Back on the Map: ‘Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan’ at the Museum of Modern Art

If you want to see the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium gallery looking better than it ever has before, go

‘Mappa (Map)’ (1971-72) by Boetti. (© 2012 Estate of Alighiero Boetti / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)

If you want to see the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium gallery looking better than it ever has before, go now. Walls and floor alike are covered with handwoven rugs in an installation that forms part of a retrospective of the late Italian artist Alighiero Boetti. Since the museum opened its Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building eight years ago, this tricky atrium has foiled curators and artists alike, but the team responsible for the Boetti show—MoMA’s Christian Rattemeyer, along with Lynne Cooke, chief curator at Madrid’s Reina Sofia, and Mark Godfrey, curator at London’s Tate Modern—has transformed it into an intimate space. The museum’s heart finally looks warm and inviting rather than mall-like, a place where a small caravan might encamp, or a group of schoolchildren sit in a circle.

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That gallery also captures the tactile appeal of Boetti at his best and is the centerpiece of an exhibition that shows off the playful and gently genre-redefining qualities of his art. Boetti died in 1994, and “Game Plan” is the largest display of his work to date, but, even with a hundred objects, it manages to avoid a blockbuster effect and instead presents a coherent and sensitive picture of the career of a highly eclectic artist. Tightly and intelligently curated, it feels like a small-museum display in a big venue and is exactly the kind of exhibition that MoMA, which has recently missed opportunities, displayed some bombast and evinced anxiety about its own relevance, should be staging.

The show opens in a sliver of the sixth-floor galleries, with work from the late 1960s, when the Turin-born Boetti was in his 20s. A display of nine sculptures recreating Boetti’s first solo effort, at Turin’s Galleria Christian Stein in 1967, shows him working in a variety of prefabricated, found materials (industrial varnish, aluminum, cement tubing, car paint). The artworks take their columnar forms from classical Italian architecture and their compositional techniques from the Carl Andre home assembly kit. There are some terrific conceptual pieces here, including the 1966 floor lamp, Lampada annuale (Annual Lamp), that supposedly lights up for 11 seconds every year. (Does it really? Only the most mindful collector or solicitous conservator could ever know). Boetti’s precocious ability to meld the straight-faced object-ness of minimalism with the mysteries of time’s duration and art’s presentation presages his more mature practice.

During this time Boetti was central to the movement that critic Germano Celant christened Arte Povera for the artists’ uses of humble materials like burlap and cardboard, but he rankled at the formalism and critical convenience of Mr. Celant’s moniker. Boetti’s sly poster from 1967, Manifesto, shows the names of the 16 artists Mr. Celant considered part of his movement, and next to them columns of eight or so symbols—the esoteric lexicon has no evident key, though, so the taxonomy is meaningless. The artist presents an art movement’s major figures, including himself, as though they were so many home stereo options. It’s a terrific “goodbye to all that” to Turin’s art scene; Boetti moved to Rome shortly thereafter.

And then his real project began. This exhibition includes a video of his hands writing the days of the week, left and right mirroring each other in almost-but-not-quite perfect synchrony, and the now-iconic self-portrait postcard Gemelli, (Twins), a photomontage that portrays the artist holding hands with himself. With his shaggy hair, square jaw and dark suit worn with no tie, Boetti circa 1968 looks screen-ready for casting as an Eric Rohmer architect. In doubling himself (he began calling himself Alighiero e Boetti, “Alighiero and Boetti”) he was playing a game with artistic identity, and his dandified and Duchampian style started coming into focus with a romantic flourish.

In Rome, Boetti retained his love of found materials, but expanded the definition of materials to include systems like calendars, cartography and languages. He even enlisted the postal service as inadvertent collaborator on a particularly Borgesian project: On display at MoMA are the returned letters he sent to friends and artists in 1969 and 1970. He would post mail to addresses on an imagined itinerary; one series of returned envelopes traces the art dealer Leo Castelli’s invented odyssey through a series of Moroccan hotels. Later in his career, Boetti would open a hotel in Kabul, the One Hotel, under the aegis of an art project, a work in keeping with his interest in travel, and how its lore can blur the real and imagined.

The exhibition unfolds through a series of railroad-style galleries, each of which opens to the right and left to create discrete little chambers around such projects. On their own, some Boetti works are less legible than others—Dicembre 1983, a grid of drawings depicting popular magazine covers, all taken from that month, remains somewhat obscure—but in general the show does a fine job of bringing out the filament-fine thematic tension that connects its eclectic parts. (For a retrospective, “Game Plan” has a surprisingly light touch with the large-scale ballpoint pen drawings for which the artist is best known among collectors.)

By the late ’70s, Boetti had moved on from small-scale conceptual work to the epic kilims and embroidered rugs that occupy MoMA’s atrium. Between 1971 and 1979 he traveled twice a year to Afghanistan and produced much of his best-known work in relation to, and in collaboration with, this country, commissioning artisans there to execute his projects. These pieces combine hands-off conceptual coolness with painstaking craft. Boetti considered the labor-intensive rugs, some of which took as long as five years for weavers to complete, to be conceptual artworks, but by strict definition they are somewhere off to the side. The artist Mel Bochner once said of Russian modernist artist Malevich, “a doctrinaire Conceptualist viewpoint would say that the two relevant features of the ‘ideal conceptual work’ would be that it have an exact linguistic correlative, that is, it could be described and experienced in its description, and that it be infinitely repeatable. It must have absolutely no ‘aura,’ no uniqueness to it whatsoever. Obviously neither of these two imperatives fit Malevich.” And this is a fairly precise articulation of what is interesting about Boetti’s work in Afghanistan. Even if you know what they are about from descriptions, you learn what is essential about the pieces by standing in front of them and gazing at them.

And the rugs are beautiful. The embroidered ones, which hang on the walls, show maps of the world in which each country is emblazoned with an image from its flag. Boetti’s weavers chose the colors, so chance plays a large role in the results (a surfeit of pink thread led to serendipitous swaths of pink seas). Embroidered words in Farsi ring the borders of some of the later carpets. The ones on the floor are checkerboard grids of esoteric codes.

Just a year before he died in 1994, Boetti made the bronze, life-size Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) that stands in MoMA’s sculpture garden. The lanky 54-year old artist holds a functioning hose that sprinkles water over his head, and because that head is heated, the water vaporizes on impact, creating a small cloud of steam. Given Boetti’s cause of death—a brain tumor—the piece is possessed of an eerie realism.

In Boetti’s model, making art was playful, a fluid game that involved borrowing from structures and systems. Yet however conceptually clever and aloof they became, his artworks always remained earthily satisfying on the level of their materials. His ideas about art’s potential were so expansive, it’s no wonder artists today riff on him extensively. He may not have been, as the curators claim, one of the most important artists of his generation, but his smart, tactile take on conceptualism, at once hands-off and handmade, is particularly rich and appealing today.

Back on the Map: ‘Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan’ at the Museum of Modern Art