New York

Alghiero e Boetti

Esso Gallery

The grab-bag nature of the recent show of Alighiero e Boetti’s work, subtitled “postal travels, works on paper, embroideries, documents, and more, 1965–1992,” explains why this exhibition served as an apt tribute to an artist whose presence and work were in many ways elusive, at least for American audiences. Perhaps the most notable work on view, the multiple Dossier Postale, 1970–74, had never been shown in the United States, and the eight wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white portraits of the artist by Paolo Mussat Sartor, the photographic Boswell to his generation of Italian artists, contributed to a sense of encountering the artist in person.

The drawings on view, mostly from the ’80s, do not reveal a remarkable draftsman, but rather a lyrical, brainy, rather skittish sensibility that could never have fulfilled itself by conventional pictorial means—Boetti’s genius was for inventing alternatives to them. Crisscrossed by inscriptions of dubious legibility, these works reflect the artist’s conviction that to write with the right hand is writing, but to write with the left is drawing. What I first took for, perhaps, Arabic turns out to be Italian written by a righty with the left hand, and viewed in the drawing upside down. But Boetti gives me license to maintain my initial misreading: the drawings are “signed” with a cutout stamp that reads “vedenti” (viewers)—an affirmation of Duchamp’s dictum that it is the viewer who makes the work, rather than Rauschenberg’s contention, in his declarative, telegrammed “portrait” of Iris Clert, that the work’s identity as art is a function of the artist’s say-so. But the letters that make up “vedenti” appear as sequences of holes, suggesting that to see the work is to see through it, something not easily done.

In Dossier Postale, Boetti sent twenty-five people (not all of them his acquaintances) on imaginary journeys by addressing empty envelopes to them at various locations. When each envelope was returned to sender, Boetti would photocopy it, then seal it in a larger envelope to be mailed to yet another address. For example, the dealer Seth Siegelaub was “sent” on a “river journey” along the Po: Chivasso, Casale, Valenza Po, Piacenza, Cremona, and so on. An entire set of photocopied envelopes in marked files makes up the multiple.

Boetti pretends, with Dossier Postale, that the addressees made the work by undertaking their various journeys, but these people were completely unaware of their participation; the piece was really executed by the postal services of several nations—although a great deal of the labor involved, essentially clerical work, was done by the artist after all. He was also the true addressee and thus the real audience for this little entertainment. Boetti’s satisfaction in allowing people other than himself—and not necessarily just the viewer—to make his work is most evident in his best-known pieces, the embroideries of sibylline phrases that he commissioned in Afghanistan and later Pakistan. (The most guileful of these sayings is certainly “Niente da Vedere Niente da Nascondere”—Nothing to see, nothing to hide.) The point of these works was to render wisdom decorative, and having laid out the mottoes on each piece, the artist entrusted the embroiderers to elaborate his words in their own choice of colors. Among the mottoes is one (embroidered in 1986) that stands as a fitting epitaph for any artist who has made his mark, and especially for Boetti, armchair traveler par excellence: “Non Parto Non Resto.” Not exactly “Now you see me, now you don’t”; more like “I haven’t gone anywhere, but I’m not here anymore, either.”

Barry Schwabsky