VINCENZO AGNETTI: Territories
LÉVY GORVY | JULY 6 – AUGUST 11, 2017
Vincenzo Agnetti (1926 – 1981) was a major figure during the post-war period of Italian avant-garde art. A member of the artist collective that ran the gallery and journal Azimut(h), Agnetti worked with such Italian luminaries as Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni. This show, a good introduction to the artist’s work, primarily offers examples of the artist’s “Axiomi” (Axioms) series—a group of diagrams and sentences, in English as well as Italian, painted on a black Bakelite ground. The other body of work, smaller in number, is the “Feltri” (Felts) series—pieces in which one work is printed on a felt background. In the “Axiomi” series, philosophical/political sentences such as, “Territories within territory exalted the system power” and “History that moves away is almost forgotten by heart” obliquely refer to concepts of land and historical events that have a strong influence on the status quo, but which also poetically suggest a landscape larger than the one we are used to, a landscape that is not without its own possibilities in regard to the political perceptions behind Agnetti’s art. Almost always, these white-on-black paintings include a diagram—as if to place in scientific perspective the philosophical implications of the rather aphoristic writings he submits to his audience.
In a late piece from 1974, Agnetti has used short white lines that cross the black Bakelite square at a diagonal. In the center of the work, there is a brass plate with the following writing: “The closest history is to us the less we know how to appraise it.” Despite the fractured English (“closest” should be replaced by “closer”), the message is clear: our proximity to historical events prevents us from seeing their meaning clearly. This is art whose visual effects remain secondary to the idea being expressed, but the visionary language of Agnetti’s assertion puts us at some distance from clearly understanding the meaning of the text. Most of the artist’s writings occurring in these Bakelite pieces are at once transparent—in the sense that they embody their meaning without rhetoric—and obscure—in the sense that they refer indirectly to an abstract reality that is hard to visualize or understand. A 1972 piece reads: “Power makes use of TAUTOLOGY as a convincing parameter and CONVICTIONS as a stimulating parameter.” The gist of this heavily abstract statement might be that power needs to say the same thing twice using a different phrasing, so as to convince its audience of its hegemony, even as strong beliefs—convictions—are used to stimulate a captive audience. The issue addressed is power’s ability to stimulate discussion favoring its controlling status.
Interestingly, the diagram at the top consists of a straight horizontal line, on top of which another line undulates, moving above and then below the horizontal line. It is hard to connect the image to the writing, but finding a correspondence between words and image may well not be what Agnetti intended; politics are based on the physical reality of land, and not on ideas, as Agnetti’s ongoing use of the word “territory” suggests. Paesaggio (Landscape) (1971) consists of an engraved and painted felt ground with the single word “TERRITORY” printed in caps. In Agnetti’s work the words are objects as much as they are conveyors of meaning. But the intersection between the words and phrases as physical things, as philosophical assertions of extreme opaqueness, and as political suggestions having to do with territories, namely, sites or even ideas having to do with the maintenance of power, indicate that Agnetti has worked out an esthetic that challenges formal traditions and intellectual legacies in ways that still feel ahead of its time. This may be hard work to enjoy, but it is easy to admire, partly because the terms of his belief are so rigorous and austere and partly because the ideas are matched by visual equivalents as abstract as the words he uses. The results are both transparent and opaque. Agnetti is leading us somewhere, although where that is isn’t exactly clear. But the trip is highly enjoyable.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.