New York

Jannis Kounellis

Sonnabend Gallery

These recent works by Jannis Kounellis resounded like a funeral elegy through the high places of contemporary art (the gallery, the city of New York), but also like a lament over the dead ashes of painting. The opening installation, of two black-painted canvases and two assemblages of rough wood, iron, and steel, was explicitly dedicated to New York in an inscription painted on the wall. The canvases suggested a dark horizontal through space, the metropolis in blackout, its proud verticality laid low in a disjointed deconstruction. They seemed to raise subterranean powers and to bar hope. The nostalgia for classical purity suggested by the canvases’ geometrical order was belied by the disorder and approximation of the assemblages, and this disjunction, along with the dedication to New York, created a solid image of the by-now-unclosable gap between the utopian idea of a culture of high art and the dismembered substance of modern life.

The show held other clues to this schism. A steel I-beam supported a partially burned door, with its hardware, and other pieces of wood. Steel, of course, is a strong construction material, emblematic of stability and rule; the scattered, worn, scorched wood it supported, however, was once again an image of apparent disorder. Such debris behaves differently in a consumer culture, a culture of waste, where the disused hardware of a broken door is useless, an invasive encumbrance, and in an artisan culture, where materials may be reused, or are organic and undergo natural metamorphosis. The juxtaposition of materials here signified the break between two sociocultural structures. A separation of art from the world was also implied. The steel beam was fastened about halfway up on a wall, seeming to lift up the art it supported defensively, to detach it from its public. And the door indicated the impossibility of penetrating beyond the barriers posed by the artist, who marked his personal sphere with the sign of fire. His secret, hidden existence was kept separate from the world, the metal bar shaping the frontier beyond which he maintains his obsessional solitude.

A further wall installation consisted of 32 steel shelves, evenly spaced in eight columns, with the sooty trace of a flame on the wall above each shelf. The smoke-stains assaulted the whiteness of the wall, humbling and mocking it. A large black canvas in the area of the second and third columns disrupted the shelving’s ordered array, disturbing the evocation of rule, of measure. The canvas was dissonant, excessive, invasive, oversized; this last remnant of painting dirtied the wall as much as the traces of smoke. Negating and negated, it emanated silence. It was a tombstone for every positive element of painting.

Here Kounellis declared his mournful critique of the art system. Each mark of fire was like a stab wound on the putrefied corpse of contemporary painting. The territory staked out in the metal and fire of this work was a devastated universe; for Kounellis contemporary painting is a lifeless terrain. At the same time, the relationship between artist and artistic practice is a constant, unending struggle between the personal and the social. Kounellis proposes himself as a man whose part it is to be the doleful translator of these tensions, showing in his own state the only possible route open to him: the assumption of a conscious, responsible role within irreconcilable structures, not with the detachment of the historian, but with the exasperated cry of the anarchist.

—Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.