New York

Jannis Kounellis

There was something perversely nostalgic and mournful about Jannis Kounellis’ untitled installation. A kind of last-ditch demonstration of a dead, or at least fading history, the work was at once a graveyard and a synthesis of Modernist ideas: first and foremost, the plane, systematically repeated (a Minimalist monumentalization of flatness) followed by geometry, especially that of the economical Suprematist square, and finally, by Abstract Expressionist gesture, also peculiarly succinct. It is as if, for Kounellis, both square and gesture must be rationed so that they maintain their value and mysterious significance: presented as though they were still alive with creative possibility, rather than traversed by the complex stream of history. Here, there was hard steel and soft burlap, with a trace of the exotic and seductive provided by the label “Product of Madagascar.”

The gallery space was divided into two sections, one claustrophobically intimate, the other as open as an agora. Flat, rectangular panels of generally gray, if peculiarly blemished, steel were attached to the walls of both spaces. The illusion of interior grain was created by discoloration, a birthmark of industrial production. In the larger space, the panels, relentlessly repeated across one wall, resembled each other but moved in distinctly different rhythms, as if subtly at odds. The top tier of panels stood in uniform alignment, attached to one another by joints, whereas those of the lower tier were directly joined in sections of four that overlapped and leaned against one another while balancing on their left edge, raising most of the section off the floor. The second from the left of these sections had a sandwich of smaller metal rectangles to which brown burlap squares were attached that did not completely cover them, the uppermost square stamped with “Product of Madagascar.”

On the facing wall there was a similar construction, with Kounellis’ trademark kerosene lamp. Mounted high next to a window on another wall were three more metal panels, each an echo of those in the sandwiches. In the bright light, with a somewhat stylized painterly black gesture (a quasi-calligraph that looked like a contrived accident) centered on each, they looked like sacred abstract icons.

The installation was at once constructed and “expressive,” abstract and conceptual, theatrical and hermetic, and perhaps above all informed by the dialectic of universality and uniqueness—the ideology of Modernism, if it can he reduced to one vision. Am I unfair in suggesting that Kounellis, however unwittingly, is mourning a dying cause—his own cause? Does he contribute something to the cause of Modernism, to showing that it has inherent vigor—that in fact it is a tradition that will last as long as the Renaissance did? Undoubtedly. But the catacomblike air of the installation, the reification of familiar ideas and materials suggest that Kounellis’ installation is about past Modernist accomplishments and that it belongs to the Modernist past. Of course in a world in which art no longer seems as revolutionary and transformative as Modern art did, the past may be the place to be.

Donald Kuspit