A guide to the Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti

Boetti came to prominence as part of the Arte Povera movement and is celebrated for his ‘Mappe’, ‘Arazzi’, ‘Biro’ and ‘Tutto’ series. A major exhibition of the artist’s works will open on 19 February at Christie’s in London, marking 30 years since his death

Alighiero Boetti pictured in 1973 in front of the first Mappa, created in Afghanistan two years earlier. Photo: Giorgio Colombo. Artwork: © Alighiero Boetti, DACS 2024

Boetti’s rise was rooted in the Arte Povera movement

Born in the industrial city of Turin, Italy, in 1940, Alighiero Boetti came to prominence as part of the Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s. Its artists rejected the marble sculptures and oil paintings of their grand Italian forebears to work in everyday or organic materials such as slate, wax, wood and felt.

Boetti’s early works, such as Mazzo di tubi, Collina — a sculpture that comprised a series of metal tubes stacked up to resemble rolling hills — and Rotolo di cartone ondulato from 1966 — a roll of cardboard pushed up in the middle to form a ziggurat-like tower — recall the curious and playfully inventive gestures and interactions with material that are instinctive in children, and which Boetti himself recalled from his youth.

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), (i) Rosso Gilera 60 1232; (ii) Beige Sabbia 583, 1967. Industrial varnish and cork on card. Each: 27¾ x 27¾ in (70.5 x 70.5 cm). Estimate: £300,000-500,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

In 2014, Boetti’s sculpture Colonna — created at the high point of Arte Povera in 1968 — sold at Christie’s for £2,434,500, achieving what was then the world-record price for the artist at auction. At first glance, it looks like a marble-hewn classical column, but it is actually a quintessential piece of Arte Povera, made up of myriad paper doilies laid one on top of the other over an iron rod.

Alighiero e Boetti, the Conceptual artist: not one man, but two

Distancing himself from Arte Povera in 1972, Boetti moved to Rome and became a master of Conceptual art. Dossier Postale (1969-70) demonstrated his preoccupation with improbability and chance, consisting of 26 letters sent to famous recipients at imaginary addresses — including Marcel Duchamp, who’d recently died — and charting their random progress.

It was also around this time that the artist changed his name to Alighiero e Boetti (‘Alighiero and Boetti’) and started signing his work this way — as though he were two artists in one.

The ‘Arazzi’ series

Boetti often created work in series, and one of his best-known is the group of multicoloured embroideries known as ‘Arazzi’. These are mosaic-like grids of individual letters, which combine into words and phrases that the viewer must decipher (by reading, in unconventional fashion, from top to bottom, left column to right). The phrases range from proverbs and poetry to, in the case of 1974’s Addizione, the setting out of a mathematical problem.

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Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Ammazzare il tempo (Killing Time), 1979. Embroidery on linen. 6⅝ x 7⅛ in (16.8 x 18.2 cm). Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on 9 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

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Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Il silenzio è d’oro (Silence is Golden), 1988. Embroidery on linen. 7 x 7 in (17.8 x 17.7 cm). Estimate: £25,000-35,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on 9 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Each letter serves as an autonomous design — and by breaking text down into its constituent parts, Boetti exposes language as a sophisticated but ultimately artificial arrangement of forms.

Boetti’s mysterious ancestors and Afghan weavers

Boetti claimed descent from an 18th-century Dominican monk called Giovanni Battista Boetti, who is said to have converted to Islam while on a mission in Mosul, changed his name to Sheikh Mansur, and led a Chechen rebellion against Catherine the Great’s Russia.

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Cinque x cinque venticinque (Five times five twenty-five), 1988. Twenty-five embroideries on linen, inscribed ‘Peshawar Pakistan by Afghan People’. Smallest: 8¼ x 8⅝ in (21.1 x 22 cm). Largest: 9 x 8⅞ in (23 x 22.7 cm). Estimate: £550,000-750,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

The facts of Mansur’s life are open to conjecture, but what is undeniable is that Boetti declared he was following in the former’s footsteps when he made regular visits to Asia in the 1970s. The artist even bought a hotel in Kabul and — for his ‘Arazzi’, ‘Mappe’ and other tapestry series — employed local Afghan embroiderers to make them.

In 1979, Soviet troops invaded and occupied Afghanistan, putting a halt to Boetti’s tapestry production in the country. Before long, though, he reconnected with his weavers, who had gone into exile in the Peshawar area of Pakistan.

The ‘Mappe’ series

Boetti’s most famous series is his ‘Mappe’ — tapestry maps of the world on which each country is represented by the colours of its flag. A total of 150 exist, in a variety of sizes, dating from 1971 to 1994 (the year of the artist’s death). Together they form a holistic, ideological portrait of the passing of time and geopolitical shifts, while simultaneously postulating the notion of a united world.

The colour of the ocean often marks out one Mappa from another. A lifelong fan of chance, Boetti largely let his Afghan weavers decide the colour of the ocean themselves, which, given that they inhabited a landlocked country and had never seen the sea, made for richly varied results.

‘For me, the work of the embroidered Mappa [is the] ultimate in beauty,’ Boetti said. ‘For that work I did nothing, chose nothing, in the sense that the world is made as it is, not as I designed it, the flags are those that exist, and I did not design them. In short, I did absolutely nothing; when the basic idea, the concept, emerges, everything else requires no choosing.’

In October 2022, a pink-ocean version, Mappa (1979-80), sold for €5,643,500 at Christie’s in Paris.

Boetti was a champion of the ballpoint pen

Boetti made a number of vast works in minutely scrawled biro, such as I sei sensi (The Six Senses), 1974-75, which is part of a series of drawings done in code. The overall effect of the ‘Biro’ series tends to be gorgeously uneven, resulting in rich expanses of deep blues, reds and greens with gradations and patterns within. Often they recall a sea or night sky, punctuated with star-like apostrophes.

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Mettere al mondo il mondo (Bringing the world into the world), circa 1974. Ballpoint pen on paper laid down on canvas, in five parts. Each: 39¼ x 27⅝ in (99.6 x 70.3 cm). Overall: 39¼ x 138⅜ in (99.6 x 351.5 cm). Estimate: £650,000-850,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Although the ‘Mappe’ series is Boetti’s most iconic (one example, from 1989, holds an auction record for the artist), in recent years the ‘Biro’ works have seen as sharp a rise in value as any. At the turn of the millennium, the top price for one of these works at auction was around £40,000; in October 2022, a 1973 red ‘Biro’ work in 11 parts, Ononimo, sold for €2,262,000 at Christie’s in Paris.

The ‘Tutto’ series

Explaining how this series was first conceived, Boetti recalled, ‘I asked my assistants to draw everything, every possible shape, abstract or figurative, and to amalgamate them until the paper sheet was saturated. Then I took the drawing to Afghanistan to get it embroidered with 90 kinds of different coloured threads, provided that there was an equal quantity of each of them. The different colours of each shape are chosen by the women. In order to avoid establishing any hierarchy among them, I use them all.’

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Tutto (Everything), 1988. Embroidery on linen. 32¾ x 51⅝ in (83.3 x 131.2 cm). Estimate: £400,000-600,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Boetti chose the various objects to be depicted from encyclopaedias, schoolbooks, magazines and newspapers. Such an approach ensured a wide range of motifs, although the scope of this range was always ultimately determined by Boetti himself, with many stencils made of certain favourite motifs so that they could be reused in later ‘Tutto’ designs.

In November 2022, a Tutto from circa 1990 sold for $6,060,000 at Christie’s in New York.

Not content with just art, he set out to classify the world’s longest rivers

Boetti was also a published author — and, perhaps inevitably, a book bearing his name is anything but conventional.

In 1977, he and his wife Anne-Marie published Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, a tome that took seven years to complete and involved sourcing, reconciling and tabulating a mass of inconsistent data to rank (in order) the 1,000 longest rivers on Earth.

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Global recognition of Boetti’s ‘wayward and gorgeous appeal’

In 2011, Boetti was the subject of a major, posthumous retrospective at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, which then travelled to Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its title, Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan, reflected the ludic nature of much of Boetti’s art. In her review for the UK newspaper The Observer, Laura Cumming wrote of ‘the sheer joy of his art, its wayward and gorgeous appeal’.

More recently, the Cini Foundation in Venice hosted Minimum/Maximum to coincide with the 2017 Biennale, surveying Boetti’s career via his most important series.

Boetti’s legacy

Boetti died in 1994 aged 53. Previously considered a connoisseur’s artist sought after by collectors in his home country, he is now recognised as a major figure in the 20th-century canon alongside seminal post-war Italian figures such as Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri. Boetti, Fontana and Burri were three outstanding conceptualists with wildly different practices and approaches, yet with a distinctly Italian take on ideas of time, space and dimensionality.

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Aerei (Airplanes), 1989. Watercolour and ink on photographic paper laid down on canvas, in three parts. Each: 57⅞ x 39¼ in (147 x 99.7 cm). Overall: 57⅞ x 117¾ in (147 x 299.1 cm)

Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Boetti’s death, Christie’s in London will present a retrospective entitled Mettere al Mondo il Mondo from 19 to 27 February 2024, comprising more than 25 works spanning three decades of the artist’s career. From early works born in the crucible of Arte Povera to the groundbreaking series of the 1970s and 1980s — including major examples of ‘Mappe’, ‘Aerei’, ‘Biro’, ‘Arazzi’ and his remarkable late series ‘Tutto’ — this curated exhibition reflects the connoisseur’s vision of a single-owner collection, assembled with an exceptional eye for quality, rarity and beauty.

A selection of works from the collection will be offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 and the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on 9 March

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