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Jannis Kounellis

 (1936 - 2017)
Jannis Kounellis was active/lived in Greece, Italy.  Jannis Kounellis is known for found object assemblage, installations, arte povera.

Jannis Kounellis

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Jannis Kounellis
"Jannis Kounellis, Leader in 60's 'Poor Art' Movement, Dies at 80 by William Grimes, February 21, 2017. The New York Times, Art & Design section.

Jannis Kounellis, a Greek-born Italian artist who made use of humble materials like burlap sacks, wax and coal in works of sculpture and installations* that offered a poetic counterstatement to the values of high art and the corporate world, died on Feb. 16 in Rome. He was 80.

The cause was heart failure, family members said.

Mr. Kounellis emerged in the late 1960s as a leader of Arte Povera* (“Poor Art”), a mostly Italian movement that, responding to the political turbulence of the time, embraced a defiantly anticapitalist, anti-hierarchical philosophy of art making. The term alluded to the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s concept of “poor theater,” stripped of sets and props to encourage direct engagement.

Mr. Kounellis had been exhibiting canvases with stenciled letters and numerals — work he called “phonetic poems” — but quickly showed signs of artistic restlessness. He added a discarded street sign to one of his paintings, and in a performance at his studio he wore a canvas suit with letters and numbers that allowed him to blend with the work on the wall. By 1965 he had abandoned painting altogether.

He took part in “The Space of Thoughts,” an exhibition organized in 1967 by Germano Celant at La Bertesca gallery in Genoa that is generally regarded as the birth of Arte Povera. A year later he was seen with many of the same artists in “Arte Povera,” a show Mr. Celant organized in Bologna.

In several untitled works reflecting his new approach, Mr. Kounellis placed burlap sacks on a wood and steel dolly and attached tufts of raw wool to wooden frames and poles.

“I changed when I understood that there was a risk of my painting just becoming a style,” he told the journal Apollo in 2016. “So I moved slowly toward the exit. Obviously, someone who was making hermetic poetry on a sheet hung on the wall was going to become a member of Arte Povera.”

Over the years, he proved to be one of the more unpredictable and inventive members of the movement, working with materials of every description and defying expectation with myriad ingenious strategies.

In 1969, he tethered a dozen horses in Galleria L’Attico in Rome, an exhibition recreated in Manhattan in 2015 by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, his dealer. “I wasn’t trying to be sensational,” he told the magazine Art Pulse in 2012. “I was only interested in mapping the space, in creating an image that would stand for change.”

In Woman With Blanket and Flame (1970), a nude woman wrapped in a blanket lay on the gallery floor with a burning oxyacetylene torch attached to her foot. “It’s very odd,” the critic John Russell wrote in The New York Times in 1977, when the work was shown in Manhattan.

Live parrots and cockroaches appeared in his works, as did ground coffee, doors, meat, windows, stone-filled cupboards and steel bed frames.

He became a fixture at the big international art fairs, starting with the Venice Biennale and Documenta* in Kassel, West Germany, in 1972. That year he also had his first New York exhibition, at the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery.

A retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1986 cemented his reputation as the most durable member of the Arte Povera movement, as did the Tate Modern’s exhibition of 33 of his works in 2009 as part of its Artist Rooms series.

“Each time you see one of his grain sacks or dry-stone walls, you are reminded of all that went before: plain things, universal, ancient and yet unarguably modern,” the critic Laura Cumming wrote in The Observer of London in 2010. She added: “It feels like a game of word association played out in objects and images, or knowledge encrypted, waiting to be revealed if one only had the key. The experience is powerfully affecting and theatrical.”

Jannis Kounellis was born on March 23, 1936, in Piraeus, Greece, to Gregory and Evangelia Kounellis. His father was a naval engineer, but World War II and the ensuing civil war in Greece threw his career into turmoil, and he left to work in Japan and the United States.

Mr. Kounellis, who had no exposure to modern art in Greece, began painting at 13 but failed the exams to enter the fine-art academy in Athens.

At 17 he married his high school sweetheart, Efthimia Sardi, known as Efi, and the couple enrolled in the Institute of Fine Arts in Rome in 1956. They later separated. He is survived by their son, Damiano; his companion, Michelle Coudray; a half sister, Angela Kounellis; and two grandsons.

While still a student, Mr. Kounellis was given his first solo show at La Tartaruga, Rome’s first contemporary art gallery. He soon began painting on newspapers and incorporating found objects into his paintings. In one long-running series, he painted stripes whose color was dictated by the day of the week.

Then he struck out for freedom. “I went out of the canvas to have an open dialectic space,” he told Flash Art in 2007. “It meant for me going toward thousands of discoveries. In terms of freedom, this gesture opened a world for me.”

Mr. Kounellis recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest in his work, reflected in major exhibitions last year at the Monnaie in Paris, the Galería Hilario Galguera in Mexico City and the White Cube in London

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Jannis Kounellis was born in 1936 in Piraeus, Greece.  In 1956, Kounellis moved to Rome and enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti.  While still a student, he had his first solo show, titled L'alfabeto di Kounellis, at the Galleria la Tartaruga, Rome, in 1960.  The artist exhibited black-and-white canvases that demonstrated little painterliness; on their surfaces, he stenciled letters and numbers.

Influenced by Alberto Burri as well as Lucio Fontana, whose work offered an alternative to the Expressionism of Art Informel, Kounellis was looking to push painting into new territory. He was inspired, too, by the work of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, and by the earlier abstractions of Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.  Kounellis's painting would gradually become sculptural; by 1963, the artist was using found elements in his paintings.

Kounellis began to use live animals in his art during the late 1960s; one of his best-known works included 11 horses installed in the gallery. Kounellis not only questioned the traditionally pristine, sterile environment of the gallery but also transformed art into a breathing entity.  His diverse materials from the late 1960s onward included fire, earth, and gold, sometimes alluding to his interest in alchemy.  Burlap sacks were introduced, in homage to Burri, though they were stripped of the painting frame and exhibited as objects in space. Additional materials have included bed frames, doorways, windows, and coat racks.

People, too, began to enter his art, adding a performative dimension to his installations.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Kounellis continued to build his vocabulary of materials, introducing smoke, shelving units, trolleys, blockaded openings, mounds of coffee grounds, and coal, as well as other indicators of commerce, transportation, and economics.  These diverse fragments speak to general cultural history, while they simultaneously combine to form a rich and evocative history of meaning within Kounellis's oeuvre.??

In 1967, Kounellis was included in an important group exhibition entitled Arte povera e IM spazio at the Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa.  Curator Germano Celant coined the term Arte Povera to refer to the humble materials, sometimes described as detritus, which Kounellis and others were employing at the time to make their elemental, anti-elitist art. 

Kounellis had his first solo show in New York in 1972 at the Sonnabend Gallery.  During the 1970s and 1980s, his work was shown in many exhibitions; among these was a solo show that traveled in the early 1980s to several museums in Europe, including the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Obra Social, Caja de Pensiones, Madrid; the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; and the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden.

In 1985, the Musée d'Art Contemporain, Bordeaux, mounted an important exhibition of the artist's production.  The following year, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, staged a retrospective exhibition of Kounellis's work; the show traveled to the Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montreal.  In 1989, the artist was given an exhibition at the Espai Pobenou in Barcelona.  In 1994, Kounellis installed a selection of more than thirty years of his work in a boat called Ionion and docked this floating retrospective in his home port of Piraeus. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía held an exhibition of Kounellis's work in Madrid in 1997.

In the twenty-first century, Kounellis has developed an increasingly architectural vocabulary, creating labyrinthine environments that manipulate the exhibition space, the viewer's experience, and the materials that have articulated the artist's oeuvre for decades.  Kounellis has recently been honored with major exhibitions at Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome (2002), Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina in Naples (2006), and Neue National Galerie in Berlin (2008), among others. The artist lives and works in Rome.

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About  Jannis Kounellis

Born:  1936 - Piraeus, Greece
Died:   2017 - Rome, Italy
Known for:  found object assemblage, installations, arte povera