View of “Jannis Kounellis,” 2015. From left: Untitled, 1967; Untitled, 1967; Untitled, 1967.

View of “Jannis Kounellis,” 2015. From left: Untitled, 1967; Untitled, 1967; Untitled, 1967.

Jannis Kounellis

View of “Jannis Kounellis,” 2015. From left: Untitled, 1967; Untitled, 1967; Untitled, 1967.

As I entered, everything was silent. Yet the room held some of the most thunderous efforts to come from a radical protagonist of twentieth-century art. Both of Galleria Christian Stein’s locations—the historical space in Milan and the new quarters in Pero—were devoted to a solo show of Arte Povera giant Jannis Kounellis, who was born in Piraeus, Greece, in 1936 and moved to Italy in 1956. Comprising a total of thirty-three installations and paintings (seven in Milan and twenty-six in Pero) created between 1959 and the present, the exhibition was the result of impressive curatorial research on a figure whose work has always been distinctive. Kounellis draws upon models from Renaissance-painting traditions, but translates them with a raw, gestural quality that conveys a desire for fullness and immediacy; in effect, his work always suggests a register beyond the range of the visual. Indeed, the dense industrial materials, earthen hues, and odors that are typical of Kounellis’s art elicit in me a magical synesthetic response; a textured noise accompanies my direct experience of the work.

Kounellis has long been interested in the relationship between artifice and nature, material and space, and here his engagements with these themes could be reexamined via the presentation of some of his most monumental pictorial experiments. On view in Milan was a selection of his early-1960s large-scale enamel and acrylic paintings. Some of these depicted stylized roses in flat red, blue, ivory, and black hues; others arranged typographical symbols in inscrutable sequences that encourage slippages between written language and our visual perception of it. The postindustrial spaces of the Pero gallery, in contrast, offered evidence of the enduring relevance of Kounellis’s contributions to the field of installation art. In the celebrated Untitled, 1967, a large white canvas featuring three white fabric flowers is flanked by twenty-four birdcages—twelve on each side—each housing a finch, seeming perhaps to presage a spate of recent works by artists ranging from Pierre Huyghe to Marc Camille Chaimowicz to Anicka Yi that have ushered living organisms into the gallery. Kounellis’s work also challenges the very space of the image and the constitution of painting itself, making evident what the boundaries of each indeed are, and then traversing those boundaries with an absolutely free exploration of techniques and materials. A similar pursuit was evident in the re-creation of an installation originally staged in 1967 at Galleria l’Attico in Rome. The presentation is composed of three works, each having an enameled-iron component: a four-rowed structure containing a garden of cacti, a rectangular perch on which a live parrot sits, and a pyramidal form from which a mass of white cotton spills out. Each offers a rigid sculptural form that is muddied, rendered unpredictable by an organic component.

In 1969, Kounellis told the Italian art critic Carla Lonzi: “You mustn’t impose, you should reveal possibility. The task of a painter is to liberate something without imposing it because, if he imposes it, he has freed something, but not a person.” Together, the installations in the Pero space established a measured structure and rhythm that contributed to something greater: The exhibition was a container for an all-encompassing experience, one that prioritized the visual without ignoring the uneasiness, drama, and impermanence that accompanies this privileged mode of perception. And it was an effect that extended to the presentation of canvases in Milan—in these environments, the visitor was enveloped by and yet also freed from what the artist has called “the experience of painting,” opened up to differently discover the significance of things in space and time.

Paola Nicolin

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.