Alighiero Boetti. Alternando da uno a cento e viceversa (Alternating One to One Hundred and Vice Versa). 1993. Woven wool and cotton kilim 114 ½ x 109" (290.8 x 276.9 cm). Private collection, Rome. © 2012 Estate of Alighiero Boetti / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome.

For the past three years, "Game Plan," the retrospective of Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, has been the collaborative focus of three curators at some of the world's most prestigious arts institutions. After opening at Madrid's Reina Sofía in late 2011 and showing at London's Tate Modern earlier this year, the show comes to the top floor and atrium of MoMA in New York this July.

An Arte Povera pioneer, Boetti sought to transcend the traditional limits of high art through industrial materials used in minimalist constructions, such as in his work Io Che Prendo il Sole a Torino il 19 Gennaio, 1969 (Me Sunbathing in Turin 19 January, 1969)—a gravelike configuration of hand-formed concrete chunks, which rests on the ground in the shape of a human figure. Wood, cardboard, glass, and postal materials comprise the varied mediums the artist elevated to art objects during this period in the late 1960s. Having never identified as a sculptor, however, Boetti saw the rapid accumulation of these materials as constricting his means of visual communication.


Boetti broke with the Arte Povera movement, first returning to the self-contained simplicity of drawing with works such as The Contest of Harmony and Invention (1969), where he simply traced pre-existing lines on graph paper. By 1971 his focus shifted again to tapestries made in collaboration with Afghani women depicting maps of the world. The show traces the transformation from exploration of large-scale objects made of crude, unexpected materials to a return to drawings and paintings with coded concepts. Moving in chronological order, the atrium has been dedicated exclusively to his tapestries, which he worked on through the 1990s. With a rare attention to the engagement of his audience, his work explores playful ideas through a strategic internal logic.

In this conversation, MoMA curator Christian Rattemeyer, who organized the New York incarnation of the retrospective, explains the collaborative process of the show's organization, and how Boetti progressed after his early work as an Arte Povera artist.


RYANN DONNELLY
How long has this exhibition been in production, and was there a particular catalyst for it?

CHRISTIAN RATTEMEYER
This has been in production for about two-and-a-half years. For us, the catalyst was that we received a number of great works in the drawings department through the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection gift in 2005, including a number of great Boetti drawings. I organized the first exhibition of the Rothschild material in 2009, and I realized that this was an artist who really deserved a much more comprehensive look.

DONNELLY
Who spearheaded this cross-institutional project?

RATTEMEYER
It was a rare case of curatorial collaboration. Just at the same time that I was proposing a Boetti exhibition here, we were approached about a Boetti show by the Reina Sofía in Madrid. Lynne Cooke, the curator there at the time, said, "Oh, we're thinking of a Boetti exhibition and we know that someone at the Tate is interested in having one as well." But no one had started work yet. We really worked on it together from the beginning.

DONNELLY
How do you define Arte Povera?

RATTEMEYER
Arte Povera was an Italian arts movement, predominantly in sculpture, that started in the second half of the 1960s. In a way similar to Post-Minimalism in the U.S., it was interested in the ways in which raw materials could be used to sculptural effect by using things that you could buy straight out of a hardware store, or that could be assembled fairly simply out of non-high art materials.

DONNELLY
How and when did Boetti break with Arte Povera?

RATTEMEYER
As this movement gained international recognition and visibility, the work became bigger and more involved-a monumentalization of the original sculptural impulse. But I think just as important at the time was the way in which the aftermath of May '68 came to Italy. And, many artists radicalized pretty quickly in Italy. So there was this moment at the end of 1968 where the political climate and the artistic climate came together. And it became about a gesture of radicalization on all fronts, as if the volume on every level became amplified. Boetti didn't want anything to do with that radicalization.

So he closed his studio in Turin. What he was so excited about two years earlier in '67—that he could go to a hardware store and just buy everything he needed for his sculpture—was no longer fresh, and by '69 he felt his studio had become the hardware store. He mirrored it too closely. It just became an imitation.

So he closed the door, left it behind and went back to zero, starting with a piece of paper and a pencil.

DONNELLY
How are the institutions presenting the retrospective differently?

RATTEMEYER
Every institution has different spatial configurations. For instance in London the second room had his work Nothing to See, Nothing to Hide (1969), which is sort of like a shop window that leans against the wall, and the work on the floor—Myself Sunbathing in Turin in January 1969, a human figure made of concrete balls with a butterfly placed around the chest. Those two works were shown together in 1969. In the same year he made a piece called The Contest of Harmony and Invention. There are 25 sheets of graph paper on which he just hand-traced the grid in a way that is the least efficient way of reproducing the grid. So, I'm going to bring these works together with one little video work, and a little self-portrait in one gallery. We're not giving these galleries titles, but in my head I call it the "1969 Gallery" because it marks that moment when everyone else is trying to become more radical, more famous, and make bigger things, and he decides to become less efficient, less productive. He makes drawings that are about wasting as much time as possible. I hope that these moments when Boetti really decided to do something else can act as hinges in the exhibition-that they can be articulated.

DONNELLY
So is the exhibition organized chronologically?

RATTEMEYER
The exhibition follows a roughly chronological layout, and it just so happens that the show upstairs [on MoMA's top floor] ends around 1979. And the interesting thing there is that in Christmas 1979 the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, which was a very important site of production and cultural reference for Boetti throughout the '70s. He first visited Afghanistan in 1971, and very quickly developed a very fruitful, very important working relationship with the country and various craftspeople there. He ran a hotel in Afghanistan, and so on. So with the loss of Afghanistan in 1979, a certain type of production, at least for a moment, closed for him.

DONNELLY
Were his Mappa tapestries produced at the hotel?

RATTEMEYER
It was a functioning hotel. It was in a way not a production site. Nothing was ever produced in the hotel. It sort of acted as an assembly point. Alighiero would travel to Afghanistan twice a year, and his assistant in Italy would prime a canvas by drawing the outlines of a map or whatever motif it was that he wanted embroidered onto them, and by filling in the color codes. They were basically primed paint-by-number panels. Every outline and every number is fully specified.

DONNELLY
I had read that he left the map's coloration to the weavers' discretion.

RATTEMEYER
At some point he did. Around 1978 or 1979 there was a map where he forgot to indicate the color of the ocean, because for him it was totally obvious that the color should be blue, you know? But for the craftspeople that was not obvious at all, and they filled in the wrong color, because on the one hand they identified it not as an element but as background, and besides, many of them had not seen the ocean before, because Afghanistan is a landlocked country.

DONNELLY
That one is pink, right?

RATTEMEYER
It is pink. Yeah, there are two. Now in one the ocean is green, and in another it's pink. It's not entirely clear which one is the first of the two, but basically from that point on Boetti embraced the chance and participation that was contained in that gesture, and decided to give them more and more leeway in picking the colors [that went into the tapestries].