Duchamp’s Urinal Has Nothing on Boetti’s Steamer: Review

"Autoritratto (Self-Portrait)" (1993-99) by Alighiero Boetti. The life-size self-portrait/fountain, aka “My brain is smoking,” sprays a constant stream of water on the subject’s heated head, which emits a cloud of steam. Source: Museum of Modern Art via Bloomberg

In his Conceptual, travel artwork “Viaggi postali (Postal Voyages)” (1969-70), Alighiero Boetti, using imaginary addresses, mailed 25 letters to 25 friends, family members and artists, including his mentor and hero Marcel Duchamp.

When a letter was returned, Boetti sealed it in a new envelope, readdressed and forwarded it to the same recipient at a new nonexistent place around the globe.

There were themes to these postal voyages. One letter was sent only to places that began with the letter “Z.” Another went only to cities named after saints.

Miraculously, all of the misaddressed envelopes were returned to the artist. “Viaggi postali” says more about the quality of worldwide postal service circa 1970 than about art, which is typical of “Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan,” the uninspiring retrospective that opened yesterday at the Museum of Modern Art.

The chronological exhibition, which begins on the sixth floor and continues in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium on MoMA’s second floor, is a handsome presentation of the Italian artist’s quirky work, much of which is not much to look at on its own.

There, along with the returned envelopes of “Viaggi postali,” you will encounter “Scala” (1966), a standing, triangular wooden ladder rendered useless by strips of wood nailed to its steps; “Lampada annual (Annual Lamp)” (1966), in which a wooden box housing a light bulb turns on randomly once a year for 11 seconds; and Boetti’s last work, “Autoritratto (Self-Portrait)” (1993-99).

Hose, Head

Placed in MoMA’s sculpture garden, “Autoritratto” is a life-size bronze cast of the artist in suit and tie holding a hose above his head. The hose continually sprays water onto his heated cranium, which emits a cloud of steam.

The fountain-portrait (in homage to Duchamp) is sometimes referred to as “Mi fume il mio cervello” (My brain is smoking).

This banal mix of academic realism, prankish pun and one-liner is supposed to illumine one of Boetti’s chief philosophical concerns as an artist: the importance of “thought” or “concept” to his Conceptual art.

Like most of his work, “Autoritratto” is a big idea with a small visual payoff.

Found Objects

Boetti (1940-94) was born in Turin and was a member of Arte Povera (poor art), a radical late-1960s Italian group that worked primarily with found objects and mass-produced materials, often arranged in large numbers and exhibited in unorthodox places.

Like Duchamp, Boetti took an anti-classical stance that did not regard the artist’s unique, authorial hand as significant or even desirable. He preferred ready-made objects to sculptures; disorder over order; serendipity, happy accidents and chance to aesthetics, metaphor and structure.

He also embraced laziness, choosing to let others (such as the postal service) do the heavy lifting.

Boetti believed that time is the “only thing that is really magical.” He was on a playful quest to “waste time.” Apparently, however, he preferred to waste others’ time more than his own.

The execution of much of his oeuvre he farmed out to children, art students, Afghan women and his partner and collaborator, Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti.

These outsourced works include enormous monochrome ballpoint pen drawings resembling dense, trembling chicken scratch; and large embroidered maps -- charming in a naive, folk-art kind of way -- in which oceans are black, pink, green or blue and nations are made up from the flags of their countries.

‘Perfect Works’

In the catalog essay accompanying the exhibition, we are told that these maps, which were made by Afghan women, represent “perfect works” because “they required nothing of him: he chose nothing (the design already existed) and he did nothing (they were executed by others) ... Here, he seems to have achieved the ideal, ‘a glorious and philosophical form of idleness.’”

We should not be surprised, then, that at MoMA the most beautiful artworks by Boetti, such as “L’albero dele ore (Tree of Hours)” (1979) -- Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti’s white-on-white tapestry visually marking the quarter hour as chimed by a neighborhood church bell -- are not really by Alighiero Boetti at all.

“Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan” runs through Oct. 1 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. Information: +1-212-708-9400; http://www.moma.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Warwick Thompson on London theater.

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