Jannis Kounellis (1936–2017)

Jannis Kounellis, 2004. Photo: Flickr user Gabuchan.


Jannis Kounellis’s presentation of live horses in the garage space in Rome I’d converted into an art gallery was undoubtedly the apex of our careers: Jannis’s, and mine. Yes, in a certain sense, we tied the knot on January 14, 1969, when his quadrupeds entered the garage. That exhibition of twelve mighty Dutch horses, arranged in a semicircle with their reins attached to the walls, lasted three days. Visitors moved among the horses, who defecated and urinated continually, their enormous penises there for all to see. Stable hands cleaned and fed the animals. The night of the show’s opening, the city was hit with a strong afternoon storm, and few people came, thirty or so at most, for an exhibition that would go on to become extremely famous. What could be more avant-garde? The horses had already been gone for several days when Harald Szeemann, the well-known Swiss curator, stopped by. Yet even the empty site was enough for him to understand the absolute novelty of that exhibition space, which had a workability previously unseen in art galleries. The next month, in the catalogue for “When Attitudes Become Form,” an international exhibition he organized at his museum in Bern, its image of the horses stood out.

The Bern catalogue circulated around the world. That April, I saw proof of this when I was in New York, where I had arrived in the midst of organizing the festival “Danza, volo, musica, dinamite” (“Dance, flight, music, dynamite”) at my space in Rome. (Around that time I connected with Simone Forti, whom I had met in Rome the year before. During our conversations then, I first began to fully articulate my vision for my exhibition space: one that was good for both installations and performance art, music and dance, that would accommodate both immobile objects and bodies in motion.) At a party, in the midst of strangers, I heard a voice speaking from among a small group: “Did you know there’s a gallery in Rome that exhibits live horses?” It was the critic Seth Siegelaub, and there was genuine amazement in his voice, which was understandable, given that most New York art galleries opened directly into streets, like shops, or were incorporated into skyscrapers, like apartments. Months passed: In June, my underground garage would host La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay, David Bradshaw and, of course, Simone Forti. And then, after that, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, and Joan Jonas.

View of “Jannis Kounellis,” 1969. Installation view, Galleria L’Attico, Rome. Photo: Claudio Abate.

In art, as in life, there are marriages and divorces. And so Kounellis and I also divorced. A long silence descended between us. On the surface, our disagreement was resolvable. But perhaps the real reason for our split was unfathomable. I didn’t understand, for example, why Kounellis insisted on presenting the horses again, at the Venice Biennale and elsewhere. At that point they were legendary, I told myself, tied to an unrepeatable space and time.

While writing these lines, my telephone rings. I answer and cannot believe my ears: The L’Attico garage—which had become a discotheque after I closed it in 1976, flooding the space with water—is soon to be invaded by cars once again. It will return to its originally intended use as a garage. But before that happens, I learn, there is still the opportunity, for one evening, to show video of the horses there.

Jannis, what do you say: Shall we remarry?

Fabio Sargentini is a writer, filmmaker, and actor who owns and directs the Galleria L’Attico in Rome.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

For more Passages, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.