Jannis Kounellis is born in Piraeus, Greece, in 1936. In 1956 he moves to Rome. The first pictures of this artist who became known for his Conceptual and Object Art show series of letters, words, and signs in broad pattern-like lines. They thus evoke the works of Cy Twombly and Piero Manzoni that were created during the same time. Like his contemporaries he reacts to the works of Art Informel. Very soon, however, Kounellis turns to the new realm of Action Art and in 1960 realizes a first Performance where he appears in disguise in his own studio – a reminiscence to Dadaist Hugo Ball. Cacti, live parrots, and horses become the »materials« of his Actions which he stages in museum spaces.
From the beginning, Kounellis focuses on the sensual qualities of material, whose haptic, visual, and olfactory qualities he includes in his performances. With this turn to materiality and sense perception, Kounellis is considered one of the main representatives of Arte Povera. In 1967 he participates in the first exhibition of this group of artists that was named by Germano Celant. One of his most spectacular exhibitions is the lodging of twelve horses in the Roman Galleria l’Attico. In this provocative act, directed against bourgeois notions of art, Kounellis’ interest in the connecting and traversing of natural and cultural phenomena becomes most obvious. For Kounellis, the horses which he views as energetic repositories and mythological embodiments of culture are ideal catalysts of a sensuous renewal of artistic perception.
In the Installations of the years to follow, Kounellis thematizes the dialectical relation between natural, untreated, organic substances (especially coal, cotton, wool, hair, stone) and prefabricated objects and containers (iron containers, bed frames, scales, plaster casts, wooden slats). He wants to evoke the contrast between »sensitivity« and »structure.« At the same time, these sense impressions hint at traditional iconographic interpretations of material. Fire as an element plays a special role in Kounellis’ works, especially in the form of gas flames. From this unusual substance the artist derives acoustic and visual, warming, but also destructive and injurious qualities. To natural substances Kounellis ascribes aesthetic qualities of transgression, the »poor« and still unaltered materials become carriers of political hope in an industrialized society.
Kounellis’ reflecting on material qualities also helps to explain his approach to the cultural conventions of antiquity, to which he turns as a poetic form of history. Fragments of plaster casts of antique statues are included in his installations as physiognomic and history-laden elements, an artistic practice that follows the tradition of Giorgio Chirico. In provocative actions the artist tries to evoke, but also to bridge the impermanence of these fragments, their temporal distance, and their hermetic closure.
The metaphorics of history as a process of opening and closing has been a major issue of the artist’s work since the mid-1970s. Kounellis interprets historicity as a form of silencing in those Actions where he uses casts of antique portraits as fragments of masks. Since 1969, however, he has also concretely focused on the closing of door and window openings. Unshaped debris bars the view outside as well as the view inside and becomes the visible equivalent of temporal sediments and mental blockades. Since 1978 Kounellis has also produced theatre plays.
Jannis Kounellis has lived and worked in Rome since 1956.
Bann, Stephen: Jannis Kounellis, London 2003
Jannis Kounellis. Il sarcofago degli sposi: Ausst.-Kat. MAK Wien, hg. v, Peter Noever, Ostfildern 1999
Jannis Kounellis. Die eiserne Runde: Ausst.-Kat. Hamburger Kunsthalle, hg. v. O. Westheider u. H. R. Leppien, Hamburg 1995
Kounellis, Jannis: Ein Magnet im Freien. Schriften und Gespräche 1966 — 1989, Bern, Berlin 1992
Jannis Kounellis. A Retrospective: Ausst.-Kat. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, hg. v. M. J. Jacob u. R. McEvilley, Chicago 1986
Jannis Kounellis: Ausst.-Kat. Städt. Galerie im Lenbachhaus, hg. v. Hartmut Friedel, München 1985