Vincenzo Agnetti

It is often thought that Italian art is impervious to conceptualism, that this completely mental and logical attitude has no place in our tradition. The first large survey show of the work of Vincenzo Agnetti (1926–1981), curated by Achille Bonito Oliva and Giorgio Verzotti, contradicts this idea and at the same time affirms that Italian conceptualism is indeed a sort of anomaly. A visual poet and critic, traveler, and close friend of Piero Manzoni, on whom he wrote texts of fundamental importance, Agnetti began in 1967 to try his hand as an artist, with works that cannot help but be defined as conceptual. Macchina drogata (Drugged Machine), 1968, is a mechanical calculator whose numerical keys print out letters by chance; Progetto per un Amleto politico (Project for a Political Hamlet), 1973, is an installation centered around a platform from which the artist declaimed only sequences of numbers; Libri dimenticati a memoria (Books Forgotten by Heart), 1969, are volumes from which every page of text has been cut away. But his most numerous and famous series of works are the so-called Bachelitie, Bakelite pieces, officially known as “Assiomi” (Axioms), 1968–71, and the “Feltri” (Felts), 1968–81, works in which these materials provide the support for texts that typically have a poetically oracular aspect—for example, CHI ENTRA ESCE (whoever comes in goes out), and QUANDO MI VIDI NON C’ERO (when you saw me I wasn’t there)—demanding an involvement that depends on an unstable and mutable encounter between logic and intuition. His work is thus a betrayal of conceptual-art “statements” of a logical-linguistic type. The intonation of the word—or even of numbers, another favorite theme of Agnetti’s—can transform, for instance, an arid printout of figures (in Progetto per un Amleto politico) into a loose, variegated flow of meaning. Meaning is conferred on the linguistic code only by speech, which, thanks to intonation, contradicts the apparent fixity of meaning, delving within it to carve out a subversive expressive niche. Agnetti counterpoints the accepted combinatorial sequence of the ten Arabic digits—1234567890, repeated obsessively—with an aleatory tone that undermines the apparent absoluteness of the number.

It is this betrayal that triggers the process of “forgetting by heart”; as in an Eastern mantra (or in the recitation of the Catholic rosary), the repeated word or number loses significance, becomes confusion or ecstasy, something hardly more defined than a hypnotic sound. Forgetting is a mental process, like remembering, but with an additional step, abandoning what has already been committed to memory; to the work of reason it mixes in feeling.

Agnetti accentuates the characteristics that are considered essential to linguistic systems in order to demonstrate the mutability of the boundary between complete fullness of meaning and its total lack. He does not renounce the word but uses it as a sort of scrittura scenica, “staged writing,” to borrow a phrase from the great actor/director Carmelo Bene—one that lies between languages, and which therefore inaugurates a new kind of artistic consciousness, far from the mania of definition typical of modernity. Instead, the artist is in search of possibilities neglected even by the most well-known conceptual art, thanks to its bias toward clarity, certainty, and definition.

Marco Meneguzzo