Opening on the same day of Alighiero Boetti’s retrospective at the Tate Modern, Sprüth Magers’ downsized showcase provides a respite from the maddening crowds. The gallery worked with the artist for over 20 years and their natural affinity is apparent in the exhibition’s quietly celebratory presentation. The Italian artist, famed member of Arte Povera who broke away to do his own thing, developed an understated and indosyncratic style throughout 1960s and 1970s. Best known for his hyper-bright embroidered maps, his work is joyful and meticulous, often hiding complex meaning behind a playful facade.
The front room is given over to Onnimo (1974) and Dossier Postale (1969), both rarely shown. The former is a multi-part series of ballpoint pen drawings, almost meditative in quality, so exacting and repetitious is the pattern of blue, inky strokes. The latter is an experimental correspondence project – the artist wrote a number of letters to artists, gallery owners and collectors, then sent them to imaginary addresses – which of course meant they were returned to him unopened.
A pointless gesture? Rather, it seems, a demonstration of the lengths the artist went to prove a point of absurdity and improbability, even if it was just to himself.
The application of handicrafts such as weaving and sewing became more prevalent as his style developed. I’d like to imagine these skills evolved in a bustling Italian household full of grannies mending tablecloths and knitting shawls, but sadly not. In reality it was more his travels through Asia, Africa and the Middle East that began to blur the boundary between “art” and “craft” in his practice.
L’insensata corsa della vita (1989), part of his Mappas series, conveys best what is so likeable about Boetti as an artist. Expressing both political and personal themes of a changing world, and a changing identity, Boetti’s tapestry genuinely embraces multiculturalism (local Afghan artisans embroidered the piece), while its accessible, even feminine beauty lends a sense of gentleness. It’s work that says a great deal without shouting in your face.
The exhibition also draws attention to the lesser known aspects of Boetti’s practice. Who knew the man was a designer? Not me, but a glass case of objects displays Boetti’s dab hand at graphic, product and fashion design. There’s a selection of monochrome watches with a face that displays only four numbers (though not necessarily in any correct order). And a jigsaw puzzle in a pleasing sky-blue hue dotted with tiny white airplanes. And an encyclopedia cataloguing the world’s 1,000 longest rivers – both a beautiful object and an intriguing read (though, due to the glass partition, I was frustratingly unable to turn the page.)
The lower ground floor is dedicated to Il Muro, a wall in Boetti’s home where he collected letters, photographs, drawings, objects and other found curiosities, a sort of “inspiration board.” It offers a glimpse inside the mind of the man – a man who collected postcards and made frottage out of used envelopes. It makes me like him even more, it also makes clear his inherent love of beauty.
Everything he did, from letter writing to list-making to mathematical calculations, displays an unforced attention to aesthetics, a capacity to make the world around him as visually pleasing as possible.
Boetti seems a kind and careful artist, unafraid of completing work that defies immediate comparison and shuns clear cut meaning while remaining entirely likeable. I admire him for that. Sprüth Magers have done him a great service – wise to offer not a competitive but an alternative show, and perhaps a more personal take on Boetti’s work. I imagine that he, in some respects, would have even preferred this understated presentation to the hustle and jostle that may characterise the Tate show.