Alighiero Boetti

Self-isolation: Tra sé e sé (Between Self and Self)

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Alighiero Boetti. Photo by Sandro Vannini

An exclusive virtual exhibition with more than 29 works by Alighiero Boetti spreading from 1979 to 1992, for the first time on our new website.

“Remember to do things that have an inner simplicity, like the sound two small brass symbols make when they strike. This is what needs to make sense of things today. A work is valid when its mechanism is simple and when it is perceived as simple and spontaneous by the viewer, for whom the simplicity of something born from nothing can be astonishing. Depending on who hears it, a small sound such as this can mean a lot or very little.”

Alighiero Boetti, 1980

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), perhaps more than any other artist, developed the idea of creativity as a shared act: he delegated the making of his art to others (including embroiderers and a large number of studio assistants), and he pioneered a collective and social idea of artistic expression. However, while he was experiencing a period of solitude and isolation, he created an extraordinary cycle of work, which he named Tra sé e sé (Between Self and Self) and which remains a unique and revelatory facet of the artist’s career.

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In 1980, after Boetti had been living between Rome and Kabul for almost a decade, Afghanistan became inaccessible due to the political conflict and Soviet invasion. As if compensating for this forced state of exile and after suffering the loss of his mother, Boetti self-isolated and created a new body of work in his studio, on his own – the only body of work he made alone, entirely with his own hand. The series work that emerged – Tra sé e sé – represents and expresses his profound disillusion with humankind and the political troubles and divisions of the world. He continued to work on this series over the next decade. Tornabuoni Art is now presenting these works in a special online exhibition in our virtual viewing room until 22 May. 

Boetti initially conceived this series in the 1970s, inspired by a game he used to play with his daughter, Agata. However, in the 1980s he introduced new works to the series, including La natura una faccenda ottusa (Nature, an obtuse Matter) and other drawings. While previously Boetti had to wait for his ideas and plans for artworks to be made by others, in the Tra sé e sé series, the time lapse between conception and concretization was significantly shortened as  he made all the works himself, resulting in a special intimacy and immediacy unique to these works.

In Prima Persona | Interview with Alighiero Boetti | Turin | 1984

Boetti used Max Ernst’s ‘frottage’ (or rubbing) technique to transpose the varied shapes of everyday objects – scissors, an ashtray, a spoon, a table tennis racket – gathered from around the artist’s house, onto paper. He then framed these images  on either side of a drawing made by the artist’s hands, as if to suggest that artists have entire universes within their reach. Boetti would often make use of both his right and left hands while making these drawings because, for him, the left hand was drawing while the right hand was writing and the artist needed to unify the two. In La natura una faccenda ottusa, Boetti created a doubled image by folding one drawing and working on its reflected imagery, in this case using the technique of spray-painting through a straw over a stencil cut-out of frogs.

Boetti’s Tra sé e sé works from the 1980s are filled with animals such as frogs, lizards, dolphins or apes, because the artist considered them to be more adapted to the world than humans. His decision to represent these animals is a statement of what the artist most admired about them: their grace, speed, agility and intelligence, but also their powerful use of their senses. As the art critic Federico Sardella has written:  “… these animals repeat themselves and fuse together, blending, multiplying and aggregating, giving life to happy and colourful compositions. Constructed and defined, yet characterized by an unrivaled freedom, these works reveal a lesser known aspect of the artist: he was an exceptional painter.”


Alighiero Boetti‘s hand (he always wore his red Afghan ring) and hundreds of frog cut outs. Photo by Randi Malkin


“We sometimes made paper cut-outs of our hands and placed them on the floor, one pair on each side of the room. We then connected them by making a long line of cut out letters and objects of all shapes and sizes, usually starting with smaller pieces and then picking up pace and adding larger ones. When this long line made up of ‘everything’ was ready, Alighiero positioned himself behind one pair of hands and I did the same behind the other, blocking the objects between us and completing the circuit. We called this game ‘tra me e te’ (between you and me) and ended up making a series of works inspired by it. He called that series ‘Tra seì e seì’ [Between Self and Self].”

Agata Boetti, Il Gioco dell’Arte, 2016


Exhibition catalogue edited by Tornabuoni Art London and Laura Cherubini, with an unpublished text by Agata Boetti dedicated to the experience of creating Mappe.

For one special chapter, the editor obtained the precious collaboration of Hans Ulrich Obrist and some unpublished contributions dedicated to a selection of ‘unfinished projects’: ideas that remained trapped within drawings, prototypes, and sketches, which can be imagined through the narrative of a person who attempted to realise these works with Boetti. As well as his writings, Hans Ulrich Obrist, art curator and director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, also gives an interview talking about his meeting with Boetti and how important and significant this encounter was for his career as curator.

B/w and coloured illustrations, 336 pages, 9.4 × 11.8 inches, Italian/English, 2016.

Alighiero Boetti. Decoding his Universe: Works on Paper (1968-91)

exhibition catalogue edited by Tornabuoni Art London.

B/w and coloured illustrations, 86 pages, 7,8×11 in, English, 2019.


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