Life Is Beautiful

Afghan women embroidered two important dates for Boetti: his hoped-for date of death and his 100th birthday.

In 1948 the artist Alighiero e Boetti tore a large piece of brown paper into small squares that he then "stacked into a rather unstable column." He smoothed out and saved the silver paper linings of cigarette packs from 1957 on, "without missing a single one." In 1949 he tightly wound a yellow tailor's tape measure and pushed it up to form a "Tower of Babel." And since 1946 he has "incessantly used various materials to start fires." These accomplishments are chronicled in a 1967 artist's statement. Boetti signs it at the end, adding his birth date: December 16, 1940. Some rudimentary math reveals that he was six years old at the time of his earliest artistic endeavors. It's a wonderfully amusing, direct and unpretentious essay that gives an incredible sense of Boetti's progression from a kid investigating the world around him to an artist investigating the world around him.

"When 1 is 2: The Art of Alighiero e Boetti," a retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Museum curated by Paola Morsiani, takes us through 29 years of the artist's work. Boetti, who added the e ("and") to his name in the 1970s to denote the duality of the self, was associated early on with the Italian Arte Povera movement. Povera can mean "poor," "plain" or "raw," and artists with an Arte Povera sensibility created art in a process of open-ended experimentation. The work rejected traditional artistic hierarchies in materials as well as in exhibition spaces and the marketplace. The communal aspects of art-viewing and art-making were emphasized over art as a consumer object. This '60s spirit of eclectic openness and collaboration remained with Boetti throughout his career.

Boetti's epic "Untitled" -- Victoria Boogie Woogie (1972) is an example of a passing thought taken to its extreme. Italian stamps in the early '70s were produced in seven different colors, indicating denominations between five and 70 lira. Boetti wondered how many different variations you could have of the seven-stamp combination. It sounds like an idle musing or a high school algebra word problem, but Boetti put his musing into action with 35,280 stamps arranged in different combinations on 5,040 envelopes.


"When 1 is 2: The Art of Alighiero e Boetti"

Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose

Through October 6; 713-284-8250

Neatly presented in grids on 42 five- by three-foot panels, the perfectly pasted rows of colored stamps looks like a sea of pale pixels, or the nod to Mondrian implied by the work's title. It isn't just a dry conceptual exercise; all of the envelopes were mailed by Boetti to himself. Sent from various cities in Italy to the stamped address at his home in Turin, the neatly aligned, tidy grids of color are interrupted by the imprecise, human randomness of cancellation stamps, which are scattered across the exacting rows like errant coffee cup rings. The Italian postal service became a collaborator in Boetti's system.

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Meter (1967) is one of many works that reveal the artist's wit. In the strongly graphic black-and-teal rectangular image, there is a series of seven white rounded rectangles containing familiar forms. It looks like your car's odometer. Each of the seven windows is caught at the perfect moment when half of one number and half of another are in the middle of rotating. 5999999 is changing to 6000000, and you feel the same ridiculous sense of anticipation that you have when your car is about to roll through its 100,000th mile.

For Airplanes (1981), Boetti asked a comic strip artist to draw a series of planes: Single engines, passenger jets and military bombers of various sizes are scattered across an orange-red sky like a flock of disparate birds. The technology of flight put to the service of war, travel and crop dusting… The background of the small-scale image is filled in with obsessively scribbled waves of red ballpoint pen that carefully stop at the edges of the images.

In The Six Senses (1973), an expanse of paper is compulsively covered with blue ballpoint pen, the surface painstakingly inked in neat grids of linear strokes. Several people ultimately worked on the piece; Boetti's only requirement was that it be executed by a man and a woman. The surface is softly grained by the marks of the pen. Ballpoint has to be the most labor-intensive thing to use to pigment a surface, with the exception of maybe silverpoint. Some areas are dark and rich, almost solid, made with a fresh pen held by a strong and rested hand. In other, paler areas, the pen and the strength and patience of the mark-maker wear out or a new person takes over with a less emphatic approach. The densely marked surface looks woven, like Boetti's projects with Afghan embroidery.

Boetti first visited Afghanistan in 1971. Before the Soviets, the Taliban and the United States blew the country to hell, it was an exotic destination for intrepid hippie wanderers fascinated with the exoticism and spirituality of the local culture as well as cheap travel and drugs. While there, Boetti studied with a Sufi master and even opened a tiny hotel -- One Hotel -- in Kabul. The artist repeatedly contracted with wonderfully skilled Afghan women to embroider his works. After the Soviets invaded in 1979, he continued his collaboration with the women, now refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Executed in vibrant colors determined by the weavers whose only instruction was that the colors be used in equal measure, the embroidered pieces are the most visually striking of Boetti's works. Everything (1988-89), a dynamic 42- by 92-inch rectangle of fabric, is densely embroidered with silhouettes of, basically, everything. A guitar, dog, sunglasses, wine bottle, car, rhino, ladder, heart, bikini top…Like the ballpoint pen marks, the laboriously stitched, slender threads mass together to cover the surface in riotously colored, overlapping shapes. It's a fantastic record of the women's intense engagement with the surface.

Many of Boetti's works have the artist himself as the conceptual grounding point. For Calligraphy (1971), Boetti had the names and addresses of everyone in Italy who shared his phone number elegantly engraved on a brass plaque. Oddly, the stock exchange in Milan made the list. The piece has a mocking gravitas and looks as if it should be commemorating something terribly important.

Boetti also immortalized two dates, both in engraved brass and in the fanciful embroidery of the Afghan women. One date, the 16th of December 2040, was exactly 100 years after the artist's birth. The other was his hoped-for date of death, July 11, 2023. He would have been 82 years old. Unfortunately Boetti missed the mark by 29 years; he died in 1994 at the age of 53. The brass plaques seem important and momentous; how could his body have the audacity to give out and defy the pronouncement of such an authoritative-looking object? It's unknown whether Boetti revealed the significance of the dates to the embroiderers, but the 2023 date has a hopeful ascendancy to its floral pattern.

The latest work in the show presents Boetti in the form of a seven-foot bronze statue. His face looks aged, and he wears a slightly rumpled and conservative suit. The image is a far cry from catalog photographs of the young, hip, sunglassed Boetti, resplendent in au courant velvet. The statue holds a hose in his hand, dousing his fully clothed self with water. As the fine spray of water runs down his face, steam rises from the heated bronze head. It's a self-portrait that negates the egomania of bronze statuary with a wry, self-aware wit.

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