New York

Alighiero Boetti

Gladstone Gallery’s recent exhibition of works made by Italian artist Alighiero Boetti between the late 1980s and the early ’90s showcased two core elements of his work: an investigation of personal and collective identity conducted with reference to the idea of the Other, and a reflection on the power of art to dissolve boundaries between people. Like Andy Warhol and Sol LeWitt, Boetti was a “lazy genius,” and regularly entrusted the completion of his work to others, thereby distancing himself from the myth of the solitary artist and allowing for a deeper immersion in his themes. (Traveling further along this road than most, he even invented a twin, separating himself into the dual persona “Alighiero and Boetti.”)

After his first trip to Kabul, in 1971, Boetti regularly commissioned Afghan embroiderers to make his tapestries, keeping entire villages employed for extended periods. To understand the uniqueness of this relationship, one need only look at his ongoing series of world maps (each titled Mappa [Map]), begun in the ’70s. The show at Gladstone included two of these, one from 1989 and one dated 1990–91, on which nations are outlined in the colors of their flags. When he asked embroiderers who knew only their own countries to delineate the geographical contours of a world of which they were largely unaware, Boetti came up against a phenomenal paradox. In straddling this cultural gap, he not only expanded the artisans’ knowledge of the world but also reflected on the extent to which we are shaded, as individuals, by ethnicity and nationality, which in each of us dictate a particular terra cognita of the mind.

Also enmeshed with the question of identity is Poesie con il Sufi Berang (Poems with the Sufi Berang), 1988–89. This work consists of fifty-one embroidered square panels, each a little over three and a half feet across and containing twenty-five lines of twenty-five letters, in a hundred colors. Each line alternates an Italian text by Boetti on the theme of time with a Farsi text by Sufi master Berang Ramazan blending poetry with mathematical laws—laws that Boetti used to determine the compositional structure. The thick, variegated texture of the sewing imparts a doubled temporal cadence: a slower one that evokes the time taken to make the work; a faster one relating to the viewing experience. But, as the work’s Italian text suggests, “all is dissolving in time, the time of becoming, and then all is becoming wind.” The personalities of the artist and the Sufi master are effaced, their distinct alphabets merging into the grid as words and meanings lose their weight. What remains is a pure emotional vibration, as the viewer’s understanding shifts from the intellectual to the aesthetic—and finally, perhaps, to the ecstatic.

If Poems with the Sufi Berang shows the ego dissolving into the spiritual, the individual components of the embroidered panel Tutto (Everything), 1988–89, merge into the whole, forming a pulsating aggregation of matter. Here, Boetti pushes the intersection of order and disorder to an extreme. The forms of humans, animals, and everyday objects dovetail, and the microcosm is evoked as a primal welter in which each shape is equivalent to its neighbor.

Made when the artist was suffering from the brain tumor that was to take his life, the human-scale (though slightly shrunken) figural sculpture Autoritratto (Mi fuma il Cervello) (Self-Portrait [My Brain Is Smoking]), 1993–94, brings the artist’s physical and emotional presence to the fore. The bronze surface of the emaciated figure’s head, which is heated from within, turns the water that pours from a tube held by the figure’s right hand into steam. The ailing body, alone at last, reveals itself here in all its vulnerability. And in the acceptance of its fragile condition, it seems to dissolve its individual essence into the essence of the water that pools at its feet like tears.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Stefania Fumo.