New York

Focus: Alighiero e Boetti and Frédéric Bruly Bouabré

Dia Center for the Arts

Ideas divide us. Images bring us together.
—Francesco Clemente, Apricots and Pomegranates, 1995

The late Alighiero e Boetti, from Turin, Italy, and Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, from the village of Zéprégühe, Ivory Coast, reveal in their art our true condition: total capture by the communication process, whether intra personal or technologically mediated. But they also intimate the inner possibilities and activities of mind. They passionately catalogue. They vehemently classify: names, alphabets, series. They chart rivers and stars. They record numerals and faces. They do this to give things meaning, seeking the design behind the gaze of time. Although they are not dazzled, at the end of our millennium, by fashionable preoccupation with electrons, light, and speed, this does not mean they are antitechnological; it simply means that as communications grow ever fabulous and fast (fax, the web, the Internet) they look beyond the gadgets—especially the ultimate gadget, writing—in search of God.

The present showing of their works together is more than a sophisticated rendering of parity between two minds, Italian and African, and two worlds, the studio and the tribal compound. This is the story of two men, culturally independent but spiritually cognate, both of whom “seize the radiance” (a phrase from Andre Magnin’s catalogue essay) of the meaning behind things.

Boetti, for instance, was drawn to Asia, to Zen monks and Zen gardens, Afghan embroideries and Afghan weaves, as pathways to the essential. Designing a world map (Mappa [Map], 1993–94) out of the flags of all nations, he sublet their making to women embroiderers in Afghanistan who literally light up the planet with their textilized color, plus Arabic script (untranslated) running beneath the work. In this famous map one savors the ecstasy and danger of national difference—the northern flags of Iceland, Britain, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, for example, all blaze with Christian crosses in different colors and designs, countered, to the south, by the Muslim flags of Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Pakistan, all bearing the seal of Allah’s star and crescent. The flags encode the nations. The nations encode the cultures. The cultures encode the aspirations. The flags become cloissoné, richly jeweled cogs in a machine begging patient activation from above.

In his own Zen-like way the Italian artist also takes on realism, meticulously rendering a year of magazine covers in fine-lined pencil. Now, instead of nations, Boetti tessellates together the faces of moral confusion and the faces of moral possibility—a Hollywood actor holding a bullet in his teeth, the Emperor and Empress of Japan in ancient dress. He turns off the hectic coloristic noise of the originals through a hushed black and white. Mighty Time and mighty Newsweek, ever more similar, in their newsbyte formats, to moths attracted by the brighter light of TV—these and other absurdities are transformed by the shift, from quick and fast to meticulous and slow. This scribe’s pencil forces us to read as tapestry the faces of a given year. He makes us look for moral clues or antidotes locked in their problematic gazing. The quest, the artist himself makes clear, is for disegno or design “behind the things.”

And Boetti meant it. He spent seven years of research preparing The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, 1977–85, a compound work embracing a printed book, which gives the rivers of the world and their (disputable) lengths, plus two overwhelming embroideries, one green, one white, giving the names of the rivers and their lengths in descending order, like the gradually diminishing suras of the Koran. The quest, again, is meaning within classification, disegno behind the things. He treats rivers as avatars of nature, equal in significance to nations as avatars of culture.

There is comparable richness to the work of Bruly Bouabré. Circa 1950, inspired by the expressiveness of the celebrated red and black stones at a site near Daloa, Ivory Coast, he, too, sought disegno behind the things. The quasi-geometric riddle of their patterning inspired him to invent an extraordinary series of 400 monosyllabic ideograms, which he transformed, on his own, into a working phonetic structure. This achievement, nicely displayed, forms the centerpiece of his part of the exhibition.

In making alphabets and capturing speech, Bouabré acquired a sensitively calibrated sense of nuance in gesture and design. Consider his earlier series “Words in Gold against the Blue,” 1990–91 (not in the current show), stopping at one example lit up by his own lettering: “The Diverse Attitudes. Are you aware that in this universe there are vertical beings, oblique beings, and horizontal beings? In short, men, birds, and serpents.” But it is not just his script, and his striking phrases and observations, that illumine the work of this remote genius. He sees the descent-group markings (“tribal scars”) of his people for what they are, condensed writing. In a series called “Ancient African Art” he mirrors a bird-and-dot pattern tattooed on the back of a man’s hand with a larger repetition of the theme. The mark, blown up, becomes an autonomous glyph, storing gesture and meaning for future communicative reference. It is as if hand and tattoo were projection gear, carousel and slide, for the casting of art-historical richness on the screen of world culture.

All this is rendered in captioned images in colored pencil or ballpoint pen on index cards. With these self-invented Tarot equivalents Bruly Bouabré clearly wishes to proverbialize the universe, seeking in animals (there is an engaging series of copulating beasts) and humans, and the signs seen in stones, orange rinds, kola nuts, and clouds, the ultimate writings of the initiative of God. The cards documenting what he reads in clouds are extraordinary, including a masterpiece: The Universal Resurrection of the “Dead” Unfolding in the “Vapor” Becoming “Clouds” the Latter Revealing Themselves as Skeletons. Here we witness a Ben Shahn–like honesty and roughness, not to mention an incredible sureness and economy of phrasing: a full face on six ribs on a line, all set against the blue of heaven.

Bruly Bouabré’s alphabet gives us an insight into the inventive richness of his art. Only the slightest gestural nuance builds the differences among the signs for one, a vertical stem rising from a circle; for two, with a dot to the left of the stem; for three, with a dot to the right of the stem; for four, with dots on both sides; and for five, where the pair of dots fuse in a line. Reflect these upside-down in a mirror and you go from six to ten. All of which prepares us for another series, “Stars from My Dreams,” 1989. Each star is different, some with points and some without. Manipulating this basic graphic sign, Bruly Bouabré aims at safeguarding, in dream documents, the nuances of heaven. In a lovely curatorial touch, this series is paired, as you go out, with Alighiero e Boetti’s Putting the World into the World, 1972–73, a play on Color Field painting in which commas become a kind of constellation, making you see the sky at night. There are no full stops. The Italian’s commas and the Ivorian’s stars are fluid and potential. Both artists, in other works in this show as well, punctuate the future with divinatory alphabets.

In closing, let me remark that part of the pleasure of the show is the way the austere context of the Dia Art Foundation augments the artists’ monastic commitment to saving the world through text. Young guards handsomely attendant, posing as students with notebooks, stand at the ready. One whispered that my blue felt pen was not allowed. He gave me the necessary antiseptic pencil. At first I thought: this is pretentious. But then I recognized a moment in alchemy, transmuting gallery into rare-book library, a compliment to the writer artists and their aims. That’s the way it went that afternoon.

Robert Farris Thompson is a professor of African and African-American art history at Yale University. The author of many books, he is currently preparing Equal Time, on African and Oceanic perceptions of Modernist primitivism.