The Playful Poetics of Alighiero e Boetti’s High-Concept Textiles

The fascinating and influential text and textile artist Alighiero e Boetti has been a vital inspiration for painters and other artists for more than three decades. Contrary to many of his conceptualist peers, Boetti showed a lifelong appreciation for craft, through carefully constructed tapestries that are both beautiful and intellectually provocative.

Boetti was a curious trickster-like figure in the arts of his milieu. He was a member of Italy’s Arte Povera (“poor art”) movement, which used didacticism and everyday materials for the production of art—often art that broke away from conventional media such as painting and sculpture. Although he left the movement in the early 1970s, he continued to use many of the same ideas in his subsequent work.

Boetti’s tapestries are simple and direct, using embroidery to depict text in bright colors. The text used often displays a short phrase in Italian, such as the eponymous Il progressivo svanire della consuetudine (1988), which translates roughly to “the gradual fading of the customary.” The clear, poetic phrase captures both Boetti’s aim (the disintegration of the restrictive customs of art production) and the evanescence of what art gives to its audience in novel feelings and experiences. Other works act in similar ways, such as Untitled (1988), which contains a grid of many different short phrases, loosely related but not necessarily meant to be read linearly.

Two earlier works, Energia Iniziale (1979) and Non Parto Non Resto (1981), are made with both reductive and additive means: Boetti has blacked out the surface of each painting by drawing over it almost entirely in black pen. Starting at the upper left, he proceeds in parallel lines that become progressively deformed by the imperfect motion of the artist’s hand. Over these repetitive waves ride small commas, like clouds or boats, cast from a column of alphabetical letters at the far left edge. This combination of redaction and formalist application manifests only one of the ways that Boetti plays with contradiction; the artist also trained himself to be ambidextrous and added a character between his first and last names—Alighiero e Boetti, meaning Alighiero and Boetti—which was meant to indicate a split personality.

An untitled 1994 piece by Boetti eschews artistic conventions entirely, presenting a hand-woven Asian rug of intricate and uncommon patterns. The use of the artisanal, high conceptual, material, and poetic all coexisted in his work. Through these opposing means, Boetti opened up vast new territories for artists to fuse the practice of everyday life and art.

—Stephen Dillon

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