Enough with all those art movements and the white cubes to house them. Half the visitors to the Museum of Modern Art probably came for The Starry Night—and the rest, especially in summer, for the sculpture garden and a chance to pose in front of art. After that, they just need a place to cool off. Alighiero Boetti might have felt the same way.
Boetti knew that he belonged in museums but distrusted them anyway and ran off the first chance he got. He quit Italy's leading art movement in 1969, after just three years, because he found it all too wrapped up in making art. For the rest of his life, he made his art a record of his travels, at times in his imagination alone. He made it out of dates, maps, postcards, and tales of wasted time. It makes sense, then, that his retrospective ends in a sculpture garden—with a self-portrait, literally, taking a bath. Now if only it made for a grittier show.
Most people know Boetti if at all for one thing, maps of the world, in tapestries. He outsourced them to Afghanistan, where he lived on and off for a decade. He had come on impulse, but he fell in love, perhaps because he had found a tradition but not exactly a home. He insisted on calling his adopted residence a hotel, and he insisted on calling the hotel an art project. The project ended with the 1979 Soviet invasion, devastating him. His stay began in restlessness, ended in a kind of exile, and occupied itself with the entire planet, not to mention himself.
MoMA's sixth-floor galleries include a wall hanging, from 1972, but the atrium devotes itself to more. One can see why they became popular, and one can forgive anyone who never makes it upstairs. They hold images—big, recognizable, and colorful images, since each country's boundaries enclose as much as they can of its flag. They are art objects, exactly what he claimed to reject. One has as its border the words bringing the world into the world. A later embroidery is titled Tutto, or "Everything."
After a look at, well, everything, one may as well head outdoors, in search of the artist. He faces away from the museum, in a strict realism close to kitsch. Gaunt and in a suit and tie, he looks anything but a rebel. His right hand holds a garden hose, limp except for the cast bronze, squirting water into the air. Much of it lands on him, and on a hot day it leaves his head as steam. For once, he must have had a hot idea.
Boetti makes fun of monuments and fountains, while appropriating them. He makes fun of himself, while demanding endless attention. He makes his statue an inside joke, but one so obvious that no one can miss the point. And that describes "Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan" as a whole—sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating, often tedious, and almost always infuriating. Outdoors, he stands near another prophet of art, John the Baptist by Auguste Rodin, with the same raised arm, give or take a garden hose. He did not plan the pairing, though, for he died of cancer the next year, in 1994, at fifty-three.
The sculpture is anything but typical, but then there is no such thing as a typical Boetti. That, too, accounts for the popularity of the maps, which were all I saw of him in a London gallery in 2003. They offer something to expect, from an artist who kept throwing things over and starting again. The curator, Christian Rattemayer, tells of taking guests through the exhibition. They kept asking if they had seen two artists. And in a way they had, but the two are joined in almost total self-absorption.
I mean that Boetti anticipated the question. For years, he presented himself as identical twins. He said that his art sprung from Alighiero e Boetti (where e in Italian means and), and he said they stood for the two sides of his personality, the rational and the irrational. In exhibition postcards from 1968, they hold hands in a wooded lane. They wear long hair, a dark suit, a white dress shirt open at the collar, and an air of perfect confidence. He could be Gilbert and George but younger, a lot cooler, and in love with himself.
Almost everyone will find at least one turning point in an all too brief career. It could come with that first trip to Afghanistan, in March 1971. His work became not just fine art but objects of reverence, for he also adopted kilim, the wool or cotton rugs traditionally used in prayer. The story later spread that Boetti had simply gone to the airport and taken the next plane, wherever it might land. In reality, he had been unanchored since leaving his native Turin two years before, and he kept traveling through the 1970s—as far as Africa and New York. He also claimed a previous family connection in Asia.
For MoMA, the turning point comes with his departure from Arte Povera in 1969. Born in 1940, he started as an abstract painter, and he took instantly to the movement after seeing the slit canvases of Lucio Fontana. It must have reconciled his wishes to make art and to destroy it, and he went about them both with a vengeance. He became one of the group's youngest lights, with a solo show in 1967. He piled concrete, cardboard, and lace into cubes and terraced columns, while fashioning a child's gestures into monuments. In his subsequent turn away from the clarity of Minimalism or Mono-ha, one might see the origins of a purely conceptual art.
Not so fast. For one thing, he never really fit in with Italian art or its vow of poverty. His prefabs never have the anti-art roughness or, conversely, expressionism of Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, or Alberto Burri before them. Nor does he have the political edge of Piero Manzoni, who sold cans of his own excrement, or Michelangelo Pistoletto, who rolled newspapers through the streets. Where the 1968 student riots engaged them, the uprising convinced Boetti to give up on northern Italy. Where Mario Merz had fought Fascism in World War II, Boetti used Fascism's symbol, bundled sticks, as a way of sculpting color, with hardly a care for the associations.
For another, he already hits on most of his motifs. He works with fabric, first as the cotton threads of panels or cubes. He has his first maps, copied straight from the newspapers, of war zones and occupied territories. He displays camouflage as all-over painting, with a striking anticipation of his late Tutto. In each case, he withholds any political judgment whatsoever. To the very end, are his flags a critique of nationalism, a critique of European expansionism, their embrace, or just local color?
He has adopted conceptual art, again with hardly a hint of a real-world target. Ping and Pong blink alternately by the exhibition entrance. Cork and varnish both form and disguise the word Frou Frou, as if cannot quite decide whether to enjoy mere decoration. He adds symbols to a poster with the name of each member of the movement, but he claims to have lost the key. He sets out a handrail, which conveniently doubles as a museum barrier in front of his own work. He uses raised dots, like Braille, to spell out The Sighted.
He already has a kind of private symbolism and an obsession with himself. He scrapes away elusive epigrams, and he signs corrugated cardboard twice before casting it in iron. And he introduces the twins, as the very announcement of his triumphant show with Arte Povera. Materials may come in time to play less of a role, except when they do not, but one thing he will never leave behind, himself. He sets off to find it, first to Rome and then to distant continents, and of course he never succeeds. That, too, is the point.
New themes come fast and furious after 1969, but the elements of a career fall quickly into place. One is his image, with undertones of evasion. He presses his hands and face to a Xerox machine and hits copy. He makes art, never to be seen, with his back to the camera. He makes a figure, spread-eagled on the floor, from wads of concrete molded as casually as wet cotton and calls it Me Sunbathing. He also adds a cabbage butterfly to its chest, like a medal of freedom.
His First World map follows soon after, each nation colored by hand, and in no time he discovers how to make more. First he engraves two dates in brass, like a clumsy parody of On Kawara—who had begun date paintings just three years before. One date marks the hundredth anniversary of Boetti's birth, the second his predicted year of death. (He gets that one wrong, by about thirty years.) Then he commissions the same pair from Kabul, delighting in the weaver's addition of floral patterns. He is hooked.
He is also hooked on the passing of time, as part of a catalog of life on earth. He sends telegrams stating little more than the date, assembling them into the ramparts of an imagined castle. He pastes pages from a desk calendar as the numerals of the year and magazine covers as a portrait of the month. He saves his letters from Afghanistan and arranges the stamps. He makes rubbings from children's books into a pretend natural history and collage into patterned plants and birds. He calls them Nature, a Dull Affair, and I wish that he were less convincing.
He sees this as the play of order and disorder, which become another discovery, a word square. He insists that things take their course, but he gets to supply the commentary. He creates "meaningful journeys" from returned envelopes sent to the wrong address. Their subjects range from luminaries like Leo Castelli to the very font of text art, Lawrence Weiner, and to competitors. The letters might go to the last entries in the phone book, the grand hotels of Morocco, or just one step behind the addressee. They are his letter to the art world that often wrote to him.
Boetti's "Game Plan" gives equal weight to the play and the plan. For him, wandering and self-direction are the two sides of art and freedom. It has to come as a surprise that he married—and collaborated with his wife and kids. She helped him research another of his mappings, the names of the world's thousand longest rivers. It takes judgment calls what to count as a river, but he is always out to catalog the artist's subjectivity. As with another conceptual artist with a banal streak, John Baldessari, it is all part of the game plan—game, set, and match.
Tapestries continue after 1989, but he has pretty much run out of ideas. One last series involves black-and-white permutations on a grid, evolving one pixel at a time, like a central Asian Sol LeWitt. It is his final glimpse of the universal. Boetti was never as blunt, as cryptic, or as pregnant with meaning as another mapmaker and flag maker, Jasper Johns. One concludes his retrospective either in awe at his cleverness or claustrophobic. Dying and cast in bronze, he may have felt a little of both.
"Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through October 1, 2012.