Contemporary Art

Alighiero Boetti: Art, Classified

By Mariko Finch

A s a work by one of the 20th Century's most important conceptual artists, Alighiero Boetti, is offered for sale in the Modern and Contemporary Art Online auction, we look back over his long-held fascination with numbers, formula and systems, and his contribution to the story of contemporary art. 


Alighiero Boetti spent much of his life travelling, and the documentation of his journeys became the central theme in his practice. Born in Turin in 1940, Boetti first studied business at the University of Turin, before and turning his attention to making art. He read extensively on the subject — alongside books on science and philosophy — and was influenced by the teachings and literature of Paul Klee and his Bauhaus philosophy, as well as the German writer Herman Hesse. Boetti had long been fascinated with applying methodical formulas to the creative process, evident in his visual outcomes; grids and patterns created from words, numbers and symbols are recurring motifs in Boetti's oeuvre. 


The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World is one of Boetti’s most celebrated works, and one that brings together several elements of his fascination with the linguistic, numerical and topographical subjects he drew on as source material for much of his work. To accompany this work, Boetti made two tapestries of the same name, one of which currently resides in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the other in Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt. The book, at over 1000 pages long, was the most ambitious project undertaken by the artist, and seven years in the planning. He was accompanied on many of his research field trips by his wife, the art historian Anne-Marie Sauzeau, who is also credited on the title page of this edition. 


After extensive travels through the Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Boetti eventually opened the One Hotel in Kabul, which quickly became a stop-off for the many western travellers exploring the well-trodden path through the Middle East, India and beyond. Boetti enjoyed a strong rapport with the local community in Kabul and Peshawar, and it was whilst in Afghanistan he convened local craftswomen to begin producing the large embroidered world maps for which he is perhaps best-known. Rather than dictating every last detail of the finished product to the artisans making the Mappa, Boetti approached these projects more as a collaboration than a commission, and was eager to allow these highly-skilled makers to contribute their traditional expertise to the finished composition.  

Many of these Mappa now serve as historical records; charting countries territories that no longer exist, and the shifting political borders of a changing world. Through classification, cartographers and historians seek to define the factual and absolute, though in doing so demonstrate that borders are ultimately fragile and transient. 


Boetti was a key figure in the Italian Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Giulio Paolini and Giuseppe Penone as his contemporaries. The movement sought to challenge the perception of the grand work of art as a revered object, and instead made use of everyday and found materials such as earth, tree branches and cloth rags. Through a partial rejection of the conventional 'fine art' materials like oil paint, marble and precious metals, to produce work that questioned the role of the artist in reflecting the social and economic challenges in post-war Italy.

Boetti's meticulous classification of geographical locations is akin to an explorer gathering specimens for scientific research. Although poetic and expressive, they are rigorous visual surveys — and similar to that of Richard Long, who also took to the open road in his early career, and never looked back. This book brings together Boetti's love of language and records the dimensions of the landscape around him. It serves as his archive of not only the natural world, but a portrait of human nature and our need to measure and classify. A true masterpiece of Conceptual Art. 

The artist's daughter, Agata Boetti, recalls her parents working on the The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World project when she was a young girl. 

"Classification by length is the most common way of organising information about a given category (here, rivers), and size can be expressed to the order of one, two, or three as km, km2, or m3 (length, basin, or capacity). the criterion of length is the most arbitrary and naive and yet the most widespread, and the measurement of length for a river causes thousands of perplexities because it is a fluid thing [...]"

— Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti 


Classifying the thousand longest rivers in the world is a book and also the title of two huge embroidered works, a green and a white one. In both works are enumerated the thousand longest rivers in the world. The book was realised in 1977 while the two tapestries were finished in 1982. To me, this is mostly a crazy and incredible research my parents made together. Crazy because they have wanted to classify the unclassifiable. Only them could have imagined and hoped to classify rivers according to their length. But how to precisely measure a river? Where does it begin exactly? And where does it end? Incredible because this classification was never been done before, nor even imagined by scientists because huge and maybe considered useless and deeply absurd.

Their researches lasted for seven years, from 1970 to 1977. They started two years before I was born and ended when I was five. [...] At home this book was always open, on an Afghan lectern, ready to be consulted. I loved the idea that page numbers coincided to that of classification: page 1 was the longest river in the world. While page 453 was the 453rd longest river in the world. Introduction pages and the final ones were not numbered because these were not part of the classification. An evidence and a real easiness to consult the book. No images, only the essential information: name, source, mouth and length.

My father loved to classify, especially the unclassifiable, with no other purpose than classifying…Still far from the Internet era that would have greatly simplified the task, the hundreds of letters sent by my mother and the hundreds replies from the researchers of the rivers throughout the world, bear witness to the delirious and exhausting extent of their research.

— Agata Boetti 

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's