Artist, essayist, theorist and writer, Vincenzo Agnetti (Milan 1926-1981) was one of the leading representatives of artistic research with a conceptual matrix in Italy.
After his early painting within the confines of Art Informel, he was attracted to the complex experiments then coalescing around the Milanese magazine “Azimuth” ( 1959-60), founded by Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani. In 1967 he had his first solo exhibition (Principia) at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, followed by numerous exhibitions in Italy and abroad, in addition to his participation in major international art events, including Documenta 5 in Kassel (1972), the Bienal de São Paulo (1973) and the Venice Biennale (1974, 1976, 1978, 1980). In Naples he exhibited in the Lia Rumma gallery (a catalyst of the analytical and conceptual current) in 1973 and again in 1988, after his death.
In the sixties he began to experiment with using different media (photography, video, performances, voice recordings, printed texts, graphics operations on objects, engravings on sheets of Bakelite), redefining the fields and boundaries of Italian conceptual practice distant from the tautological rigor of coeval experiments, from On Kawara and Kosuth to Art and Language, which focused on the centrality of the idea in the creation of the work. By contrast, Agnetti’s approach was oriented towards more personal forms, images and contents with an existential matrix, but above all he did not completely turn away from the physicality of the artistic development, the “body” and the “soul” of the work, which still remained the necessary and almost unavoidable support for the enunciation of a conceptual nature. The anthropological analysis of language, moreover, explored the proliferation of technology and the modern instruments of communication, which tended to become, according to McLuhan’s famous definition, themselves the message. In this respect Agnetti’s research was aimed at defunctionalizing and rehumanizing the language of the mechanical or technological media, from telephones to photography, telegrams and the record player.
La macchina drogata (“The Drugged Machine”) (1968) was a work indicative of this attitude: a calculator that had been manipulated so that the typebars designed to print ten digits were replaced by others, each corresponding to letters of the alphabet. The result was an apparently demented combinatorial logic, actually intimately reinterpreted and escaping from all control and any precoded alphabetical and hermeneutic meaning.
Estranging in a different way was the Libro dimenticato a memoria (“Book Forgotten by Memory”, 1969), from whose die-cut pages all trace of text had disappeared: the volume survives only in its margins, and the book “forgotten by memory” became a constitutive element of a culture assimilated and capable of being projected into the future thanks to this same “forgetting by memory.”
In Feltri (“Felt”, 1968-1971) his aphorisms, characterized by extreme brevity and brilliant insight, overlap and intertwine in the depths of an irreducible polysemy of meaning. His Assiomi (“Axioms”, 1968-1974) consisted of rather absurd, paradoxical or tautological statements engraved on panels of bakelite, which subverted the anodyne, and impersonal style of a commercial plaque.
The two works in felt installed in the form of a diptych, which state respectively Chi esce entra e Chi entra esce (“Whoever Exits Enters” and “Whoever Enters Exits”), juxtaposed in the installation with works in the same room by Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry and another unique artist, Carlo Alfano, relaunched the dialog with the conceptual tradition with an American matrix and stressed the specificity of an artist like Agnetti. The visual and linguistic puns, generated by the combination of the two works and deliberately placed at the entrance to the layout of the exhibition at the Madre, emphasized a key strategy of the artist, which assigned to the construction of the work a value in relation to its degree of reading, so much the higher the more the work bore within it further epistemological levels. Here Agnetti used language to support and liberate self-contradictory utterances, in the paradox of two statements that cancel each other out and twist language around on itself, driving it to express the unsayable, to contradict itself as it is uttered, in order to orient it towards a ruthless and subtly ironic linguistic and semiotic analysis of the artwork and the invention of a language freed from rational and communicational constraints.