Jannis Kounellis - Lévy Gorvy

Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis

Born 1936 in Piraeus, Greece, to a family of seafarers, Kounellis relocated to Italy in 1956 to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Later in life he would state “I am a Greek person but an Italian artist,” yet his coming of age in Piraeus, a port city, would figure throughout his practice in the recurrent use of such raw, industrial materials as jute, coal, iron, led, and dirt, as well as commercial goods like coffee, gold, clothes, live animals, and animal carcasses. While known for staging symbolically complex installations that include these materials, Kounellis’s nonetheless saw his oeuvre as rooted in painting, or in the continual effort to break the boundaries of the canvas. One of his first bodies of work comprised the Alfabeto drawings and paintings (c. 1958–67), the creation of which was heavily informed by Jackson Pollock’s “action painting.” From the early 1960s, however, Kounellis would increasingly turn away from the conventional means of paint and support and reject the international dominance of Abstract Expressionism. Closer to home, the work of Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri became important for Kounellis, and, as he described it, “that generation who based their research on materials.” In 1967, Germano Celant coined the term “arte povera” to describe this emergent movement, now considered one of the foundational developments of the postwar period.

Central to the artists working within this grouping—which included Pino Pascali, Luciano Fabro, Marisa and Mario Merz, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, among others—was to forge new links between art and the underpinnings of everyday life. For Kounellis, this endeavor had a deeply humanistic and spiritual aspect. Lamenting the loss of belief and poetry in the modern era, he conceived of the artist in near-mystic terms as someone whose prime function it was to reveal and to reawaken. The drama and weight of history—specifically, Hellenic and Roman history—underscores his oeuvre and informs its dedicated balancing of the enigmatically symbolic and directly sensory.

By the late 1970s, as the artist gained institutional recognition, Kounellis had largely consolidated his arsenal of materials as well as his formal language. The dialectical relationship between structure and sensibility, the responsiveness to current conditions, and the poetic and allusive character—remained constant over the following decades, only adapted to accommodate a more ambitious scope and, frequently, larger exhibition spaces. His insistence on raw materialities and their abstract interrelationships with the world would set him apart from the Neo-Expressionist and Transavanguardia movements of the ‘80s, but also underscore a unique position in the history of art of the 20th century. For Vincenzo de Bellis, curator of the Walker Art Center’s upcoming Kounellis retrospective, the artist’s oeuvre “speaks to memory, history, and migration,” continually renewing itself for contemporary viewers and proving itself adaptable to a multivalent now.

Solo exhibitions of Kounellis’s work have been held at Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany (1979); Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1980); Musée d'Art Contemporain, Bordeaux, France (1985); Institute of Contemporary Arts, Nagoya, Japan (1987); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1990); Palazzo Fabroni, Pistoia, Italy (1993); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (1996); Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires (2000); Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome (2002); Albertina, Vienna (2005); Musée d’Orsay, Paris (2007); Tate Modern, London (2009); Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne Métropole, France (2014); Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, La Habana, Cuba (2016); Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, Herning, Denmark (2017); and Fondazione Prada, Venice (2019) among other venues.

Koether’s work can be found in the collections of Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Kunstmuseen Krefeld, Germany; Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina, Naples, Italy; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma, Rome; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Tate, London; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, among others.



Selected Press

It's Liquid | Jannis Kounellis

December 21, 2021

Born 1936 in Piraeus, Greece, to a family of seafarers, Kounellis relocated to Italy in 1956 to study …


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