PRINT Summer 2017


Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis with his Untitled, 1971, Sperone Gallery, Turin. Photo: Claudio Abate. © The Estate of Jannis Kounellis.

ARTE POVERA ARTIST Jannis Kounellis was concerned, like most of his generation, with the point where art and life intersect. He was a true realist—not because he endeavored to represent reality faithfully through figuration, but on account of his deep and lasting commitment to the meaningfulness of embodied social and material experience. In its lowliness and radical authenticity, his art was uniquely capable of expressing the tragedy of European history and the laceration of Enlightenment ideals in the twentieth century.

Born in Greece, Kounellis moved to Rome in 1956, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Along with a handful of other artists in the 1960s in Europe, the Americas, and Japan, Kounellis invented installation art—whereby an artwork is a stage on which fiction and reality merge. As audiences traverse this stage, they are no longer passive spectators but participants in a scene that is both symbolic and real. Such works dramatize the world outside art, celebrating and dignifying life’s energy—its rhythm and tension, its poor materials and humble gestures—while nodding at its precariousness. Yet Kounellis, whom I met in the late ’80s, insisted on framing his work as painting, not installation. He often spoke of weight, equilibrium, and composition, applying these pictorial concepts to, say, a pile of coal, a live parrot, a jacket, sheets of iron and lead, clumps of raw wool, flames, live horses, large sails, grains of coffee.

WHEN I HEARD Kounellis had died suddenly in Rome on a Thursday, nine days after he inaugurated the academic year at the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti, it felt as if Malevich or Picasso had died. It felt as if heavy clouds had covered the Eternal City and the sky itself were weeping. It felt as if a bright beacon, one whose hard-won search for a harmonious reality meant so much after the catastrophes of World Wars I and II, had shattered.

At the school, Kounellis had been deeply absorbed in speaking to young art students, addressing them with the eloquence of a great master passing the torch on to future generations. He knew that the artist and his work must be guided by ethical rigor, and he believed in art’s revolutionary potential to spark radical imagination. A profound sense of freedom and vitality guided this view: I remember he liked both Matisse and Delacroix—the joy of life and the drama of history.

When Kounellis agreed to do an exhibition, he would visit the location, sit on a chair for days on end, and watch the place until he felt it deeply, until he understood what was at stake there, and then he knew exactly what to do. It is sad to think that we will have no more chances to hang sails for him, no more opportunities to scour thrift shops on his behalf, looking for pieces of furniture to cover in sheets of lead.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is director of Castello di Rivoli and Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin.

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