An artist’s career is a chronicle of deeds as much as a catalog of works. Like most artists, Alighiero Boetti occasionally wrote the chronicle himself, albeit sometimes in a jumbled way, as in this autobiographical text from 1967: “In 1948 I tore up a big brown sheet of paper making small quadrangular pieces, which I stacked up and used to erect a rather unstable column…. In 1950 I had about twenty small ice-cream glasses, which I’d collected laboriously, and I fitted them one inside the other so as to form an arch. In the same year I filled a small plastic box with about a dozen match boxes…. In 1949 I rolled up a yellow tape measure and pushed my little finger into it forming a kind of tower of Babel…. The first pile of matches and the first bundle of pencils date back to 1947.” The young Boetti’s prescience is impressive. During the postwar years, most Italian artists were still wrestling with the question of whether their future lay in the politically committed figurative painting of Renato Guttoso, influenced by Expressionism and the political side of Picasso, or in the various forms of abstract painting then just emerging. That Boetti had made exquisite harbingers of post-minimalist art in such a climate is astonishing, and all the more so because the artist, born in Turin in 1940, would have been a schoolboy.
Reading this deadpan text, in which Boetti seems to attribute the formal consciousness of art to himself at an age when he was happy to play with whatever stray objects or materials were at hand, I’m inclined to think he is lampooning someone. But who? Perhaps the artists of his own generation, who thought that even the most banal activity could be lent aesthetic status just by being documented. On Kawara made that prototypical nonevent, getting up in the morning, into an artistic exercise by mailing a couple of postcards each day rubber-stamped with the legend I Got Up at… followed by the exact time. Similarly, the sculptor Richard Long made a line on the ground by walking back and forth until the grass was sufficiently flattened beneath his feet—and then photographed it. Bas Jan Ader rode his bike into a canal in Amsterdam “because gravity made itself master over me,” and took care to have his childish, “accidentally on purpose” stunt filmed for posterity.
Or maybe Boetti is demystifying a deeply ingrained habit—the romanticization of the artist as an elect being whose destiny is heralded in childhood. This tradition goes back at least to the thirteenth century, when Cimabue is supposed to have discovered the young Giotto as an untutored shepherd boy skillfully drawing his sheep. Then again, maybe Boetti’s straight-faced humor is trickier than it seems. What if telling a joke is his preferred way of expressing what he really means? After all, in one of his first exhibitions Boetti adopted the seemingly paradoxical epithet “Shaman Showman,” and then held fast to the dichotomy—authentic visionary and self-proclaimed charlatan—for the rest of his life. What if he did believe, or would have liked his public to believe, that his seemingly mundane art was a gift of the gods, and that the artist is the figure elected to remain closest to the spirit of childhood, to the activity of putting objects in order and then constructing a different order with the same objects, conquering boredom by expending energy on boring things so determinedly that they become a source of wonder? After all, Boetti did like making art for actual children. In 1980, a year after he had enlisted a group of kids to color in his drawing Faccine (Little Faces), he published a colorful counting game, Da Uno a Dieci (From One to Ten). “Zen tales are the only tales that really make me laugh,” he once told an interviewer, “and my laughter’s like a little boy’s.” Just as he was both shaman and showman, Boetti was also skeptic and enthusiast, joker and romantic, self-absorbed dreamer and calculating employer. Somehow he manages to make oppositions collapse, probably because he delighted in contradiction.
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When Boetti died of a brain tumor in 1994, he was something of a cult figure and still mostly identified with the Arte Povera movement, even though he had begun to distance himself from it a year after the curator and critic Germano Celant proclaimed its advent in 1967. Since Boetti’s death, his fame has only continued to grow, and in many ways has begun to eclipse the reputations of artists who seemed more central to Arte Povera. For Celant, Boetti’s gestures “appear as an immediate apprehension of every gestural archetype…the cut as cut, the heap as heap, mathematical equations of real=real, action=action. A univocal sign language that expresses ‘all the possible formative and organization processes’ freed from every historical and worldly contingency.” Today Boetti’s works look anything but univocal, and that is part of their strength. The figures on the two sides of the equal sign are never reconciled in his art; there are two kinds of real, two kinds of action, just as he insisted that he had to be seen as two, not Alighiero Boetti but, as he later renamed himself, Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero and Boetti), or perhaps a pair of twins, as he pictured himself in a 1968 photomontage.