New York

Jannis Kounellis

Sonnabend Gallery

What’s most elegant and, because a delayed perception, moving about this Jannis Kounellis installation is the evocation of the entrapped body, which is accomplished without recourse to any figural imagery. Presented on steel shelves, parts of peeling furniture (of tables, chairs, possibly a bed)—by definition congruent with the body, at its service—and of weatherbeaten doors, shutters, and locks compose an elegy of entombment. Hints of interment from Kounellis are not novel. And given his mystical interests (demonstrated by the diverse gas-fueled smoking purgatories, and the golden wall and empty garments at Documenta 7—a possible ascension scene) the gallery would aptly figure as a reliquary and waiting room for the resurrection.

A glancing megalomania intrudes with the sculptural frontispiece to the show. A window/box with an unlit oil lamp and two of the wooden furniture parts bears Kounellis’ name, thus escalating autobiography into a messiah complex. That in turn is displaced from the individual to the generic artist by cans of paint included among the shelved inventory, (abstract) patterns painted on the various stiles and turnings, and (post-minimal) seriality in the arrangement of this archly archival collection—all arguing that the expectancy of the light in the window is not only for a religious revelation and the return of a personal past, but also for an esthetic promised land.

Yet the question arises whether the lack Kounellis addresses is conditional, or a fundamental absence of the sort Jacques Derrida locates at the heart of Western culture. At one point, an exhumation has taken place: bits of a classical bust, an encrusted cloth—artifacts of an archaeological dig. But the corpse has not been uncovered; it remains fugitive, an impression present only by implication, like the unknown removed objects which he left white marks on one unit. Is the body missing because in transit to glory? Or is it a lacuna, like the self searched for in reminiscence but apparently not found, since the lamp still waits in the window? Is the art thrown into a tomb to be revivified, or are its gestures simply an articulation of the tomb’s space, both a futile attempt to fill it up (hence Kounellis’ obsessive “accumulation”) and a demonstration of the impossibility of doing so (since all is deferred)?

Indices of “parts” gather dust here, waiting to be assembled into sculpture. Sculpture and painting remain simultaneously symbiotic and helplessly hostile to each other; the furniture parts exist as senior to their paint markings, but those markings manage a coherence that suborns the structure of their support. According to Kounellis, the fundamental, physical priority of sculpture is rent, undercut by its fragmentation, while paint remains eternally an excess, a superfluity (it drips down off the shelves, out of cans). This is a paradigm of the Derridean deficiency: how can there have been a completeness at the beginning if there may always be a supplement and a supplement to the supplement? Kounellis sees that there is a gap, although he may be recoiling to vault it in a leap of faith.

Jeanne Silverthorne