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Benard Boffi’s Art: Dialectic Of Pathos by Donald Kuspit

It’s an enormous, diverse body of work--a truly stunning lifetime of art activity, at once visually exciting and cognitively demanding. For me, the prints are deeply moving, and the paintings dialectically dense, that is, a sum of contradictions that recapitulate the history of modern art even as they strike out in their own direction. But how is one to find one’s way through Bernard Boffi’s labyrinthine oeuvre? Is there a larger sense that the works exemplify? Do they have an over-all meaning that determines their character, which seems melancholy, dramatic, and ironical all at once?

I want to suggest that the early painting Godot Maestro, 1971 is an important clue to their form and content. Godot, of course, was the figure--mythical?, real?--that the protagonists in Samuel Beckett’s famous play are waiting for. He never shows up: he makes his presence felt by his absence. Is he a projection of their unconscious sense of their nothingness? Godot is the void in which they exist, even as it makes them doubt that they do. Boffi’s work explicitly refers to Waiting for Godot: a thin strip of white paper with the title typed in capital letters flashes across the painting like lightning (the reference is to a musical composition with the same title, and presumably based on the play). The paper is placed beneath the broad black band that dramatically separates the two halves of the painting.

In the upper half, behind a red grid-like screen with red bars, we can just make out a figure, dressed in black, and with black beard and hair, making a painting. Behind his back, in a separate, smaller space--on another plane of consciousness, as it were--is a picture of a child dressed in white. There’s clearly a relationship between them, but its nature is not clear. Their appearance, and the fact that each exists in his own space, suggests that they’re at odds. Like the characters in Beckett’s play, they’re in some sort of dialogue but not exactly connecting--perhaps in unconscious communication but not obviously communicating. The artist turns away from the child, as though unaware of his existence, and yet he clearly exists. Is he the artist’s model? If so, the finished portrait will be as abstract as “the unknown masterpiece” the artist hero of Balzac’s story painted, as Picasso makes clear in his illustration of it. Does the scene represent the conflict between unrealistic art and realistic life, symbolized by a maternal woman in Balzac’s story and the child in Boffi’s picture? As with Beckett, Boffi suggests the failure of intimacy within its possibility--lost opportunity for closeness within its impossibility. Thus, frozen in position forever, like the figures on Keats’s urn, the artist is trapped between his art and his life, unable to choose between them or escape from both. Keats thought that the artist could have perfection of art or life but not both. Boffi’s painting ingeniously articulates this dilemma, which is basic to the artist’s perplexing identity.

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