Vincenzo Agnetti, Dimenticato a memoria (Forgotten by Heart), 1972, felt, acrylic, 47 1/4 × 31 1/2".

Vincenzo Agnetti, Dimenticato a memoria (Forgotten by Heart), 1972, felt, acrylic, 47 1/4 × 31 1/2".

Vincenzo Agnetti

Vincenzo Agnetti, Dimenticato a memoria (Forgotten by Heart), 1972, felt, acrylic, 47 1/4 × 31 1/2".

Vincenzo Agnetti (1926–1981) rigorously explored the genesis of artistic ideas through a polyvalent practice based on a critique of language. His investigations spanned a broad range of mediums and materials: from his early work in the orbit of art informel to his collaboration with Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni on Azimuth magazine in 1959, from the abandonment of painting to his decision to explore the dimension of travel—in Argentina, where he worked in the field of electronic automation, as well as in Australia, Scandinavia, and Saudi Arabia—and the writing of the travel logs he called Assenze (Absences), 1963–67. Agnetti’s writings range from conceptual critiques to reflections on the man-machine relationship. Painting, carving, and cutting words out in different materials, from felt to Bakelite to photographic paper, he explored the subversion of meaning and exposed the aporias of language through works that generate an ambiguity between reading and seeing. His Macchina drogata (Drugged Machine), 1968, is an Olivetti calculator with its numbers replaced by letters. His “static theater” was one reduced to essentials, “without movements, without characters, without text,” thus open to the direct experience of hybridizations between the visual and mental process.

During his intense, brief life and still little-known career, Agnetti engaged in a constant investigation of the functions and rules of language and technology. This, moreover, is the substance of his arc as an artist, scientist, humanist, and prolific essay writer—his “propositional writings,” such as his preface to Piero Manzoni’s Tavole di accertamento (Tables of Assessment), 1962, and the 1959 text “Non commettere atti impuri” (Do Not Commit Impure Acts), are renowned. Seen in this extensive exhibition of thirty-two works made between 1967 and 1981, his art seems to have moved through the second half of the twentieth century like a two-faced Janus, both looking back to the encyclopedic culture of the Renaissance and forward to the coming millennium, in which changing relationships between action and image, letter and number, man and machine, exact sciences and humanistic disciplines would definitively subvert the stability of language and humankind’s centrality in the cosmos.

The installation on the ground floor of the gallery, located in the same building where Lucio Fontana once had his studio, opened with Apocalisse nel deserto (Apocalypse in the Desert), 1969–70, a photograph on metal with strips of paper typewritten on the Macchina drogata; two works from his series of “Permutabili” (Permutables), ca. 1967—in lacquered wood with a series of movable modules, they hang in the balance between sculpture, painting, and installation—and Bakelite pieces created between 1968 and 1974. The retrospective continued with a room dedicated to the “Feltri” (Felt Pieces), 1968–72, in which the uncertainty and ambiguity that distinguish Agnetti’s work become patent. Ritratto d’artista (Portrait of the Artist), 1971, for example, is a red felt piece on which the phrase IO CHE ANDRÒ OLTRE (I Who Will Go Beyond) is printed in gold letters. This work, like the others in this group, functions as an illogical sequence, a kind of existential message that rewrites the very rules of language in space and time. Indeed, Agnetti’s work seems to have given testimonianza (or “evidence”)—to borrow the title of the 1971 felt piece that lent its name to this show—of the extent to which he understood artmaking as a synthesis wherein “subjectivity, awareness and production are all one, where the artist realizes his own potential.”

Paola Nicolin

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.