Jannis Kounellis was a Greek-Italian artist who was an integral part of the radical Italian art movement Arte Povera. He is known for his mixture of painting, installation, and performance that probes the boundaries of contemporary art.Read More
Kounellis experimental vision established him as a key conceptual artist of our time. 12 Horses (1967) is one of Kounellis' most famous works and is a seminal work of Arte Povera, and also of conceptual art.
Jannis Kounellis was born in Piraeus, Greece. After attending college in Athens, Kounellis moved to Rome in 1956. He enrolled at the Accademia de Belle Arti and had his first solo exhibition, L'alfabeto di Kounellis, at the Galleria la Tartaruga in Rome in 1960. Throughout this period, Kounellis experimented with stencilled numbers and letters on canvas painted black and white.
Non-figurative painters Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana influenced Kounellis, together with Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Kounellis was interested in extending the frontiers of painting and artists such as Burri and Pollock provided the unconventional approach Kounellis was looking for as a springboard for his own work.
By the late 1960s, Kounellis' practice had become progressively sculptural. He began to incorporate found objects such as street signs into his work. He also began to experiment with performance art.
Jannis Kounellis was an important figure within Arte Povera.
Literally meaning 'poor art', Arte Povera is the term coined by art critic Germano Celant to refer to a loose group of Italian artists making art around the 1960s and 1970s. While they worked in diverse ways, they shared a mutual rejection of traditional art materials in favour of exploring a range of unconventional processes and non-traditional materials to make their work. By using 'everyday' materials—like twigs, rags, and stones—they aimed to challenge and disrupt the values of the commercial contemporary gallery system.
Alongside Kounellis, leading artists of the movement included Giovanni Anselmo, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio. They painted, sculpted, took photographs and made performances and installations.
Kounellis used basic resources such as coal, stone, and cotton in his work to demonstrate and express the conflict and divisions within contemporary society.
12 Horses (1967) is one of Kounellis' most famous works and is the showpiece of Arte Povera. This work captures the idea that art need not be commercial. By displacing 12 horses from stable to gallery, Kounellis moulded art into something living and breathing. He reimagined 'the gallery into a stage where real life, exhibition and art could converge,' as he told Ocula Magazine in 2014.
In Untitled (1969), Kounellis displayed seven burlap sacks filled with different types of dried beans or pulses. By using perishable food items, Kounellis encouraged the audience to smell, feel, and taste the artwork. This work was important because it reshaped the conventional art experience by creating a sensory and tactile environment.
The original artwork was made for Harald Szeemann's exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form in 1969 at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Kounellis originally used other food items like potatoes and rice for the work's first public display.
Untitled (1984/1987) is made up of steel panels, soot, paint, and fire. In this work Kounellis used fire to demonstrate its transformative power. Fire has the capacity to change the physical state of material, from solid to liquid to gas, and Kounellis envisioned fire's transformation as a symbol for the cycle of life and death.
In this work, the artist attached a flame to a steel bed frame. Here, the bed represents a place where we are born, where we dream, procreate, and eventually die. Untitled (1984/1987) narrates a story of life and death through both humble materials and conceptualism.
Kounellis took part in the Venice Biennale several times and was also invited to participate in Documenta 5 in 1972 and Documenta 7 in 1982. Kounellis was a university professor at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art between 1993 and 2001.
Jannis Kounellis has exhibited widely in both group and solo shows. Important solo exhibitions include Jannis Kounellis, Fondazione Prada, Venice (2019); Jannis Kounellis, Almine Rech, London (2019); Kounellis: Rélampagos Sobre Mexico, Museo Espacio, Aguascalientes (2016); Jannis Kounellis, Neue National Galerie, Berlin (2008); Jannis Kounellis, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, Naples (2006); Jannis Kounellis, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome (2002); Kounellis, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (1996); and Kounellis, Sonnabend Gallery, New York (1972).
Jannis Kounellis group exhibitions include Burri, Kounellis, Nunzio. Ethic of the Artwork, Mazzoleni, London (2021); Jannis Kounellis, Arnulf Rainer, Antoni Tàpies, Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris, Paris (2019); Homage to Korea, Wooson Gallery, Daegu (2019); Arte Povera, Albert Baronian, Brussels (2013); 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki (2011); Italian Art 1950—1970: Masterpieces from the Farnesina Collection, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (2005); Arte Povera, Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota (2005); and Arte povera e IM spazio, Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa (1967).
Jannis Kounellis is represented by Almine Rech Gallery, Cardi Gallery, Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris, Kewenig Gallery, and Wooson Gallery.
Phoebe Bradford | Ocula | 2021