Wednesday, May 15, 2013


The Museum of Modern Art in NY is currently exhibiting a collection of envelopes which constitute a work of art by Alighiero Boetti,  perhaps the most prominent Italian conceptual artist of the 20th century. Wikipedia describes this important piece:
Dossier Postale (1969–70) consists of a series of letters which were sent to 26 well-known recipients, primarily artists, art critics, dealers, and collectors active at the time. Boetti sent the envelopes to imaginary addresses, thus each letter was returned to the artist undelivered, demonstrating Boetti’s preoccupation with improbability and chance.
The envelopes, complete with colored stamps and stray markings from the postal service, make an interesting assortment of lines and colors:

Marcel Duchamp had been dead for a year when Boetti mailed him this letter

Talented illustrator Bill Mayer also has a marvelous collection of decorated envelopes.  He has not, to my knowledge, exhibited them at the Museum of Modern Art, but you can see them on line.

It turns out that Mayer decorated nearly 100 envelopes containing letters to his wife, Lee.  I am a big fan of Mayer's work, and I really enjoy these envelopes.

If we compare Mayer's envelopes to Boetti's on a level playing field,  I find Mayer's visually stronger. 


Nevertheless, there are two important differences that qualify Boetti's envelopes for an honored place as "fine art" at MOMA:

  1. Mayer's images are an act of genuine communication with another human being, while Boetti's onanistic epistles are never meant to be received or read.  They have fake addresses designed to return Boetti's letters to him, as part of an intellectual game he plays with himself.
  2.  Mayer's images are a purposeful act of skill, while Boetti relies instead on random marks by anonymous postal service employees to create his images, almost as if the postal bureaucracy is an extension of his brush.
Wikipedia asserts that Boetti's envelopes illuminate the concepts of "improbability and chance." I enjoy his envelopes, although I'd be hard pressed to find any insights on improbability and chance beyond basic platitudes.  On the other hand, if MOMA ever develops an interest in concepts such as love, playfulness, enthusiasm and imagination, perhaps they'll knock on Mayer's door. 


nuum said...

Mr. Apatoff

Onement VI, Barnett Newman "Painting", was auctioned
for record $43.8 Million.

Take a look at this modern art painting:


MORAN said...

Thanks for the introduction to Mayer. You're right, he's very good.

Wendy said...

Mr. Mayer obviously had a lot of fun with those envelopes and I had a lot of fun looking at them. Thanks for sharing them with us.

Drew Alderfer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

David Apatoff
Thank you for posting about my little envelopes. recently I compiled a drawer full of these into a eighty three foot accordion fold book as a rather extravagant Valentines present for my wife Lee. (I know what was I thinking, no more chocolates and flowers) If you send me your address I will send you something in the mail.

JSL said...

Mayer's envelopes have a lot more spirit and humor. His wife must be very lucky.

David Apatoff said...

nuum-- There are some Barnett Newman paintings I like very much, but I think the current fine art market is only marginally about the quality of the picture.

MORAN-- Definitely. Take some time to explore his web site, if you haven't already. He has a lot of creative work organized in interesting categories.

Wendy-- Yes, that sense of fun seems to pervade much of his work.

David Apatoff said...

Bill Mayer-- I'm flattered by your visit. Nice to have you here, I've followed your work for quite some time and enjoyed it immensely.

To the commenter who has now deleted his comment, I thought your point was a very good one, and I'm sorry you withdrew it. In answer to your question (as I recall it), I like some "conceptual" art very much, and it would be unworthy to set up a straw man by comparing a third class conceptual artist with a first class illustrator. I just think a number of conceptual artists take advantage of the absence of objective standards

Anonymous said...

I never received anything like these from my husband. I showed him these and told him to get going.

Drew Alderfer said...

David, after posting my question, I read your article again and decided my tone was maybe a bit off given the tone of the your article. I originally read it as coming down harder on Beotti's conceptual work and MOMA then it really did.
Thank you for answering it anyways and please forgive the retraction, but I felt my comment was unnecessarily combative and broad.

I certainly agree with your statement that conceptual artists often take advantage of a lack of objective standards. Although, I can't have that thought without my inner contrarian compelling me to point out that many representational artist produce large amounts of meaningless and boring work propped up by empty displays of technical prowess. The analog to this in work like Beotti's seems to be salesmanship and social savvy. Aesthetic choices about what type of art an artist chooses to make seem to have very little to do with whether or not what they produce is worthwhile, and like wise whether it's worthwhile or not seems to have little to do with it's success among critics, or in the art market.
And that, actually, brings me to a subject I would love to see you write about, which is how you understand economics and class to factor into which attitudes towards art are dominant and which are marginal. It seems to be a subject below the surface of many of your posts, and the most recent two in particular. Maybe that is my own biased interpretation since I find it to be a fascinating thing to think about, but I would love to hear what you have to say about it.
Having gone to art school to study illustration and having many friends and acquaintances who studied fine-art, anecdotal evidence from my own experience tells me that the highest ambition for an artist seeking to show work in galleries is to, as Tom Woodruff puts it,"decorate the houses of rich people." I think that speaks to an influence which affects the types of work people create and the type of art that is successful within the context of contemporary gallery art. It also surely bears on what types of work are put on display at places like MOMA. Since that seems to be in the subtext of much of your writing I would love to know what you think about it.
Thank you again for answering my question. Your writing is always very interesting and I always love reading it.

David Apatoff said...

Drew wrote: "many representational artists produce large amounts of meaningless and boring work propped up by empty displays of technical prowess."

I agree. Artists with technical skill seem to be a slightly more select group because objective standards filter out at least some percentage of the unfit, which does not happen on the conceptual side. But empty technical skill is deadly for the arts, and there is certainly a lot of that around. I've made fun of it here.

I think the art world is long overdue to take a fresh look at the larger issue you raise. For a long time, it has been coasting on automatic pilot with the century old assumptions that illustration is a less skillful, less conceptual, more commercial enterprise than gallery art. That's where so much of the aura of fine art originates. But it seems to me that today illustration is generally the more skillful field, that its concepts are often more intellectually respectable, and it would have a hard time matching the commercialism of Art Basel. I think that economics and class have despoiled large segments of the gallery art world. Some of the hypocrisy and mendacity is so easy to ridicule that there is hardly any sport left in it. But I do agree that it is long past time for a fresh reappraisal (one stripped of cliches and pretensions, one conducted on a level playing field) about the relative contributions of these art forms in the wake of economics and class over the past century.

Anonymous-- I wish you good luck with that.

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