Alighiero Boetti proclaimed that thought was the most important achievement of humanity. He said he “prefer[ed] thought” and that “manual skill is secondary.” For an artist who thought manual skill was secondary, he sure made, or had made, a lot of very beautiful, technically-skilled, and sensuously-textured objects, as the exhibition “Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan” at MoMA attests. If you could label Boetti, who was many things, a conceptualist, and I think you could based on the statements above, then these were the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen by a conceptual artist.
As I mentioned in my first post announcing my intention to see this show (as I have about a million times), Boetti is best known for his Mappas or Mappe – I don’t speak Italian, they’re maps, ok? Of various sizes, completely embroidered, each country represented by its flag–a concept so beautiful in its simplicity, you wonder why no one else thought of it (Boetti’s “favorite artistic strategy: to take an existing system and give it visual form, calling attention to the ways in which such systems structure the world”). What I didn’t know was that they, along with many other of Boetti’s works, were embroidered by women in Afghanistan (a few simpler works were embroidered by his wife). One anecdote was particularly interesting; the women in question weren’t familiar with the image of a map, and so decided to make the ocean pink, just because that was a thread they happened to have in abundance. Boetti loved this degree of happenstance in the making of his works.
In fact, this story was emblematic of Boetti’s approach to the divvying up of the labor of his work. One label explained that Boetti was interested in the ways a work could be “produced by different parties without collaboration or discussion–a form of authorship that is split rather than shared.” As such, Boetti often let his Afghan workers add inscriptions of their choice in Arabic, which were sometimes political/revolutionary. Leaving certain other aesthetic decisions was a way of adding an element of chance or shared authorship.
Yet no matter how conceptual this gesture, the result is still magnificent. Several maps have completely different color schemes, and the sweep of the embroidered stitches creates a different effect in each, often giving the impression of shifting tides on the ocean.
Many other objects exhibited a similar sense of sensitivity to material and the creation of aesthetic pleasure, including his Arte Povera works (a movement characterized by use of industrial or everyday or discarded material). These are no Thomas Hirshhorn piles of crap; these are artfully arranged nearly minimalist objects of great beauty and balance.
Other sections document Boetti’s interest in time/the calendar (“… dates have this beauty,” he said, “the more time passes, the more beautiful they become”), in using mail, envelopes and stamps as a vehicle for art, and in systems, and their arbitrariness:
Ever the contrarian wit, Boetti delighted in introducing “mistakes” or anomalies into his own patterns and systems, always acknowledging the impossibility of total organization.
Some notes on the organization of the show: aside from the introductory text panel, there were not large texts on the walls in each gallery introducing each theme. Rather, those themes were explored using quotes by Boetti on the wall, or long but small-fonted texts under individual object labels. This was fine, except it was hard to read these labels, because they were so small they could only be read by one or two people at a time, and at the frequently busy MoMA this often meant waiting to read what you wanted to read. And the search for the perfect labeling system goes on… Good thing I’m taking notes.