PRINT November 2022


 Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1972, stones, doorway. Installation view, Fondazione Prada, Venice, 2019. Photo: Agostino Osio-Alto Piano. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; SIAE, Rome. © Estate of Jannis Kounellis.

“Jannis Kounellis in Six Acts,” the first retrospective of the Greek artist’s work in North America since 1986, opened this past month at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. On the occasion of this rare survey, Artforum contributing editor David Rimanelli zeroes in on the Arte Povera giant’s career-spanning “blocked door” series, reflecting on the seemingly contradictory qualities that propel—and complicate—the artist’s oeuvre.

THE LAMEST JOKE about Arte Povera is calling it ricca. I searched my memory and the internet for some hidebound-but-amusingly-so British art critic who made the crack but did so wittily—barbed, the poison arrow that punctures the press release. Brian Sewell, Richard Dorment . . . maybe it was the Australian Robert Hughes, carping that Jannis Kounellis (and Arte Povera overall) was the figure of the 1960s avant-garde that with commodious libertinism made common cause with the Scala Regia, Villa Doria Pamphili, Reggia di Caserta, Palazzo del Te. (One would never expect Richard Serra’s megalomaniac menhirs at San Simeone Piccolo—alas, for that would be something to see.) David Sylvester slips it in elegantly: “In the Royal Academy’s exhibition of ‘Italian Art in the Twentieth Century’ the problem is especially evident in Gallery III. This room, the Academy’s traditional space for the stars, measures 82 feet long by 42 feet wide by 48 feet high, and the most obvious use to have made of it for this exhibition would have been to save it up for the Arte povera pieces, which (like Tiepolo beggars) are suited by palatial spaces.”

I asked Michelle Coudray, Kounellis’s partner for four decades, about the problem of palatial, or baroque, spaces in his work:

Jannis always considered himself in the tradition of a painter; as far as the painters of fresco in churches are concerned, he was in the tradition of Masaccio, whom he loved, and a few others. The main target was to be free from the canvas, meet the world, have a dialogue with different cultures, and insert his works in space, any kind of space, preferably spaces that had a memory, old disused fabric, a garage, old abandoned theaters like in Chicago and other industrial spaces like in CAPC Bordeaux, the room of a creepy hotel in Roma, the belly of a cargo boat in Pireo, a small disused synagogue in Koln, the bombed biblioteca of Sarajevo, the external stone walls of a little cemetery in the middle of nowhere, many, many improvised spaces, with real walls, spaces used the way he found them, never modified; the last beautiful space for his works was what Gavin [Brown] offered in Harlem and in his little chapel gallery in Roma.

View of “Kounellis in Sarajevo,” 2004, Vijećnica National Library, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Aurelio Amendola. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; SIAE, Rome. © Estate of Jannis Kounellis.

KOUNELLIS HAD AN AFFINITY for rarefied postwar Weltschmerz. Long before animal-rights activists took issue, the horses of Untitled (12 Horses), 1969, seemed lonely, their very large living bodies serenely recapitulated as an art of estrangement—existentialism in the round. Gilded bricks retain the associations of the factory floor, as in Carl Andre’s unveneered Equivalents I–VIII, 1966. Magnificence and mediocrity, or let’s just say “humanity.” The overcoat and that hat on the coatrack: They seem to have been left there by the (late) artist himself, suggestive of a European Willy Loman character, a salesman whiling away the L’avventura hours in dark and sad cafés, pensioni, and waiting rooms at the Roma Termini. He’s at least cousin to Magritte’s bowler-hatted bourgeois gentilhomme. Those overcoats aren’t stylish. Those hats are atrocious. Almost all Kounellis’s installations are melancholy at the very least, and often they appear the residue of unutterable tragedy, as if the Oresteia survived not in the plays of Aeschylus but rather as runes: sculptural, pictorial, installation hieroglyphs of unspoken and unspeakable trauma.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (12 Horses), 1969, twelve live horses. Installation view, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, 2015. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; SIAE, Rome. © Estate of Jannis Kounellis.

But it is tact, not kitsch horror, that animates Kounellis. He couldn’t be said to share Adorno’s apothegm apropos no poetry after Auschwitz. Kounellis indulges poetry flagrantly, and it feels assured, severed from specific referents. Kounellis’s works, especially those large-scale installations that look so smashing in the palaces of Venice and Rome and Bolsena, can too readily seem like the sets of some theatrical phantasmagoria, a very unlicensed crossbreeding of Samuel Beckett and an iceboater Andrew Lloyd Webber. Other works feel like Ionesco’s Les chaises by way of The Twilight Zone.

Kounellis had an affinity for rarefied postwar Weltschmerz.

In 1969, Kounellis began blocking up gallery doorways with rough-hewn stones, sourcing the stones locally and stacking them according to no plan. Stones locally sourced makes the piece sound really trivial: That’s my sincere feeling, and, duh, I’m ultra-pro-Kounellis. Locally sourced rocks sounds like it’s the salmon at that marvelous restaurant in the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. Comfy and delicious and served with heaps o’ butter. Anti-profound. But anti-profundity is the point—an anti-profundity staggering out of the European cauldron of deepness and horror.

Is it utterly incorrect or just impolite to speak of “concentration-camp grandiosity”? For some reason, the 2019 exhibition of Kounellis’s work at the Venice headquarters of Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, reminded me of Reinhard Mucha: the railways, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), 1990/2002, to the east.* And then the walled-up doorway: No Exit. The nightmare of being interred alive, either accidentally or by malice accomplished, recurs quite often in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature; it happens several times just in the Poevian corpus. The gothic imagination becomes a vessel for Kounellis’s trauma.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (Tragedia civile), 1975, gold leaf–coated wall, coatrack, coat, hat, lamp. Installation view, Fondazione Prada, Venice, 2019. Photo: Agostino Osio-Alto Piano. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; SIAE, Rome. © Estate of Jannis Kounellis.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE POOR? This is one of those eternal questions. Jesus Christ could be cold: “For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.” “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Is treasure a roiling mass of twisted gold junk over which a greedy dragon broods?

What does it mean to be poor? Germano Celant in 1967 introduced the “movement” of Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giovanni Anselmo, et al., with the show “Arte Povera—Im Spazio,” writing in his essay:

What has happened [is] . . . the commonplace has entered the sphere of art. The insignificant has begun to exist—indeed, it has imposed itself. Physical presence and behavior have become art. . . . Cinema, theater, and the visual arts assert their authority as anti-presence. . . . They eliminate from their inquiry all which may seem mimetic reflection and representation or linguistic custom in order to attain a new kind of art, which, to borrow a term from the theater of Grotowski, one may call “poor.”

Ever since Celant tagged these various artists as Arte Povera, there’s been a corresponding reaction, a correction: He doesn’t mean poverty as in poor people, the poor; he means changed attitudes toward materials. The latter, “truer” meaning of povera seems instantly less radical by far: immediately, the art of the cultural commissars and apparatchiks, regardless of their avowed or alleged political positioning. Maybe the trauma adumbrated by Arte Povera isn’t the shift from the country to the city (one way of looking at developments in Italian culture of the postwar period); isn’t consumerism and the colossus of America; isn’t two world wars, the Holocaust, the Bomb. It is the reluctance of interested parties to admit the primary meaning of the word poor.

“Jannis Kounellis in Six Acts,” curated by Vincenzo de Bellis and Kit Hammonds with William Hernández Luege, is on view through February 26, 2023; travels to Museo Jumex, Mexico City, April 1–September 17, 2023.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.

*“Mucha has described the railroad . . . as a nineteenth-century predecessor to the internet, for among train travel’s primary impacts a century and a half ago was the complete reorganization of patterns of communication and movement, and a related redefinition of relations of time and space.” Graham Bader, “Trains of Thought: The Art of Reinhard Mucha,” Artforum, January 2018, 197.