Station to Station

Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan
Museum of Modern Art
Through October 1, 2012
The ride downtown to Cana, the new restaurant in Tribeca, was slow -- traffic all the way. Lana called to confirm the reservations she had made earlier in the week. We finally arrived, only to find out that a wedding rehearsal dinner party (an Upper East Side couple who appear frequently on Page Six) had booked the place last-minute, filling up most of the good tables. Fortunately we were escorted to a large banquette in the back, which afforded us some privacy, at least. We were meeting some friends, including writer Alissa Bennett and the Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, who had just come back from the Venice Biennial. There were several people I didn't recognize immediately, but I was quickly introduced to reality television show hosts Jerry Saltz and China Chow (who were there doing a tech scout for their new Bravo network TV show: Stars of the 2012 Venice Biennial -- Where Are They Now?).

Both Saltz and Chow are excited and effusive. Saltz enthusiastically examining a large drawing Melgaard is making on the tablecloth of a funny, large-nosed manatee lapping at a giant ejaculating phallus, with the words "HIV Nazi Fuckboi" scrawled underneath, as well as something in Norwegian that I can't quite make out. Skrillex's mashup of Liturgy's cover of "The Boys of Summer" plays in the background. Chow is talking to Stella Schnabel and Lee Rinaldo. Mario Batali comes out of the kitchen to welcome Franco, the two hugging, backslapping. Franco introduces Nirenberg and Lana. Bennett and Melgaard are having an animated discussion, annoyingly cute, punctuated with inside-joke nicknames, like "Whore Pig" and "Cunt." Chow, sensing a break in the various conversations, pipes in, "Does anybody want to see my tits?"

Bennett and Melgaard are discussing the Boetti restrospective at MoMa. The retrospective, organized in collaboration with the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Tate Modern in London, is the largest presentation to date outside of Italy of works by Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994). Working in his hometown of Turin in the early 1960s amidst a close community of artists that included Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, Boetti established himself as one of the leading artists of the Arte Povera movement, the particularly Italian style of minimalism that flourished in the '60s.

"I think that Boetti, like Pasolini, was interested in creating mythologies around the artist more than in creating an artwork," says Bennett. Melgaard, no stranger to mythologizing, agrees.
Bennett continues, "His mythical travels, the importance in times and dates, and his use of material as metaphor were all a part of his contribution to the myth of artist as some kind of mystical figure or martyr. Look at how artists like Clemente and Cucci followed along after him -- like disciples! His aphorisms about making art, the nature of time, and identity were conveyed through his work like parables -- he was a very shamanistic or messianic artist, like Beuys." "Very true," I say, "I think that his journey as an artist was more imaginary than actualized -- he presented a model for a way of working that played with ideas of what both art and reality were.... If you believed in what he was doing, if you went along for the ride, your experience of his work was richer than if you just look at his objects. He exhorts you to believe in his work, in spite of what he says.... I mean, what are all those rugs he made in Afghanistan if not prayer mats?"

Organized chronologically, the exhibition spans Boetti's entire career, beginning with a large reproduction of a self-portrait -- an altered photograph that makes him appear as a set of identical twins ("Gemelli," n.d.) [above]. This bit of fiction sets the tone for the exhibition -- he would refer to himself as a "double" throughout his career, adding "e" (and) to his name: Alighiero e Boetti. Boetti said of this doubling, "Often when I draw I use both of my hands. Normally I am right-handed. When I draw with my left hand it is a kind of conversation with myself exploring the positive and the negative, the ego and alter ego, the order and disorder and mounting it on paper. It is as if on one hand there is Alighiero and on the other, Boetti."

"Art is a big fucking lie," says Melgaard, paraphrasing Picasso, "which reveals the truth." Boetti's sculptural works, or objects as he preferred to call them, comprised of everyday materials including wood, cardboard, and aluminum, are brought together and installed in a dense configuration inspired by their original clustered presentations. These early works convey the material experiments of the period, as well as notions of measurement and chance that Boetti played with and revised throughout his career. In 1969 Boetti began exploring notions of duality and multiplicity, order and disorder, travel and geography, and he initiated postal and map works, imagining distant places. For the work "Viaggi Postali," begun the summer of 1969, Boetti sent envelopes to friends, family, and fellow artists but used imaginary addresses, forwarding each returned envelope to yet another non-existent place. Boetti thus created imaginary journeys for the people he admired. "He was a forerunner to the Transavanguardia movement in the '80s," Melgaard interjects. "What he played with in terms of imaginary geographies, artists like Clemente lived out in their works. Kippenberger created a museum in Greece; Boetti opened a hotel in Afghanistan." (The One Hotel, which existed from 1971 until the Soviet invasion in 1979). I add, "During that period, Boetti began working with local artisans to produce embroideries such as the Mappas (maps), Arazzi (word squares), and Tuttos (literally, "Everything").

An important aspect of Boetti's oeuvre is drawing, which runs as a constant throughout his work. Drawing was both an activity and a moment of transformation to Boetti. He wrote, "I had been going in one direction. ... Then I began to doubt this direction. In the spring of 1969 I left the studio in Turin. It had become a depot for materials. I left all of this as it was and began again from zero with a pencil and a sheet of paper." In a sense, Boetti began to use the act of drawing to map out all his future actions as an artist. One piece in the exhibit, "Scrittura graffita"(Scraped Writing, 1968), two concrete tablets scratched into while still wet, resemble nothing so much as a humble Ten Commandments.A monumental ball-point-pen drawing from 1973, spelling out the title "Mettere a mondo il mondo" (Bringing the world into the world), points to some of Boetti's ideas about art making that were fundamental to his practice: that the artist, rather than inventing, simply brings what already exists in the world into the work; and that everything in the world is potentially useful for the artist.

The headwaiter, a tall, dark-haired woman named Mary, approaches the table to deliver a couple of bottles of complimentary Grand Siècle La Cuvée by Laurent-Perrierto Franco, who was seated at the center of the banquette. The arrival of the champagne interrupts his conversation with Darren Aronofsky on the performance artist Marina Abramović, when Mary whispers to him that there is a call for him on the house phone -- "Your Father," she explains. "Not now," he murmurs. "What does He expect from me? Tell Him it is not yet my Hour."

Deborah Kass arrives with Lena Dunham. We crowd closer into the banquette. Kass brushes away silver confetti to better see Melgaard's drawing, which now fills most of the tablecloth. Melgaard is sketching Mickey Mouse sodomizing a ball-gagged Bugs Bunny. "Oh, Cunty," giggles Bennett, "you spelled 'fuckhole' wrong!" Conversations are interwoven, a tapestry of sound. The heat is stifling; the air conditioner is broken, Batalli explains. The air smells of saffron, the desert, incense. "The Berliner Banhof, in 1945..." Saltz says, recounting a recent trip to Germany, "Now that was the station where the stations stopped."

Chow removes her top, saying, "See?" and Mary, having gone to relay Franco's message, returns, this time quietly whispering to him that the wine for the wedding party in the front of the restaurant has run out. Franco asks, "What is a wedding without the Divine Benediction? Mary, bring me water." She quickly orders a server to bring water to the table, six glasses of clear water in small, Philippe Starck-designed bowls. Franco lowers his head, his eyes heavy-lidded and faraway. The water transformed into wine. He speaks softly now, the table growing quiet to catch his words. "Whoever thirsts may come to me," he promises, "and whoever believes in me shall drink his fill." It was a sign, the first of many, witnessed by the twelve of us seated around the table. Franco continues, "If there were no signs, you would not come to me, but because you have faith, my words will cure, my hand will understand that which you don't know, you must first pass through where you do not know...." - Bradley Rubenstein

The Museum of Modern Art is at 11 West 53rd Street in New York, New York.

domMr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.