New York

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2013, steel, glass, 78 3/4 x 70 7/8 x 10 3/4".

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2013, steel, glass, 78 3/4 x 70 7/8 x 10 3/4".

Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2013, steel, glass, 78 3/4 x 70 7/8 x 10 3/4".

This past spring, Jannis Kounellis presented twenty-two new works in New York. The exhibition was a hymn to the epic of immigration. It was a hymn to the journey as an experience of modernity. It was a hymn to the discovery of self—a process Kounellis conceives of as an initiation. Such themes resonate with the artist’s own history: His paternal grandfather left Greece and became an American; Kounellis himself moved from Athens to Rome and became Italian. Like a fifteenth-century painter, Kounellis constructs his art as a measure of man and space, and although he makes mostly sculpture—he is one of the major protagonists of Arte Povera—his work is a function of pictorial space.

In a series of untitled assemblages (all works 2013), the artist displays a myriad of old drinking glasses that he discovered in a Hasidic-owned shop in Brooklyn. (Nearly all of the exhibition’s materials were either found or fabricated in the borough.) These worn, fragile vessels are arranged in rows on wall-mounted steel shelves—a recurrent motif in Kounellis’s production, the industrial appearance of which stands in sharp contrast with the delicate glass. Like words on a page, the vessels, arranged in rows, proffer a narrative, with the glassware evoking immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island—many small figures in search of identity. In the multitude, the singular qualities of each object are paradoxically heightened; each seems to have its own story. Here, quantity does not eclipse quality but demands more careful observation.

All or Nothing At All consists of three massive steel containers filled to the top with coal and displayed in a row. A carefully stacked pile of stones is nestled between two of the containers; a compact heap of old Singer sewing machines separates the third. Like the everyday objects—shoes, overcoats, hats—in works elsewhere in the show, the materials in All or Nothing At All assume sculptural weight and refer to the body, with the sewing machines specifically implying female labor. The coal, too, refers to human effort, and reappears in works in which mounds of it rest on shelves or are positioned in front of sections of steel. Elsewhere, Kounellis incorporates railroad ties; these allude, once again, to the journey. For the artist, the journey is an inner adventure, an exploration of the self arising from the possibility of opening up to the other. Throughout the exhibition, the artist called upon humanist values and articulated them in a concise dialogue between history and contemporaneity, evoking at the same time the drama and poetry of everyday life.

Kounellis’s works are not necessarily pleasing to look at: His materials are raw, his compositions austere. As in the work of Richard Serra, the steel is unadorned, unpolished. Yet there is also contrast: Although the coal is an opaque, heavy mass, the glass is light and transparent. Indeed, linguistic and metaphorical significances are articulated at extremes: fluid/rigid, mass-produced/handmade, hard/soft, society/the individual. The materials in these stunning works are messengers of cultural, social, and economic themes and of history, time, and memory.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.