Bochner Boetti Fontana

By Magazzino Italian Art

Bochner Boetti Fontana examines parallel artistic movements of the 1960s and 1970s in both the United States and Italy through the artwork ofMel Bochner, Alighiero Boetti, and Lucio Fontana. Curated by Bochner in collaboration with Magazzino Italian Art, the exhibition marks the first presentation to consider the American artist’s extensive, yet overlooked, engagement with the practices of Fontana and Boetti.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Concetto Spaziale, Quanta Concetto Spaziale, Quanta (1960) by Lucio FontanaMagazzino Italian Art

Fontana continued his interrogation of space through his Quanta series. This body of work involved arranging a group of small-format slash paintings of various shapes in dynamic patterns on the wall. The title recalls the “quanta” of atomic physics—essentially the smallest amounts of kinetic energy present in a wave—and each individual canvas represents this quantity.

The installation included in this exhibition is comprised of nine canvases—with one or two slashes, or the artist’s signature buchi (holes)—painted boldly in red and arranged along the wall. All of the paintings assume an irregular, as opposed to equilateral, geometric form aside from one perfectly circular canvas on the right. Together, these components form a constellation of different shapes that require viewers to consider not only the paintings themselves but also the relationships between them, their forms, and the negative spaces created by the interaction between these canvases and the wall itself.

Again, like Bochner, Fontana prioritizes the most neglected space and acknowledges the necessity of taking all spatial components into account. Concetto Spaziale, Quanta demonstrates this perspective along with Fontana’s interest in having his artwork expand beyond the canvas and into the space it occupies. By bringing this desire to fruition, Concetto Spaziale, Quanta becomes, furthermore, part of the experience, environment, and reality of the viewers themselves.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Language is not Transparent (Italian / English) Language is not Transparent (Italian / English) (1970/2019) by Mel BochnerMagazzino Italian Art

While many conceptual artists used language as a vehicle through which to express a set of ideas and convey meaning, Mel Bochner challenged this practice, most notably through his renowned work, Language Is Not Transparent.

Although Bochner’s first installment of this painting occupied the walls of the famous Dwan Gallery in 1970, he has remade it several times since in a variety of different forms and settings. For this exhibition, Bochner superimposed the work’s signature text (“1. Language Is Not Transparent”) with the same phrase in Italian (“1. Il Linguaggio Non È Trasparente”).

The black paint, applied directly on the wall, frames the work while its residual drips cascade towards the floor, aided by gravity alone. It is significant that Bochner chose to abandon the use of canvas entirely. While artists have utilized text in paintings since the start of Cubism, Bochner unsettles this avant-garde tradition by forgoing a canvas support for his words and, with it, the tendency to pictorialize language.

Instead, he brings them directly into the viewers’ space to be experienced and confronted in their present moment. This ultimately renders the work more reminiscent of graffiti than a conventional painting. Indeed, Bochner has cited the wall writings of the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris as one inspiration. By layering the text in this work through transfer sketching, it becomes more opaque than transparent, almost undecipherable without patience.

This artistic decision coupled with the choice to leave ongoing dribbles of untouched black paint signals that, as Bochner has said, “The work of understanding is never complete, always in process.” Through this painting, Bochner asks us to question the meaning of words and phrases that we find obvious rather than complacently consuming them, and also encourages us to take time to think deeply about the words he presents. His addition of the phrase in Italian along with his color choice further signifies the need to approach text with consideration, as translation is never black and white.

Measurement: 12 inches Between Measurement: 12 inches Between (1999) by Mel BochnerMagazzino Italian Art

Bochner’s Measurement works comprise a significant portion of the artist’s oeuvre and served as his primary investigation into the limits of language. Throughout this series of inquiry, Bochner prioritized standard American construction sizes, as in Measurement: 12 inches Between.

This work consists of a large rectangular canvas painted in red with a square cut out of its center. Bochner explicitly specifies the size of this square by painting a twelve-inch sign to the right of the central void along with two arrows pointing outward, which, together, indicate the width span of this measurement.

Attached to the right border of the red painting, at the same height as the square excised from its center is a white canvas whose measure mirrors that of the gap: 12 x 12 inches. In this work, what is missing becomes just as much the subject as the two canvasses themselves. By elevating the significance of this negative space, Bochner asks us to consider not only what has been removed but also the conditionality of measurement—how it can only have meaning in relation to something else.

Like the “blahs” in his Blah, Blah, Blah, painting and the words in Language Is Not Transparent, measurement reveals an inherent emptiness and opacity when explicitly invoked. All of the components surrounding it are ultimately essential to defining and contextualizing its overall signification.

Alternandosi e dividendosi Alternandosi e dividendosi (1989) by Alighiero BoettiMagazzino Italian Art

Alighiero Boetti’s Arazzi (Tapestries) are based on the juxtaposition of order and disorder. They consist of a seemingly disordered combination of letters that compose phrases reflecting the artist’s thoughts and the tapestry’s moment of execution.

The artist travelled extensively to Afghanistan and was intrigued by Sufism, the Islamic mystical practice that associated sacred meanings with geometry and calligraphy. He was inspired by his ancestor, Giovanni Battista Boetti, a Dominican missionary in Mosul in the 18th century who converted to Islam and became a Sufi mystic.

By combining Italian and Farsi languages and collaborating with Afghan women to whom he assigned the execution of the embroideries, Boetti aimed to interweave eastern and western traditions into a universal order. This piece is part of a group of tapestries that the artist created in the late 1980s in collaboration with the Sufi master Berang Ramazan, whom he befriended in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

The Italian phrase highlights the dichotomy of order and disorder and emphasizes the split of authorship between Boetti and Berang.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Concetto Spaziale, Attese Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1959) by Lucio FontanaMagazzino Italian Art

While some of Fontana’s abundant Concetto Spaziale paintings assumed a variety of forms— from hexagonal to pentagonal—this work consists of a square monochrome canvas in a vibrant orange hue that features the artist’s signature slashes. First conceived in 1958, Fontana’s initial Cuts were small, either curved or diagonal penetrations of canvases.

Over time, the artist developed a more controlled method of making his mark. Generally, after applying paint, Fontana would transport the wet canvas to his easel and use a Stanley knife to create his calculated slit. As soon as the paint dried, he would manually regulate the size of the opening with his own hands until satisfied.

This process honored Fontana’s artistic foundation in sculpture while signaling his entrance into uncharted creative territory. While Fontana’s first Cuts certainly maintained evidence of his hand’s participation in the process, his later slashes, as in Concetto Spaziale, Attese, appear almost mechanical, devoid of any traces of the artist’s subjectivity, gesture, or expression.

Like Bochner, Fontana attributes value to the void, which appears to have been created by the gash itself and can only be defined by the presence of the curling canvas that surrounds it.

Fontana added several inscriptions to the back of his Concetto Spaziale works, including, in this case, attese—plural because of the multiple slashes that comprise the piece— which translates to “expectation” or “anticipation.” His decision to include this inscription indicates just how important he considered the process of creating the work, especially waiting for the perfect moment to make his taglio.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Yiskor (For the Jews of Rome) Yiskor (For the Jews of Rome) (1993) by Mel BochnerMagazzino Italian Art

Jewishness has played a significant role in Bochner’s work, in both subtle and explicit ways. The artist’s interest in Jewish thought and, in particular, the importance it gives to the written word and language play, has manifested in works from Blah, Blah, Blah, to many of his “Thesaurus” paintings that feature Yiddish words and phrases in their exploration of synonyms.

Yiskor (For the Jews of Rome) is one of the artist’s more somber works involving Jewishness. “Yiskor”—the Hebrew word for “remember” —is the opening word of memorial prayers for the departed that are recited four times a year, including during Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Passover.

It, therefore, contains a powerful and even political signification within the context of Jewish history more broadly. This work is composed of a pile of extinguished matchsticks, gathered in the shape of a Jewish star, that rest on top of a U.S. Army blanket—a nod to the U.S. Fifth Army that liberated Rome in June 1944.

Together, these powerful visual components serve as an abstract evocation of the Yiskor prayer, with each burnt matchstick representing a word or phrase and asking us to remember all those who have been lost in the Jewish community. The matchsticks additionally recall the lighting of a 24 hour Yiskor candle, which some choose to burn the day before the memorial service.

Furthermore, they call to mind the use of “impoverished” materials by Arte Povera artists. While Bochner sees this work as political, he does not wish for it to be categorized as “political art.” As he says, “It’s best when the politics slip into the stream unannounced, increasing the work’s chances of reframing the discourse and altering the status quo.”

Counting: 24 Trajectories Counting: 24 Trajectories (1997) by Mel BochnerMagazzino Italian Art

Counting can certainly be identified as a foundational element of Bochner’s artistic practice, along with repetition and sequence. Counting: 24 Trajectories, for example, embodies these artistic fixations. Using eight columns of three, Bochner creates a grid of 24 vertical rectangles, each filled with a numerical sequence starting with 0 and ending at 34, 35, or 36.

Like Principle of Detachment: Right Angles In, the work appears orderly and calculated in its rigid structure and spatial delineation; however, it simultaneously introduces a sense of disorder, chaos, and irrationality through Bochner’s blurring of numbers, erratic numerical arrangement and sequencing, and use of his own handwriting within each rectangular container.

While the first two tiers of the overall grid maintain a pattern of horizontal blurring to vertical, the last row veers away from this framework, introducing a spiral-like haze to the composition. A natural embodiment of the Fibonacci sequence and a visual element frequently included in Arte Povera works, Bochner’s inclusion of this quasi-spiral seems to break up the previously delineated system and suggest a new mode of ordering, processing, and computing.

Again, the tension between counting and categorization, reason and emotion, rationality and irrationality come into play. This work is washed over with Bochner’s signature blue, reminiscent of his repetitive and sequential Blah, Blah, Blah, paintings of the same color.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Ghise (Boetti) Ghise (Boetti) (1968) by Alighiero BoettiMagazzino Italian Art

Ghise (Boetti) is a cast of a piece of corrugated cardboard on which the artist etched his signature. The two sheets retain both the positive and negative imprint of his signature.

The duality of the work is an early account of Boetti’s investigation of the identity of the artist as inherently double. Such attitude would lead to the addition of an “e” (Italian for “and”) between the artist’s first and last names in 1972.

Based on the inversion and mirroring of the signature, Ghise visualizes the double by the overlapping of opposing poles that can coincide only in making art. The process of casting itself is based on the inversion of a negative into a positive. At the same time, the handwritten signature is a word and can be viewed as an artistic image. The interplay between drawing and writing recurs often in Boetti’s art.

Concetto spaziale Concetto spaziale (1956) by Lucio FontanaMagazzino Italian Art

Nineteen forty-nine marked a pivotal year in Fontana’s career: in addition to creating his first spatial environment, he made his first series of buchi (hole) paintings. Rather than slashing the canvas, as he would a decade later, he punctured it, creating holes of varying sizes.

By piercing the painting in this way, Fontana initiated an investigation of space that he would continue throughout his entire life. In Concetto spaziale, these tiny holes create a universe in and of themselves, the bounds of which are delineated by a thick line drawn in white pastel that encases this constellation of points.

Towards the bottom left of the work, a cluster of glass pieces is nestled into Fontana’s punctures—a detail which earns this work its spot in the artist’s Pietre (Stones) series. Protruding from the otherwise two-dimensional plane, these chunks appear almost meteor-like in their configuration within the universe created by the perforated black velvet background.

While the holes themselves were intended to serve as tiny channels for light to pass through, Fontana often utilized pieces of colored glass to provide further illumination due to its refractive properties. Moreover, these multihued additions introduced an alternate sense of depth and perspective that enhanced the celestial quality of the work. Fontana’s signature cuts owe their inception to the artist’s early experimentations with spatial intervention through canvas perforation.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Da mille a mille Da mille a mille (1975) by Alighiero BoettiMagazzino Italian Art

Da mille a mille is composed of eleven sheets of graph paper, each framed individually and placed alongside one another to form a coherent pattern. On each sheet, 1,000 small squares are hatched in ballpoint pen, the density of the squares diminishing from the first sheet to the last.

The work shows the artist’s typical playful attitude with the proliferation of squares that seems to diminish throughout the sheets. Moreover, the number of sheets is not by chance. Alighiero Boetti was fascinated by the number 11 – which is based on the doubling of the number one – as a metaphor of his innermost double identity as an artist.

The coloring of 1,000 squares on each sheet is also related to the artist’s personal commitment to mathematics, all the numbers based on 1 and 0 representing the binary system of positive and negative.

Various assistants were involved in the execution of the work. While each received the same instructions from Boetti, they were free to combine the squares in their own way, thus questioning the traditional status of the author as a single entity.

Dama Dama (1967-1968) by Alighiero BoettiMagazzino Italian Art

Dama is part of a small group of works executed in varying scales in which Alighiero Boetti enshrined his love of systems within a game of his own invention. This work consists of 100 “playing” pieces ordered in a jigsaw-like grid.

The blocks in the work compose a playful yet preordained set of dominoes. As in the Bollini (Stickers) series, the pieces of Dama fit together according to an internal logic; the symbols along the sides of each block have only one match. Despite the work’s apparent simplicity, there is only one way to arrange its pieces in the correct order. This visual simplicity but conceptual complexity allowed Boetti to explore the ideas of order and disorder.

Rules and variations are called into question in Dama. As Boetti explained, “I have worked much with the concept of order/disorder...by presenting apparent disorder which was, in fact, the depiction of intellectual order. The thing is to know the rules of the game: he or she who does not know them will never recognize the order prevailing in things, just as someone who does not know the orders of the stars will always only see confusion, while an astronomer has a very clear view of things.”

Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras (1972 / 1993) by Mel BochnerMagazzino Italian Art

Explorations of mathematical systems of counting and order feature prominently in Bochner’s work and, especially, in Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras. This work was first conceived during a trip to Bari, Italy in 1972.

While there, Bochner discovered that the Pythagoreans lived in the town of Metapontum—now Crotone, Calabria—which held a Pythagorean temple. Bochner decided to visit the site and create an homage to the famous philosopher, who shared his belief that numbers and the relationships between them heavily impacted reality. While he anticipated using 50 stones in the process, Bochner was surprised to have three remaining after completing the sculpture.

Upon reflection, he realized, “On the one hand you have theoretical space where points are defined as having no dimensions. And on the other...you have a real space where the three corner-points overlap. So, of course, it only took 47 stones. It was a kind of epiphany for me...Because it was my realization that sculpture exists in the space where the mental and the physical overlap.”

Around 1990, the artist was invited to recreate the revelatory work for an exhibition at Sergio Casoli’s gallery in Milan, which was soon revealed to be Lucio Fontana’s former studio. Casoli allowed Bochner to look through the boxes of materials that Fontana left behind after his death, which led him to discover the remaining pieces of colored glass that the artist inserted into the surfaces of his famous Pietre series of Concetto Spaziale paintings.

Profoundly inspired by his findings, Bochner recreated the sculptural offering he made to Pythagoras in 1972, now using these beautifully hued chunks of Fontana’s Murano glass, which attributed the work with an even deeper significance than it held before.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Teresa Giancarlo Carlotta Beatrice Teresa Giancarlo Carlotta Beatrice (1977) by Alighiero BoettiMagazzino Italian Art

In 1973, Alighiero Boetti began to create drawings known as Biros using the technique of hatching with a ball point pen on paper. Boetti assigned his studio assistants to execute the hatching based on a composition he conceived.

Typical of Boetti, these works are interactive games based on a set of rules that the viewer must decipher. Each sheet contains a word that is decoded by aligning the alphabet running along the vertical axis with the commas positioned on the horizontal axis. In this case, the words are a portrait of the artist’s friends, offering a unique reflection on the concept of identity.

The names reveal Teresa, the wife; Giancarlo, her husband; and Carlotta and Beatrice, their children. In his Biros, Boetti explored the theme of ‘the double’ by splitting the authorship of the work between himself and his assistants and interweaving the practices of drawing and writing. The viewer is invited to actively engage in deciphering the literal meaning of the work.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Principle of Detachment: Right Angles In Principle of Detachment: Right Angles In (1973) by Mel BochnerMagazzino Italian Art

In this work, Bochner once again brings mathematical principles to the fore to consider how language and systems can reflect our world and perception. Principle of Detachment: Right Angles In quite literally illustrates the geometric Law of Detachments, which states that if “p” then “q” is true and “p” is also true, then “q” is true as well.

For example, if it is raining (p), then water is falling down from the sky (q). If you can verify that the statement above is true and someone confirms that it is, in fact, raining (p), then you can correctly deduce that water is falling down from the sky (q).

In this charcoal and gouache on paper, Bochner illustrates the Principle of Detachment using a schematic grid of numbers, letters, triangles, and lines. However, interestingly, what would normally be an orderly and systematic rendering contains smudges of charcoal, smears of gouache, layered and inverted numbers, and ghostly remains of previous markings all around.

The work reveals traces of the artist’s hand through these details, introducing a sense of uncertainty and indeterminacy to a subject that, otherwise, is seen as absolute, definite, and unquestionable.

In this piece, the right angles are in, meaning that they are in the middle of the piece and that they touch each other to form a line of reflection that acts as a mirror of the two parts.

Through his drawing, Bochner suggests that our human tendency to order our world through rational thought is not as black-and- white as we think. Like the numbers that appear to be drawn from a series of different perspectives, our points of view inevitably come into play and render the act of determining meaning subjective rather than objective.

Io Sono un Santo Io Sono un Santo (1958) by Lucio FontanaMagazzino Italian Art

Fontana’s 1958 work, Io Sono un Santo, represents one of the artist’s very first Cut pieces. Unlike Concetto Spaziale, Attese, for example—also included in this exhibition—the slashes Fontana made on this paper mounted on canvas are noticeably shorter and less calculated.

Almost staccato-like in their location and appearance on the paper, it is as if Fontana jabbed a knife directly into the surface and pulled it out immediately after puncturing it—as opposed to dragging it down after making contact in order to create a long gash instead.

The two cuts closest to the left edge of the paper appear to be attempts at such an extended slash; however, they are far less clean and sleek than the slits Fontana would make in 1959 after perfecting his technique. Here, the artist’s hand leaves traces of its movements and actions, making Fontana far less removed from the work than he is in Concetto Spaziale, Attese.

In addition to the slashes, Fontana writes, “Io sono un santo” (I am a saint) in big, thick, and blue cursive letters that cover most of the paper and canvas plane. Between the “io” and “sono,” we can also detect a small interjected “non” (not) written in light, thin pencil.

On the reverse, the artist adds an inscription that reads, “Io sono una carogna” (I am a lowlife). While it was uncommon of Fontana to explicitly use language in his work, this piece is an important representation of the artists ongoing questioning of the infinite along with his and, more broadly, humanity’s place within it. Furthermore, it underlines Fontana’s sense of irony.

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

Tavola pitagorica Tavola pitagorica (1990) by Alighiero BoettiMagazzino Italian Art

Like Alternandosi e dividendosi (1989)—also included in this exhibition—Alighiero Boetti’s Tavola pitagorica is part of the artist’s Arazzi (Tapestries) series. These embroidery works are known for their play on order and disorder, and, in this way, directly recall Bochner’s mathematical as well as text- based artworks, which continually juxtapose the rational with the irrational.

This piece, in particular, additionally conjures Bochner’s Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras through its title, which translates to “Pythagorean Table.” Boetti’s decision to evoke the name of the famous philosopher— whose renowned theorem, which bears his name, centers on the relations between the three sides of a right triangle—may seem puzzling when looking at this perfectly square work.

However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that this embroidery on fabric embodies the artist’s desire to encourage avoiding the obvious, taking a longer look, and shifting our perspective.

While the right triangle is the main event of the Pythagorean theorem, the square is the less obvious element that does, in fact, play a key role. As the squares of each side of the triangle give truth to the famous equation a2 + b2 = c2, they become equally as important as the triangle itself. Boetti further nods towards the significance of this exponential function by repeating certain letters in patterns of two throughout the grid.

His decision to use black-and-white—unlike in Alternandosi e dividendosi, which features vibrant colors—aligns with the work’s mathematical roots; numerical language has always been associated with logic and reason as opposed to emotion, which is typically represented by a variety of shades and hues. Within the work, Boetti includes the name “Anne,” a detail that may refer to his wife, the famous writer and critic, Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti.

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, (2009) by Mel BochnerMagazzino Italian Art

Bochner’s Blah, Blah, Blah, is far more pictorial than Language Is Not Transparent. In this painting—part of a larger series of works bearing the same title— Bochner repeats the word “blah” eight times total, in two rows of four.

While each letter is executed with calligraphic precision, the artist’s subjectivity comes into view through his expressionist globs and drips of paint that swirl and mingle within the defined frames of the typographic characters.

The word “blah” evokes the irrational along with the familiar, typically used to generate meaningless babble to suggest that someone is speaking nonsense or expressing something so common that it is actually irritating to hear it uttered again.

Read from left to right, the varied pigments that appear in the first column of the work eventually turn to shades of blue that almost blend completely into their velvet backdrop. This detail mirrors how an endless repetition of “blahs” ultimately fades into meaningless background chatter over time.

By choosing a seemingly empty word as the subject of this work and forcing viewers to confront it multiple times, Bochner asks us to question our use of language in contemporary communication and just how rational it is.

When asked what his Blah, Blah, Blah, paintings mean, Bochner responds, “They say nothing but they can mean anything, or everything, or nothing. Operating at a sub-linguistic level, they are simultaneously sublime and ridiculous, hilarious and aggravating. Just another confirmation that Language Is Not Transparent.”

Installation view of Bochner, Boetti, Fontana at Magazzino Italian Art (2020)Magazzino Italian Art

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