The Greek-Italian artist Jannis Kounellis, one of the leading figures of the Arte Povera movement, died in Rome’s Villa Mafalda hospital, aged 80, according to Italian media reports.
Born in Piraeus, Greece in 1936, the artist moved to Rome at the age of 20 to study at the Academy of Fine Arts and since then has considered the Eternal City his adopted home, where he continued to live and work. He had his first solo exhibition in 1960 at La Tartaruga gallery, a regular stomping ground for the city’s artists and intellectuals, but perhaps his most famous early show was in 1969, when he displayed 12 live horses in Rome’s Attic Gallery. (The work was recently recreated by New York’s Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in June 2015.)
“Kounellis was known for his use of lowly, often earthy materials in his work—coal, jute bags, steel, piles of stones—which tied him to the Arte Povera artists who used similarly “poor” media. The artist took part in the Venice Biennale for the first time in 1972 and became a regular contributor to the international exhibition” reports The Art Newspaper.
The Art Newspaper interviewed the artist in April 2010, soon after it was announced that he would be taking part in the Vatican’s first pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale. When we asked him what he thought of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for artists to embark on a “quest for beauty”, Kounellis told us this:
“The Greeks used to say that beauty is like time; it changes: a person can be beautiful in the morning and not be so in the afternoon. A ‘form’ of beauty does not exist. Formalisation or clarity, on the other hand, are part of the family of beauty. Loving, too, is part of this family. If the Church says this, if it speaks of beauty in this sense, I am in favour of the Church. But if by beauty it means something else, I am opposed to it.”
Over the years, he has exhibited several solo shows at international museums including the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens (2012), Tate Modern, London (2009), the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2007), the Albertina, Vienna (2005), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid (1996), the Castello di Rivoli, Turin (1988), the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1982) and the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1981).
White Cube’s exhibition on Kounellis’ very first works, the “Alfabeto” series of works on paper and paintings, reminded the importance of symbols in his work. The exhibition offered a review of Kounellis’ artistic development through a reconsideration of these early masterpieces.
The ‘Alfabeto’ series, works on paper and canvas, begun around 1958 while he was still a student in Rome. Using black tempera, ink, enamel or acrylic paint on a white ground of paper, cardboard or canvas – either singly or combined – they feature black stenciled numbers, letters, mathematical symbols and arrows. The first exhibition of these works, described later by Kounellis as ‘a hermetic rhythmic writing in space’, was titled L’alfabeto di Kounellis, and was held at Galleria La Tartaruga, the first gallery for contemporary art set-up in Rome. This was followed by two further shows in 1964, 1966, and a third, also in 1966, at Galleria Arco D’Alibert, Rome.
The letters, signs and numbers in these paintings are repeated, overlaid, fragmented or inverted, creating a new visual language. Always impersonal and regularized, the result of their stencilled application, they are painted in a textural and imperfect manner, reflecting both the hand-made quality of these and also the smooth industrial production methods used in the signs and advertising of the street. Kounellis has analogized these works to frescoes, saying that: ‘They were not pictures as such, all the canvases derived from the measurements of the house, in which I lived. They referred to the wall. In fact, I used to stretch the canvas or the sheet, right up to the limits of the corners of the wall, the painting ended there […] it was like taking off a fresco, since the canvases or sheets had the form and breadth of the walls of the room […]. The letters or painted signs, they came however from forms which I prepared out of hard cardboard. They were printed, not calligraphic but structural’. Jannis Kounellis, Works, Writings 1958-2000, Ediciones Poligrafa S.A.(2001), p.71
With these works, Kounellis moved his painting away from abstract formalism and towards a more conceptual discourse. Moreover, like other works from the period, they register a transformation occurring in Italy during the time, with the influence of American culture and specifically a culture of consumption; what the Italian art historian Giuliano Briganti has defined as ‘a break with the past, a provocative action’. Following this series, Kounellis began to introduce found objects into his works, including actual street signs, creating a convergence of painting, sculpture and performance.
“My sights were focussed on Informalism at that point, on [Jean] Fautrier in particular, as a protraction of traditional painting. I still saw the survival of an illusion, of a … centrality in those works: a centrality of the universe, of painting, even of the role of the artist, which doesn’t seem particularly relevant to our era. That’s what these paintings of mine with recognizable and significant characters and letters meant to the viewer, nothing beyond what they see. But not to me. They indicated the names of my favorites at the time” he said in Codognato and d’Argenzio 2002, p.237.