Born in 1936 in Piraeus, 8 kilometers away from Athens’ city center, and deceased in 2017 in Rome, Jannis Kounellis is a prominent multimedia Greek artist who is oftentimes considered as one of the figureheads of the arte povera movement.
Kounellis grew up in Greece during World War II and the Greek civil war which ensued soon after. Initially, Kounellis studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts. But when he was twenty years old, in 1956, he moved to Rome to study at the Academia di Belle Arti di Roma, where he was under the tutelage of the Italian poet and painter Toti Scialoja. The latter exposed him to the conjunct influence of American abstract expressionism and European informalism—a term mostly characterizing non-geometric abstraction from the 1940’s and 1950’s, in which the unforeseen, sometimes even random, pictorial qualities of materials is made part of the aesthetic quest.
A few years later, in 1959, Kounellis started to produce a series of works on paper and paintings called L’Alfabeto di Kounellis, in which symbols such as numbers, letters, and even mathematical signs played an essential role. The artist used carboard stencils plunged into black paint to manually incorporate these symbols into his works. Evading all interpretation, these signs seem to float adrift in the empty space of the paper or canvas, like a code language the signification of which is long lost. In fact, little is known about these cryptic symbols, as the artist himself did not assert much more than their musical essence: according to Kounellis, these symbols “were also phonetic and, therefore, profoundly musical”. During these experimental years, the artist drew inspiration from the bodily gestures of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline, by bringing forth a form of ceremonial around the production of his works. Indeed, he would cut some of his Alfabeti works to create costumes that he would wear while painting or drawing and would repetitively sing the signs present in his work—a performance that he undertook during the opening of his first exhibition at Galleria La Tartaruga in 1960 in Rome.
The aim was to fully inscribe the symbols in space, enabling them to escape the flatness of representational art. This was significant, as the exploration of the ways meaning inhabits space would become a recurring obsession in the work of Kounellis. One year later, in 1961, he would partake in a group exhibition at the same gallery, alongside names such as Rauschenberg and Twombly… But around 1962/1963, as they “began to be considered a style”, in the artist’s own words, he stopped making them. The following years, Kounellis would experiment some more and expand his artistic practice by starting to incorporate various found elements into his paintings (earth, jute…). His art was slowly transforming into what would later become his object-based installation works, and by the end of the sixties, the artist had traded his canvases for objects such as doors, shelves, bed frames and so on.
In 1967, Kounellis was part of the show entitled Arte Povera—Im Spazio, held by the now famous art critic Germano Celant at the Bertesca Gallery in Genoa, Italy. In this exhibition and the following ones, Kounellis started to employ common industrial products and materials such as tar, steel, iron, cotton, coal, wood, jute bags, and fire. These elements were chosen because of their relationship to the working world or their opposing physical or cultural characteristics: hard and soft, industrial and agrarian. It should be added that the end of the 1960s was a time of strife and protests in Europe and North America. This exhibition, which marked the beginning of the arte povera movement, reflected this fact, as Kounellis’ counterparts Michelangelo Pistoletto and Luciano Fabro directly referenced the Vietnam war and called for social change. In contrast, Kounellis had a less explicit approach: the use of soot, for instance, merely evoked extinguished flames, the meaning of which was left to interpretation. Occupying the exhibits, his installations were akin to theatrical stagings which encompassed spectators into a play of sorts, effectively making them actors in their own rights. Two years later, the artist would go as far as contrasting live animal and geometric works made of industrial materials when, in 1969, he presented 12 live horses attached to the gallery walls at L’Attico gallery in Rome.
The way Kounellis staged his installations and exhibits brought forth a radical conception of creation. For the Greek artist, art has always evolved as an expression of—or as a response to—the prevalent modes of thought, be they political or theological. But in his eyes, the traditional forms of sculpture and painting were products of a unifying culture. As such, they were no longer adequate means to express the fragmentary and ephemeral nature of the contemporary world. Far from constituting a nihilistic response to this fact, the work of Kounellis aims at finding the appropriate poetic means to root modernity into the evocative power of its European past. In other words, to reconcile the aesthetic avant-gardes with the layers of meaning imbued in cultural tradition. Fire, for instance, is regularly part of Kounellis’ work as a symbol of destruction, transformation, or alchemical change. As for coal, insofar as it is a residue of energy which stems from the soil, it relates to the earth through fire and transformation. The role of the artist thus becomes to arrange these elements in a way which makes it possible for meaning to arise.
Kounellis rose to fame quite early in his career: as soon as 1972, he was exhibiting at the Venice Biennale. His work would be showcased there many more times in the following decades and was even the subject of an acclaimed retrospective during the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale at the Prada foundation.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the artist would produce a rich body of “theatrical” works using the formal and material vocabulary he had developed at the end of the sixties and expanding upon it. His work would encompass an increasing number of objects and materials, as the artist introduced coffee grounds and pots, oil lamps, candles, clothing, trolleys, shelving units, and even smoke, to his powerful evocative compositions. His pieces also became a bit darker at times, as Kounellis would trade live animals for stuffed animals, and use soot more than fire. This era culminated in his 1989 exhibition at the Espai Pobenou in Barcelona, where the artist exhibited freshly butchered beef hanging from metal plaques and lit by oil lamps.
In 1994, Kounellis theatrically arranged a selection of his works from the past decades on a boat entitled Ionion. The floating retrospective was docked in the famous port of Piraeus—the artist’s birthplace—near Athens. In the next two decades, at the end of his career, Kounellis continued to go down rather unpredictable avenues. In 2000, using ink and sand, the artist illustrated the apocryphal gospel of St Thomas with a series of esoteric signs and spiritual symbols. And two years later, he would design the set of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Dutch National Opera. During these times, Kounellis also wrote extensively about his approach to art—an activity which culminated in the publishing of an essay entitled Echoes in the Darkness in 2002. The artist died at the age of 80 at the Villa Mafalda hospital in Rome on the 16th of February 2017. He left his mark in art history as one of the most important post-war European artists. Both for being one of the figureheads of arte povera, and a radical innovator in the field of conceptual art, linking it back to the Greek tradition of poiesis and to European heritage.