The Extrovert and the Introvert

Mark Godfrey, Alighiero E Boetti

Yale University Press, 345pp, £35.00, ISBN 9780300148756

reviewed by Tom Snow

The work of late Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940 – 1994) has proven a difficult fit within institutional discussions of art since the 1960s. Frequent association with the Arte Povera group (the term, meaning literally ‘poor art’ or ‘impoverished art’, was coined by art critic Germano Celant in the late 1960s and subsequently developed throughout the 1970s), has seemed equally problematic insomuch as the term accounts only for the earliest elements of the artist’s widely varied production. Briefly summarised as a commitment to contingency, intent on identification of the world in the present, many of the artists Celant would highlight focused on the industrial climate and contemporary materials of northern Italy.

Mark Godfrey’s monograph, the first to consider the artist’s career in its entirety, represents a major step forward in the re-allocation of Boetti’s practice through the writing of twentieth century art, arguing that the artist should occupy a major position in recent art history. At the heart of Godfrey’s survey are the artworks themselves, considered through an interchangeable range of thematic groupings rather than accorded to any strict biographical or linear narrative. Drawing upon an erudite range of comparative practices, particularly contemporaneous American Abstraction and its European counterparts, Godfrey reimagines Boetti’s art, not just through a broadening of reference points but also through a consideration of his continued influence today.

The difficulty of Boetti’s place within Turinese Arte Povera is dealt with in the second chapter, ‘Hardware Shop Moments: The Arte PoveraYears.’ Rather than argue for, or reconstitute a position within, established discourse Godfrey points out that Boetti’s brief flirtation with the aesthetic (c.1966 – 69) came at a time when the term was being ‘tried-out and tested’ and was therefore never anything ‘solidified or a movement to join.’ Works such as Catasta (Stack, 1966) – made from industrially produced Eternit tubes – are thought about as ‘artless constructions’ or ‘dysfunctional designs,’ stacked but not fixed and ready to topple over with any intervention. Beyond alignment with the ‘aura of labour and industry,’ as the contemporary work of Richard Serra and Robert Morris might be considered, these constructions targeted a conservative trait of sculpture. On the one hand, the materials were emancipated from their usual functional roles and validated as artistic materials according their place in the everyday environment. On the other, the absurdity of these artless constructions alluded to a nationalist imaginary, which championed aspects of Italy’s cultural heritage and traditional modes of art production despite ready and recent association with the rhetoric and ideology of Fascism.

Dual or multiple positions, including the above, are central to Godfrey’s concerns during his examination of Boetti’s work. Rather than any forthright claim towards a binary opposition, Godfrey considers that one of the most crucial aspects in understanding this artist is to take seriously Boetti’s own conception of the artist as a split subject. The claim that Boetti oscillates between a kind of everyman and a magical figure is expanded through discussions of the ‘schizophrenic artist.’ This idea is perhaps best associated with contemporary texts such as the endlessly influential Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well as the writings of Franco Basaglia. Coincidently, in the year that Deleuze and Guattari published the first part to their philosophical project Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), Boetti was to change his name to Alighieri e Boetti (Alighieri and Boetti). Read as a move to distinguish between the surname as a label of late capitalist social categorisation (the artworld, national registers etc. – a kind of branding), and the intimacy he shared with those on a first-name basis, this argument becomes a governing factor for much of the study. Whilst a claim to the direct impact Anti-Oedipus could have had on Boetti’s thought is avoided, the text is used in order to advance how one might think about the complex issue of a split subject.

Understood to embrace the constant operation of conflicting ‘desiring-machines’, rather than conform to a reductivist organisation of flows decoded via psychoanalytical moulds such as the Oedipus complex, an understanding of Boetti’s production is initiated whereupon difference is maintained in the conception of artworks rather than rejected or resolved. Various self-portrayals testify to the reclamation of irrationality alongside reason, perhaps most notably the 1968 photomontage Gamelli (Twins), where Boetti appears to be holding hands with his double. At first glance both figures appear identical, in dress as well as stature. However on further inspection subtle differences come to light. The Boetti on the right seems to be smiling and looking directly at the camera, as though completely relaxed in the public context of the pictured boulevard. The figure on the left appears to wear a more introverted expression and directs his gaze ever so slightly away from the camera lens in order to represent, according to Godfrey, two faces of the artist – ‘the extrovert and the introvert.’

The pairing of post-structuralist thought with an idiosyncratic conceptual artist like Boetti might seem a daunting prospect for the reader. However, what Godfrey actually offers is a lucid commentary, managing an impressive balance between thoroughly considered, precise observations and an accessible writing style. The favoured position of multiple creative possibilities over a singular artistic position is developed with regards to several of Boetti’s productive processes, most of which would span the rest of his career. It is notable that Godfrey forgoes the temptation to analyse or over-celebrate the artist’s whimsical character, instead favouring an account of the formal qualities of artworks interspersed with useful anecdotes that add to an overall understanding of a richly illustrated creative pursuit.

The well-known Mappe works, alongside other long-term projects, are considered as ‘non-collaborations’ in the sense that little supervision was offered during their embroidery in Afghanistan (and later Pakistan). In fact, Boetti was never to meet with most of the people producing his work in foreign workshops; instead he delegated coordination out to others and even allowed decisions to be made by the embroiderers themselves. Aside from geopolitical concerns evident in representations of fluctuating national borders in the Mappe works, it is through ‘multiplicitous’ stages of production that Godfrey complicates his understanding of Boetti’s practice. In a chapter entitled ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Boetti’s 1970s Works,’ four major conceptual positions are developed according to the artist’s own claims. Mettere al mondo il mondo (putting the world into the world/ giving birth to the world) for instance is a phrase which appears in various places throughout Boetti’s oeuvre, including the edges of some of the Mappe.

Here, several possible meanings of the phrase are unpacked, demonstrating the extent of readings the maintenance of multiplicity might allow. If the two-dimensional depiction of global space is an accepted occidental abstraction, what sort of dialogue might the production of this image of the world initiate when abstracted to the level of nationalistic symbols of unity (flags)? This, especially, during moments when large groups of people were forced into economic or political migration. But also, how might that idea contrast with the reception of such an image in a contemporary art institution when, as Godfrey claims to have witnessed, visitors tend to gather around the works and happily point to countries here and there, spotting various flags? The split or division based on the artist therefore is not understood only as a bifurcation of identity, but also as a kind of schizophrenic distribution that registers potential political associations as multifarious and experiential.

In addressing artworks in their contemporaneity as well as through various and potential legacies, Godfrey offers critical perspectives from which to reflect upon an endless oscillation or dynamic that individual pieces – it is claimed – invite. Through an alignment with Boetti’s own philosophical arrangements such as mettere al mondo il mondo, Godfrey guides the reader of this monograph through an assemblage of ideas grounded and supported by an impressive breadth of research. This, in my view, is a powerful position to take. Not only is analysis of the artist’s oeuvre considered through an attendance to the artist’s own theoretical and philosophical positions, but discussion is also furthered through strategic engagement with existing institutional discourse.

Rather than producing a straightforward polemic regarding Boetti’s position within 20th century art history therefore, the artist’s contribution is sensitively measured and allowed to emerge as a significant moment in recent European art through a celebration of his diverse artistic ingenuity. The question that this study raises therefore is: if Godfrey convincingly argues for the central location of Boetti’s work within 20th century art history, which is not apparent in existing literature, what other blind spots might be identifiable through further research of this kind? Despite current academic focus on Arte Povera, what might Boetti’s seemingly radical departure tell us about its conceptualisation and its usefulness as a reference point to Italian art beginning in this period? Especially considering that Godfrey’s approach is not an exhaustive one, but an experimental one in this regard.

A penultimate chapter is dedicated to Boetti’s ‘paper works,’ which have enjoyed little critical attention until now. During the frequent production of embroideries and other large-scale delegations outside of the studio, hundreds of drawings, collages and stencils were made day-to-day by the artist using whatever materials surrounded him, right up until 1994. Contrary to viewing these works as initial deliberations or preparatory sketches, they are discussed as a compensatory medium, an alternative venting of ideas whilst he instructs or waits to receive outsourced material. What is intriguing about Boetti is that the majority of his artistic productions ran parallel, yet there exists a multitude of ideas that clearly transverse his thought process at variable and often irregular points. Notable here is another of Godfrey’s ‘four fundamental concepts,’ ordine e disordine (order and disorder). This can be confusing and might begin to explain Boetti’s absence from collective art histories. It is Mark Godfrey’s achievement then, to manage and sustain a reading of Alighiero Boetti’s work that sensitively orientates its way through a conceptually complex body of work, allowing for diversity in approach that matches the diversity of this artist’s practice.
Tom Snow is a freelance writer and researcher usually based in London.