Executed over the course of several months in 1974, Il progressivo svanire della consuetudine (The progressive disappearance of habit) comes from Alighiero Boetti’s acclaimed series of ballpoint drawings (lavori biro), which explore the relationships between linguistic, numerical and visual systems of understanding. Begun in 1972, these works use the simple medium of ballpoint pen to create richly textured fields of colour, with each panel filled with dense strokes of ink and punctuated by a number of small, bright white commas. The present example is the only lavoro biro in black ink – and one of just five made up of five panels – completed in the 1970s. Seemingly dispersed randomly across the page, each comma is in fact carefully placed so as to correspond to a particular letter, identifiable by tracing its position in relation to the alphabetic key that runs down the composition’s left-hand side. Reading from left to right, the viewer is able to gradually decipher the coded message, discovering a self-reflexive spelling of the work’s title. Involving the viewer in the process of ‘revealing’ the message of the artwork, Boetti creates a beautiful game that both deconstructs and celebrates the power of words to convey information.
In each of the lavori biro Boetti employed a group of collaborators to realise his vision. While the artist developed the concept for each work, and planned the basic grid pattern of the background, its actual execution was left to external craftspeople. A similar method was used in the artist’s Arazzi and Mappe series, which relied on the technical skills of a group of Afghan embroiderers to achieve their finished look. By adopting this process, Boetti established a form of relational aesthetics whereby he could explore a role as the conceiver but not the ultimate creator of a work of art, undermining the perception of the artist as supreme genius. In the case of the lavori biro Boetti drew his assistants from his local neighbourhood of Trastevere in Rome, and requested that each alternating panel was coloured by a member of the opposite sex. Armed with a clearly defined set of rules, these anonymous collaborators would spend countless hours carefully filling the large panels with intricate layers of cross-hatching, a time-intensive process which Boetti felt was intrinsic to the very nature of the biro drawings. ‘The drawings in biro are concentrates of time’, he reflected; ‘they convey to me a physical impression of extended, immense time’ (A. Boetti, quoted in ibid, p. 59).
Made up of five individual panels, each painstakingly filled with rich, subtly gradated fields of black ink, Il progressivo svanire della consuetudine presents a shimmering expanse of darkness; the white commas appear like a mysterious constellation, or a series of falling raindrops against a monochrome sky. Each panel is imbued with the distinctive rhythm of its maker, their idiosyncratic approaches resulting in subtle, undulating shifts of texture across the composition. These variations are born of any number of different factors, from the speed, pressure and length of each individual’s stroke to their temperament on a given day, the quality of the ball-point pen used, and the gradual loss of pigment as the pens begin to run out of ink. Revelling in the unexpected results offered by chance, error and the peculiarities of the maker, Boetti embraced the quirks this form of collaboration brought to his vision, as his instructions were interpreted and executed differently by each individual hand. The final work exhibits a polyphonic visual splendour.
As with all of the lavori biro, Il progressivo svanire della consuetudine is anchored by a simple but highly specific code. Transforming the letters of the title into a series of commas, Boetti enciphers the enigmatic phrase of so that only those familiar with the artist’s particular system of image-making are easily able to uncover its meaning. In disrupting the linguistic order of the Latin alphabet, he exposes it as a sophisticated artificial system of communication: a man-made edifice of arbitrary rules that we take for granted. As such, Il progressivo svanire della consuetudine can be seen to feed into one of the central concepts which lay behind much of Boetti’s work – ordine e disordine (order and disorder). This principle, based on the idea that the world is in a constant state of flux between these two energies, appeared in numerous different permutations throughout Boetti’s oeuvre. Boetti focused on the ways in which the opposing forces interacted with one another to reach harmony: in revealing their fundamental balance, he believed he could heal the traumatic rifts that divide our contemporary world.