The eminent art-critic Roberta Smith called Alighiero Boetti “An Artist who Mixed Disparate Elements” in his obituary in the New York Times. It was published on April 26, 1994, shortly after the artist’s premature death, caused by a brain tumor. As I leaf through his “Libri Rossi“ (1992-1994), Red Books, a set of archival photo diaries, currently on view at Valli Art Gallery in New York, Smith’s subtitle appears to be acutely accurate. Haphazardly, the artist assembled black and white photocopies of articles, sketches, telegraphs, postcards, and countless maps in 15 volumes of bound books, smartly clad in red.
Alighiero Boetti was born in Turin, Italy in 1940. Serving as the motor capital of Italy, the city was a hotbed for technical innovation, most notoriously, the home of Fiat. As a rejection of classicism, and an attempt to provoke change he and a number of artists in Rome and Turin, began to work in unconventional materials: cardboard, coal, metal, wood, and even fire. To unify these artists the art critic Germano Celent coined the term Arte Povera. A self-educated artist, Boetti was obsessive in nature. He created a tower out of cardboard, “Rotolo di cartone ondulato,” shown during his first solo exhibition in 1966.
Soon Boetti turned to conceptual work, he felt that the ideas of Arte Povera were too superficial and market-driven. “Some of the best moments in Arte Povera were hardware-shop moments, there’s so much in a hardware shop,” reflected Boetti in 1972. “This got so exaggerated in 1968 that it ended in nausea, then that was it — finished!’”
Due to increasing violence in Italy, both right and left wing terrorism was rife; he distanced himself from his country – making trips to Africa, South America, the United States, and East and Central Asia. His fervent traveling inspired his mail-art project, Dossier Postale (1969-1970), in which he sent 26 letters to famous recipients at imaginary addresses, Marcel Duchamp, who had recently died, was one of them. Charting the progress of his letters, his preoccupation with systems of logic, mapping, probability, chance, and language, that would characterize his work for the rest of his life, took seed.
Previous and above, Alighiero Boetti, Libri Rossi, 1992-1994. All photographs courtesy of Valli Art Gallery if not otherwise noted.
There is little research on “Libri Rossi.” The series was printed in an edition of 11 with each book containing 111 pages. Perhaps, this is based on the 11 Nashqbandi principles, a system of principles used as spiritual exercises within Nashqbandi Sufism, a form of Islamist mysticism. Boetti was interested in Sufism and even claimed descent from an early 18th-century monk who is said to have converted to Islam on a mission in Mosul. The number 11 seems to have significance for the artist, as “Lampada Annuale” (1966), one of his early works, consists of a light bulb in a metal box that randomly illuminated for only 11 seconds each year.
Alighiero Boetti, Map of the World, 1989. Photograph courtesy of MoMA.
On a trip to Kabul, Afghanistan in 1971, he began to work collaboratively with local craftswomen. He provided them with two small drawings; one spelled out Dec. 16, 2040, referring to the centenary of his birth and the other July 11, 2023, the day he predicted he would die. The embroiderers transferred his block lettering onto the fabric and added floral decorations, which the artist loved. In 1971-72, they completed his first map. To mark that he was working beyond himself, or together with others, he added an “e,” or “and,” between his first and last name: Alighiero “e” Boetti. Throughout the next two decades, he would commission over 100 more from craftswomen in Afghanistan and then, after the Soviet occupation, from Afghan artisans exiled to Pakistan.
With his first wife, the art-critic Anne Marie Sauzeau, he worked on The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World (1976-82), an ambitious project where they researched and thereafter listed the world’s rivers, in order of length, in a book and two tapestries. As it does not include any contradictory information, the work highlights the inaccuracies and discrepancies of these list types. This was the manner of Boetti’s artistry, indirect but poignant reflections of the world and how we disseminate information in it.
Returning again to the red books, understanding his artistry is the key to understanding why these images spoke to Boetti. The books reflect what interested the artist: clippings of articles covering news from Afghanistan and the Middle East; countless maps; political new from a variation from outlets including Newsweek, Observateur, Espresso, NYTimes; sketches; correspondence from museums about his work; jewelry; furniture; decorative arts; Egyptian and Greek arts; family portraits; and much more. Most of the time I see connections with his interest in international affairs, communication, relationships between people, and craft.
At times, his interest in indexing becomes apparent. In volume 6 there are dozens of pictures of angels, and, both ladies and men’s behinds. Do they correlate? I am not sure. I imagine that the ordering represents a stream of consciousness that, in fact, contradicts hierarchies. Reoccurring line drawings of a figure in a bathtub lead me to imagine that he enjoyed laying in the bath getting lost in his thoughts.
There are 1665 pages and I looked through them all, due to the sheer number of pages, I wonder if the work was assembled for shallow reading. Certainly, it is not possible for a gallery or museumgoer. On the other hand, it can also read like a condensed version of his archive that easily can be traveled – an important primary source to fully understand his artistry, posthumously. I draw a parallel to our contemporary world, over-saturated with images, our feeds representing aggregations of what we want to see. Ahead of its time, and manually aggregated, the red books are an intimate photo diary of what Boetti desired us to see.
Alighiero Boetti, Tutto, 1992-1994. Photograph courtesy of Archivio Alighiero Boetti.
With Kabul under siege, in 2011, documenta(13), curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, focused on the area – Boetti’s early map tapestry work “Mappa” (1971-72) was one of the foundational works of the show. Later that year, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid opened the retrospective “Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan,” an ambitious exhibition that traveled to Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since Boetti’s work has continued to come to the fore in the global art market and art scene.
In 1994, Boetti finalized a series of quilt-style tapestries called “Tutto,” meaning everything, crammed with hardware, lamps, towers, continents, and abstractions. Basically, everything he has worked with during his career. The “Libri Rossi” represents the same concept – everything Boetti, selected by Boetti. Which, in today’s increasingly social media driven world, provides more interesting food for thought than ever before.
“Time by Boetti: Libri Rossi” is on view through November 10th, 2018 at Valli Art Gallery, 507 W27th street, 10001, NY, NY.