functional service. Instead the work carried an opposite suggestion of absurd endlessness, for one could follow the stripes back and forth and over the loops ad infinitum.’ (Mark Godfrey, Alighiero e Boetti, London, 2011, pp. 44-5).
For Boetti, this paradoxical opening up of form to the possibilities of new materials and the actions and habits of daily life marked a turning point in his life. It marked the culmination, but also the end of his involvement with arte povera and the beginning of his development of a wider aesthetic based on the opening up of the gird and the sequence to the secret language and patterns of order and disorder operating within the world. This new stage of his career would begin with the hand-drawn grid of his Cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione works of 1969.
Through hardware store works such as Zig Zag, ‘we had reached the limits of certain possibilities’ Boetti said, of he and Pino Pascali’s approach to the prevailing arte povera aesthetic of these years. ‘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).