Jannis Kounellis

Unlike the visually and emotionally intense environment of Jannis Kounellis’ last installation at this gallery, in 1985, in which jets of flame set against steel panels all along the walls created a “burning” field of tension, his recent installation here followed a more intellectual, constructive formula. Using some of the materials that have become familiar from much of his previous work—sheet metal, burlap sacks, an oil lamp, coal—he created works on two walls and a floor piece next to a third wall. The basic units of construction in one wall work were steel panels of two different sizes. Six large square panels were arranged against the wall in a partly overlapping sequence, with each panel tilted slightly up toward the right. These served as a support for eight identical groups of small rectangular panels (five sandwiched together in each group), which were held in place by steel I-beams. Folded over the top of each group was a burlap sack, and against the group farthest to the right was an oil lamp supported by a long, curved metal pole. On the wall opposite, Kounellis used only the small rectangular panels, arranging them in the same partly overlapping sequence as the large square panels in the first work, but in the reverse direction.

On the floor in between these two works were four shallow, rectangular steel receptacles filled with coal, which Kounellis had lined up parallel to the wall next to them. These “coal bins” are geometrically precise, distinguished from one another only by color (red, yellow, blue, and unpainted steel). The coal is the residue of a fire already burned out, but it is also a material that is ready to burn. Fire, perhaps the most significant element in Kounellis’ work, thus had two lives in this installation. In its visible form here, it burned in the oil lamp suspended against the steel panels of the first work. The light that emanated from the burning oil at times had the sentimental glow of a street lamp, a memory of a past technology. These are part of Kounellis’ iconography. In fact, the coal bins are exact replicas of an untitled work that he had made in 1967, only here he has introduced the element of color. The addition of the primary colors, which is striking, raises new questions about Kounellis’ work and its connections to certain aspects of Modernism.

This installation constitutes an advanced example of the compositional typology preferred by Kounellis in recent years: the juxtaposition of different materials to form a particular syntax. Syntax is “an orderly arrangement of elements or parts according to a certain logic”—in Kounellis’ case, a logic that has its roots in Modernist principles of composition. In comparison to the chance order and inert readymades of Dada and neo-Dada, the syntactic idea encourages meaning through deliberate order.

Kounellis’ entire body of work is marked by a thought process and a method of composition that begins with what is inert (objects, found materials, raw materials) and organizes it in ways that create meaning. In this sense, two works from 1969 can be seen as seminal: a small steel panel with four shelves and flames from solid-fuel tablets, and a doorway filled with stones. Framed in the doorway, the stones received a logical organization from without. Much later, in an installation in Rome in 1980, the stones were crowded into a doorway with plaster casts of ancient statues, and an organizational dialogue arose between stones and casts. After that, in Berlin in 1982, Kounellis filled windows with stones together with wood planks and iron slabs. Then he began arranging fragments of different materials on large steel panels, and here one could note a true advance in his syntactic approach. In these works, the various elements (railway ties, scraps of wood, steel shelves, etc.) were organized in strict rectilinear fashion within the rectangular field of the steel panels, using architectural and formal means that hark back to Neo-Plasticism and Constructivism. Examples: dialectical variations on two parts of a rectangle (Paris, 1983); simple or multiple alignments of forms (Düsseldorf, 1983); relationships of scale between one rectangular form within another (Rome, 1984).

These works, subjected to a syntactic logic, express a sense of harmony and belonging, an optimistic conception of space. They exist parallel to the works and installations in which emotional intensity and pathos prevail. There, where the elements are more rarefied, Kounellis’ manifests his personal feeling. The tensions expressed in such works reveal his dissatisfaction with modern society, which he feels is missing something—something that in preindustrial civilizations was celebrated by the poetic meditations of artists in those distant eras.

Jole de Sanna

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.